Yesterday, Friday April 3, Christians and Jews around the world observed a very sacred day in their faith tradition calendar.
For Christians, it was Good Friday, the day Jesus died on the cross. How is this day typically honored? With church services filled with powerful music in the minor chord. Music that inspires grief and a sense of the tragic. Jesus dies painfully and heroically for our sins and hence redeems the world. Black is the color of the day. Somber is the overarching tone.
For Jews, it was the first day of Passover and the first (or second) evening of the Seder. Both Passover and the Seder follow the story of God liberating the Hebrew/Jewish slaves from oppression in Egypt and traveling with them (and Moses) across the wilderness for 40 years in order to reach (actually for their progeny to reach) the Promised Land. The Seder is a way to essentially eat your way through the tale. I don’t know about music or the color of the day, but goofy joy seems to be the overarching tone.
A dear Jewish friend of mine wrote me recently about the Seder tradition she and her beloveds have been following for years:
We’ve been Sedering at my house with family and friends the last 28 years. We always do a play of the Passover story and you haven’t lived until you’re seen 5-year old Joey with a full-black beard begging 3-year old Hilary to follow him into the desert. Every year it gets more elaborate with costumes and theatrical gestures. We use cloth for the red sea and everyone must scream really loud when the sea parts. REALLY LOUD. We throw plastic toys for the plagues – ping-pong balls for hail, black “Lone Ranger” masks for darkness (everyone wears them and we have to get through an obstacle course I create in the living room to really understand what darkness means) – stuff like that.
When I was little the trick was to load the matzo with horseradish when we are supposed to eat the maror (a bitter-tasting comestible intended to cause you to remember the harsh attitude your forebears had about God as they traveled across harsh wilderness). We'd see who could stand eating the most horseradish. People would cry. Sometimes you’d sneak an extra load on someone’s matzo as it came to the plate. And of course Passover is when even the youngest are allowed to drink. As a kid drinking all four glasses of wine was a dare and a must. Though I know I never did it. We would be under the table.
Fun. It was always fun. Very child-centered. It’s about telling the story of exodus to children so the point is to make it fun. May all who are hungry come and eat. But it has a message of responsibility to all fellow humans. And next year in Jerusalem.
And it’s not just my friend who has been celebrating an especially wacky, playful, childlike Seder over the years. I understand “Passover Bingo” is very "in," as is the "Bag of Plagues" (which I recently gave to an especially ardent interfaith UMC congregant as a baby shower gift).
I guess the crazy question, from the Comic Lens, is, “Is it possible for Good Friday to somehow resemble the jolly Jewish Seder? After all, both are rooted in stories about humanity moving from slavery to freedom. (In the Christian instance, it has to do with liberation from slavish sin.)
One hint that might start to lead Christians in this direction is found in a text often used as part of Good Friday observance: John 3:16.
There’s nothing fun and funny there! It’s all pretty straight-forward and solemn stuff (rainbow wig-wearing aside). In fact, this verse's most popular treatment is in the music by Sir John Stainer. Perhaps you've heard it sometime this weekend.
Here is a beautiful version, and with a choir accessorized with fabulous ruffs!
What’s interesting about this beloved text, however, are the two verses that directly precede it:
What in the world is Jesus talking about?
If we do a little investigation, we find this weird reference about “Moses lifting up a serpant” comes from Numbers 21:4-9. It is part of the same exodus story that inspired the wacky seder our Jewish brothers and sisters are concomitantly celebrating.
At Numbers 21, the herculean journey is nearing its end, and nerves are about as frayed as they could possibly be. The Hebrews, who have been complaining from the start about the fact that there is no food for them in the wilderness and how awful God is to have sent out there to starve, now have a new complaint: the food God has then sent them every day without fail isn’t tasty.
This is the ultimate “MEATLOAF AGAIN???” !!!
And God, who already has sought to kill the people for worshiping a golden calf (but Moses talked Him out of it) and announced this petulant, cowardly generation is prohibited from entering the Promised Land (but their children eventually will) and decreed even Moses, His best friend, won’t get to enter Canaan, either (because once he incorrectly tapped the stone that was to bring water) s-n-a-p-s.
His reaction to the “meatloaf”- esque comment is…to send snakes. Poisonous snakes to bite the people and kill them that way. Why snakes? Maybe because that’s about the creepiest (pun sort of intended) way of getting back at these malcontents who have made His existence so miserable. Maybe He’s having an Adam and Eve flashback and revenge fantasy. In any case, let’s be honest. It’s maniacal. Far beyond anything a dignified God, even when mad, should be doing.
But it gets the people’s immediate attention. (How could it not??) We’re told they instantly start asking Moses to tell God they’re sorry and stop this crazy thing.
God hears Moses’ prayers on behalf of the people, and how does He react? Take the snakes away instantly as requested? Say He is sorry for acting like a psycho? (Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do when we’re angry – own our part in the conflagration before anything else?)
No, He tells Moses to put one of those snakes on a pole so that those who’ve been bitten can look up and be healed. In a way, God answers the people’s prayers as they wish – they don’t have to die in this chaos – but they have to do their part in order to be healed and it involves becoming aware of how their bad behavior has driven God over the edge and brought them all to this sorry state of affairs.
I find this “snake” story to be poignant and existentially true. From a psychological standpoint, it is only after we own our responsibility for the problem that healing and new life become really possible. And it is a gracious universe that always makes healing available and discoverable. It’s all messy but leads to substantial happiness.
These are some of the reasons this Numbers 21 story is comic.
In addition, God as portrayed here is a comic God. He doesn’t act nobly and perfectly but rather desperately and improvisationally. As we all do, whether we like it or not, when on a long journey with family.
This is another big reason this story is comic.
And, all’s well that ends well. Eventually the people (the progeny) will make it to the Promised Land. Moses will die on this side of it, but God will come and bury His best friend in a most beautiful way.
And after that..the crazy, graciously comic journey continues on! For Jews and for Christians….
It seems that by putting his crucifixion in the context of this Numbers 21 story and all it implies, it is actually a comic orientation Jesus wants us to have about how and why God so loved the world He had him die up on a cross for us all in the chaos of the journey to take note of. Yes, it’s very serious and solemn, but it’s also a reminder of just how daffy the journey makes us all. Even God!
And, thankfully, there is healing and hope that's on its way for everyone!!
It seems that Christians would do well to take a page from the Jewish Seder handbook and explore some comic impulses for their Good Friday observance. Celebrate the grace that somehow manages to emerge from the scary chaos. For God so ‘ugh’d’ the world….
It is not at all about Good Friday, but this song seems to capture the spirit of what a helpful addition to Good Friday musical repertoire would be like. Here’s a song about chaos, fear, and love that eventually triumphs … and how funny that journey to victory truly is.
Imagine instead of a bride it's God trying to figure out what to do with His whiners!
And who best to sing it??