Some years ago, I heard a story about an amazing transformation in the lives of inmates in a prison in Brazil. It’s a really neat story, but I‘m not sure how true it actually is. When I researched it, I discovered that lots of people tell the tale as thought they were the ones who broke the story. It’s been retold so many times now, it’s taken on something of a hokie Christian folklore character, but I think it still serves as a good illustration for understanding the richer meaning of Good Friday.
There was a terrible prison in Brazil that housed all sorts of violent criminals. It was hot and filthy, with poor living conditions, and very little hope among anyone for release. There was one wing of the facility where prisoners were taken to be tortured.
One day either one or three men (depending on who’s telling the story) got permission to try a new kind of prison reform. They decided to take the chaotic environment and create a Christian community. They shared the Good News of Jesus Christ with the prisoners and worked to build relationships among them based on loving one another and caring for each other, in just the way Jesus taught his disciples.
The reform was so successful that there were only three staff members overseeing all the prisoners. The prisoners took responsibility for all the operations – even escorting one another to court dates and holding the keys to all the locks. There was hope among the inmates. There was a sense of brotherhood, mutual respect and care. All aspects of quality of life improved.
A researcher went to visit this place, having heard of this amazing transformation. He was greeted at the door by the inmate with all the keys to the facility. That man was convicted of murder. The convict told the researcher that their lives had been made better by learning about Jesus. They understood what Jesus meant about the Good News of the kingdom of heaven and discipleship. As he toured the researcher around they came to the wing where the tortures had taken place. The tour guide told him there was one last prisoner in that room. The researcher wanted to see him. When the door was unlocked and pushed open, there on a table was a crucifix carved by one of the inmates. “This is the prisoner who’s taking all the punishment for us,” the guide said. “He’s taking all our sins upon himself and freeing us from our wrongdoings.”
Regardless of how true this story is, it gives us an important means for understanding what’s good about Good Friday. The prisoners were able to get to a point in the development of their faith to see that the Passion story isn’t simply about the death of Jesus. It’s about the death of all that stands in the way of us living into the promise of our salvation. It’s not that Jesus died on the cross so much as that Jesus carried our guilt, our fears, our shame, all the seven deadly sins, all of that to the cross to release the hold they have on us. These things that hold us back from living peacefully with one another cannot triumph over the love that God has for us. And it was out of love for us, that Jesus did this thing on Good Friday. The inmates enjoyed a better life because they were able to see the cross as a means for liberty. They accepted that they were found guilty of their crimes in the law courts, but they refused to let that guilt rob them of their God-given agency to move forward in life; to make positive changes; to make their world a better place. The crucifix was kept in the torture room for them to visit whenever they were tempted to re-torture themselves with reminders of their failures. They experienced freedom in that prison, yet so many of us on the other side of the jail bars are imprisoned.
Jesus takes upon himself the sins of the world – the failings and shortcomings of a flawed humanity; the selfish and greedy things we do, the lack of care we demonstrate for the things we don’t do; the things we forget, and the things we can’t forget. Most of all – and this is an important feature of the good part of Good Friday – Jesus takes away the guilt we carry that we use to crucify ourselves for our own faults. You know how it goes: you speak harshly to yourself for your failures. We are our own worst enemies. Jesus also takes away the guilt we carry to crucify others for their faults: we think and say harsh things to remind others of their failures. All of that guilt… went up on the cross. Jesus carried it all up the path to Golgotha and fixed them there, out in the open, so that we cannot hide our shame, and guilt can no longer be used against us. All of it died there on that cross with Christ. Jesus took all our sins upon himself and he carried them into their death. Thus we are free to move forward with our lives.
The inmates of the Brazilian prison understood the cross in the same way we understand it in the words we use in our Eucharistic Prayers. Prayer 1 in Rite 1 is all about the meaning and significance of Christ’s sacrifice, and what it means for us as disciples. The prayers of the last 40-days have offered insight to the nature of the salvation we enjoy.
We said that Jesus suffered death upon the cross for our redemption. Jesus made one oblation, or offering, of himself once. It was a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. There is no need for further sacrifice – of ourselves or of others. There is no further need to guilt ourselves or anyone else for shortcomings, failures or sins. It doesn’t get anyone anywhere anymore. We say that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Those things we call sins – those things that get in our way to enjoying a life of peace and love with others – have been taken away. It is not right for us to reinvent them or restore the power they once had over us.
This doesn’t mean that we are no longer living in a fallen state. We still make mistakes, and sin, and come up short of the kind of people we’re called to be. We acknowledge this when we say that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under the Table of the Lord. But this is the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. And so we are justified to stand before God, to serve the world in Christ’s name, and to take our place at the heavenly banquet, regardless of our human failings and shortcomings. God has mercy on us, and we ought to show the same mercy to one another.
The sacrifice of Jesus is more than just the account of the conviction and execution of a good man. The shocking storyline of the Passion and death drives home more than just breathtaking violence. This is the Saviour Jesus Christ we’re talking about, and like all of his other teaching moments, we are called to look at the event of his crucifixion as pointing to something of far greater significance. In order to do that, we have to get past the horrific violence – the violence that was done to Jesus the man, and the violence that we do to ourselves and one another on a daily basis. We are Christ’s disciples, and we live in freedom because of the cross … and that’s why we call today good.