Crucifying the Empire on Easter, Good Friday, and Passover
As we gather together for this Good Friday service, I ask myself, “What is so good about Good Friday?” Why celebrate Passion Week? What is so beautiful about a political execution? What is so good about Good Friday?
We are told in the gospels that the protagonist of the crucifixion story is a Jewish man named Jesus—specifically Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee. In the years leading up to the first-century, the lands of Judea and Galilee had been the central battleground for rival empires to exercise their acts of dominance. Historian Richard Horsley refers to the region of Galilee during this time as the “crossroads of empire.” It was a time when religious elites collaborated with the occupying armies; a time when the poorest of the Jewish and Samarian people suffered and starved; a time when those who publicly assembled to protest were brutally suppressed and often murdered. First century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus chronicles thousands of crucifixions by the Romans in the regions of Judea and Galilee—mostly young Jewish insurrectionists and Roman slaves.
The cross wasn’t just a method of execution. It was a public humiliation. It was a slow, degrading death. Crucifixion is where we get the word excruciating. It was a means by which the Roman Empire struck fear in the hearts of those who might attempt to rebel. And make no mistake: it was a particularly effective device for social control in and around Galilee. Jesus, born and raised with men and women who experienced the brutality of imperial power, this is the Jesus who led his movement to Jerusalem for the Passover.
Passover. The time when the Jewish people remember and rehearse again the story of how God liberated Israel from bondage under the Egyptian empire. Roman troops did not always occupy Jerusalem, but they were there during every Passover. Throughout the years, many self-proclaimed messiahs—or christs—were targeted for rendition and execution during the period of the Passover. The last thing Rome needed was another Moses, and so all eyes were on Jerusalem.
Jesus and his massive crowd of Galileans arrived proclaiming a New Era. An era where resources are shared, where the broken are healed and restored, where ultimate power does not come from Rome—where God is not confined by buildings and titles, but rather God can be understood through stories about farmers, sheep, dirt, and pigs. The way of Jesus was politically, religiously, and economically provocative. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified—like the messiahs before him—which tells us that he was a genuine threat to the political status quo.
Perhaps this is the Good news in Good Friday. At the very moment the message of Jesus was thought to be extinguished on a cross, the message prevailed and spread. The revolutionary Word of God: that all captives will be freed; that all that is broken will be healed; that the last shall be first—this Word, this revolutionary Spirit never died, and it lives today in our midst.
On Good Friday, we do not and cannot proclaim that suffering is good or is justified. On Good Friday, we do not romanticize pain nor do we fetishize those who suffer. No, on Good Friday, we remember all crucified people, yesterday and today: victims of drone attacks; political prisoners dying slowly in solitary cages; children prepped for a life of incarceration in their crumbling schools; people forced to live apart from their loved ones to ensure the homeland security of the new Roman Empire; bodies bought, bodies sold, bodies hidden, bodies drained of life; the crosses are too many to name. Yet on Good Friday we name them.
When we fix our eyes upon the crucified christ, we join our bodies, minds, and voices to this radical movement that rallies around the crosses in our midst.
The crucified ones will not be forgotten nor forsaken. They are re-membered, their stories retold, and their lives resurrected in our midst. Memory is a threat to power. And this is Good news even on Good Friday.
*** This was composed by my close friend, Amos Caley, and presented on Good Friday at Reformed Church in Highland Park, NJ.