It seems like a terrible example of doublespeak to slap the word "good" on the day Christians remember how Jesus was tortured and executed. But it's even more bizarre to watch a church full of Catholics line up to kiss - or "venerate," in Catholic jargon - a lifelike statue of Jesus hanging on the instrument of his death.
Would you kiss a vivid image of someone dead in an electric chair? Hanging from the gallows? It wouldn't be all that different, except crucifixion was a more painful way to die.
This veneration can be a hard ritual to figure out. Even those for whom it's a familiar scene can't help but pull back in the middle of it and think, "Really? Who came up with this?"
And yet, pretty much every year I can remember, I've joined the line at Good Friday Mass and kissed the crucifix, too. Even though I question it every year, it's a ritual that works for me.
The very fact that it is strange is one reason we do it, I think. It makes Good Friday stick in your mind. So do other unique parts of this particular Mass: a stark church stripped of decorations, songless processions in and out, and harrowing songs like "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" Being different is part of the purpose of any ritual - to give the mind a memorable action to associate with something worth remembering.
I also think we kiss the cross because it's uncomfortable, and we want to challenge ourselves to overcome revulsion with love, setting our egos and fears aside. In the same way, we hope we would care for a horribly wounded or diseased person if we had to, no matter how disgusting it might be or who might be watching. It's the kind of thing nurses and doctors have to do all the time, but it's beyond many of our experience. Kissing a cross is practice, in a sense.
That's where the "good" is.
One other experience always sticks in my mind every year. It was 1998, and I was in Toronto working at Covenant House, a shelter for homeless people aged 16 to 21. It happened to be Good Friday.
A fight broke out among two teenage boys hanging out in the courtyard, and one was bloodied up pretty badly. The other one fled.
All 70 or so kids in house were buzzing. Staff got everyone inside and started to deal with the security issue. Both boys in the fight had friends who could go off on each other at any time; we had to find them and keep them separated for a little while. Plus, we suspected that the one who ran away and his friends were gang members.
There was also a racial powderkeg to deal with. The beat-up kid was white; the one who got away was black. This particular white kid tended to be kind of goofy and fairly trusting, as homeless kids go. His dad had kicked him out of his home, and he had been at the shelter for a while. Staff liked him.
The black kid, who was on my caseload, was high strung; he had a great smile but also an explosive temper. He had not been at the shelter long and hadn't told us much about his background. He was jumpy and aggressive, the kind of things we tended to associate with crack cocaine.
Common wisdom says it takes two to fight, and to keep the peace in the suddenly tense house, we had to be seen as fair. Although the staff was racially mixed, which helped, what many kids saw was us calling the hospital for the white kid and the cops for the black kid.
"Why couldn't these have been two different kids?" I thought. It would've been so much easier.
And then things got worse.
The one who fled had returned, and he was standing on the sidewalk across the street from the shelter, accompanied by two of his friends who had managed to slip outside. It was clear from his menacing behavior that he planned to jump his previous victim as soon as we took him outside.
We had to get this bloody kid to a hospital somehow, but we were in an old building on a densely packed city street - there wasn't really a back door.
In the heat of the moment, staff made what turned out to an incredibly dumb decision: We called a taxi to take the injured kid to the hospital. The cab showed up, and as we ushered the bloody kid and his friends out to it, his opponents attacked. Staff tried to block them, but they managed to land some vicious punches on their intended victim. The cab driver, who had not bargained for this, got out of his car and stepped away from the fray that was playing out in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day.
I was one of the youth workers out there, and I felt like I wasn't doing anything useful. Then I saw the smallest of the three attackers come around the cab toward me, his eyes on the victim - with a screwdriver tucked behind his arm. It seemed like nobody else saw him.
I don't know where the courage suddenly came from, but I stood my ground and yelled at him, my voice much more forceful than I expected, "(his name), drop that now!"
I don't know why, but he obeyed me - well, kind of. He flung the screwdriver across the street, but then he kicked out a window of the cab to get in some more punches.
It didn't last much longer. The attackers decided to flee before police arrived. They acted victorious as they ran. A girl from the shelter who had managed to get outside cheered them on, hollering something like, "Hooray for the black man!" That terrified me, to think someone might see this as a race riot, and that I was somehow fighting on the white side.
We were all flush with the stress of the incident, but beneath that I was relieved it hadn't been worse. They hadn't used weapons, and they hadn't gone after staff. They had at least that much respect for us, even though they had never quite trusted us. We must have established some kind of relationship with them.
I couldn't get that screwdriver kid out of my head for a long time.
I still haven't figured out if this story has a moral, but I tell it anyway because, even if it's pointless, it's powerful. It keeps resonating in my memory, and experience has taught me that anything that resonates is important, somehow. Maybe it's even "good," in the Good Friday sense.
Yes, Good Friday is when Christians focus on the dark side of their faith's story: death and torture and injustice that resulted from political and religious maneuvering 2,000 years ago. But it's not a day to wallow in that; rather, it's to try to look at it squarely, without flinching, and also to see beyond it, knowing that all these crazy human problems will be overcome.