All Saints, Dorval
April 10, 2020
‘Good Friday 2020’ by the Rev’d Vyacheslav Okun
The Crucifixion of Jesus is one of the subjects most commonly depicted in Western art. Over the centuries, painters, composers, writers, and filmmakers have interpreted these pivotal moments for humanity, with varying degrees of realism. Both within and outside the church, people have wrestled with the meaning of a God put to death by torture and execution, and how to convey the power of these events and the depth of pain and suffering that Jesus experienced. Hymns and sacred art have referenced the pain of the nails, the scourge, and the crown of thorns, and have praised and theologized the blood and water running from the side of the pierced Saviour.
And yet, the bloodier and more dramatic aspects of the Roman cross are not what actually killed people. What actually killed people was slow suffocation, as they simply ran out of strength to fight against the pain to hold themselves up and make it possible to get air into their lungs.
Jesus died of slow suffocation.
And now we are celebrating Good Friday in the middle of a pandemic of a virus that kills people by attacking their lungs. One of our own church members with a presumptive case of the virus has described it as “having your lungs filled with cement”.
On this Good Friday, Jesus suffers with everyone struggling for breath, everyone receiving the dread diagnosis of bilateral interstitial pneumonia, everyone hooked up to a ventilator breathing for them because they can’t do it themselves, everyone succumbing to the disease and essentially drowning in their own fluids.
When John’s Gospel describes Jesus’ death, it says, “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” In both Hebrew and Greek, the words for “spirit” and “breath” are the same. From the wind from God that blew over the face of the waters at creation, to the Spirit that comes down at Pentecost, and in between the breath of God that revives Ezekiel’s dry bones – it’s all the same words. God’s breath is the breath of life, and God’s spirit is the spirit of life. It is this divine life that God breathes into each of us, and it is this divine spirit that Jesus yields up to the Father at the moment of his death.
Breath is the most fundamental element of life. As my meditation teacher tells us, we are born on an in-breath, and we die on an out-breath. And because breath is so fundamental, we usually don’t notice it. But we are hyper-conscious of it now. We are grateful for every unobstructed breath we draw, and anxious that we might find ourselves having difficulty breathing, and deeply aware that God’s death on the cross was consummated by the yielding up of his spirit, by the divine breath somehow, unthinkably, ceasing to be.
Everything else about this Holy Week has been strange and out of kilter, but Good Friday – that, right now, makes perfect sense. Death and fear and suffering, the God who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases – we need this acknowledgement of our reality, we need to be given permission, however painful, to feel the full weight of God’s solidarity with us in our humanness, in our mortality, in our fear and trembling and slow suffocation.
But God’s solidarity with us means nothing if it does not lead us to solidarity with others. As Jesus suffocates on the cross and people in our communities lie gasping for air in the ICU, let it bring us to a greater concern for the poor communities choking on air pollution, for the black man in the city streets begging “I can’t breathe!” as he is strangled by police. Because they have as much right to the divine breath of life as you, or I, or Jesus, or anyone else.
In discussions of Holy Week, the world is often described as “holding its breath” between three PM on Good Friday and sunset on Holy Saturday. This year, that is truer than ever. The suffering of those who cannot breathe is mirrored by the yielding up of the divine spirit.
And of course, we cannot not know what comes next. We know that the breath of life is only held, not gone forever.
And we are still here. Still breathing. Still connected to the divine breath at the most basic level of our being. Still able to bear witness, and to love, and to feel the world around us gasping for breath and find ways to help, even within the constrained realities of our lives right now. We stand with Mary and John at the foot of the cross, counting each breath, waiting for them to stop, feeling the world hold its breath when they do, and being stunned that our own inhalation and exhalation can somehow continue even when everything has ended.
So let us, to conclude this Good Friday meditation, sit, in silence, and breathe.