Silent Pietá’s: A Reflection on this Supposedly Good Friday

Good morning, everyone. Earlier this week, my brother Ben reached out to me with an idea for a short collaborative project to reflect on the Passion Narrative, from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and I’m pleased to share what we’ve cobbled together here on Binding North. We haven’t really worked together on anything creative since the Slam Dunk highlight videos/suburban action flicks we made circa 2005, which I’m now realizing is crazy. The basic format is this: I write a short reflection for each day (Fri, Sat, Sun) and Ben, who is a gifted visual artist, puts together a series of images in response to what I’ve written, and to his own response to the narrative in the Gospels. It’s nothing too elaborate, but we feel it was an enriching process, and it’s something we would like to share with everyone, with the hope of inspiring some deeper reflection. If it fits, we’ll also include some outside sources for you all to take a look at after, or while you’re reading. We’re taking it day by day, so what follows tomorrow could be very different from what you see today. Whatever we come up with, though, we hope you enjoy reading and looking.

Silent Pietá’s

I.            

It’s hard to speak when there are no words to say—just sighs, shudders, and shrugs, forlorn glances into the middle-distance, where there is space for your eyes to escape what they’ve just seen. I didn’t really see it, of course, but I’ve spent enough time pretending to understand what it all meant that day, this day they say, so many Fridays ago, to have at least a faint idea of what it looked like. Truth is, I don’t and probably never will. Try to tell a mother that one day she’ll understand why she had to bury her son, she’ll slap your mouth cold shut.

 No one can ever put words to a brutal, bloody tragedy, so why would this be any different? A four-year old kid knocked clear by a speeding drunk’s bumper, a young mother gunned down in the cross-fire of two gangs, an innocent man whipped, spat on, hung by his hands and feet on a couple slabs of wood. This is the reality and it speaks for itself. In the time leading up to, during, and immediately following these moments, it’s worthless to speak, because the tragedy itself is louder, clearer, more telling of the pain and seeming senselessness of our existence than any careful articulation could ever be. What happened on that day? Someone that we love—a son, teacher, and friend—died for no good reason. We can only call this day Good because we know what was to come.

 But what if we didn’t know? What if on that day, when Judas kissed him one last time and Peter said he’d never known him, when Pilate in all his Roman nonchalance lifted a lazy finger and sighed, “Crucify Him, then,” when Simon of Cyrene labored under the cross because Jesus could no longer lift it, and Mary saw them drive the nails into his hands, what if all they knew was that he would be dead by sundown? If there were some promise of his rising, it would have been impossible to imagine with him hanging there, his lungs stretched shut by the earth’s pull on his naked frame. That is all they saw and there was nothing they could say, except for a stricken few, who knew by how he seemed to still be in love with them and with the world he was slipping from, that he was who he’d claimed to be. But the rest of them had no words to come in place of tears. Maybe we can only begin to understand the meaning of his death if we hold it near the deaths in our own lives, the worst of which have the same sting of absurdity, evoke the same sense of disbelief that leaves us voiceless, except to utter, why?

 

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 Image by Ben Anderson

II.

 The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney has a poem about The Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970’s and 80’s, a time when innocent men, women, and children were killed in the name of religion, flag and tribe. It’s called “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” and the title alone seems a fitting admonition for this day. In the poem, he addresses the hollow words of journalists who attempt to make sense of the violence, to pick sides, or explain away the pain in exchange for a scoop. I would never direct such a scathing critique at anyone trying to put words to the meaning of Good Friday, but Heaney’s reverence for the dead and the suffering, which indeed includes himself, seems to me, quite noble. To step outside of the suffering in death, for both the victim and the viewer, is to put oneself at an arm’s length of its hideous strength. On this day, instead of attempting to grasp the moment’s cosmological and theological implications by stepping away from the story—with all its ugliness and suffering and brutality—I suggest we do our best to step closer and enter into that pain. And by what means? Well, whatever is necessary to shake us from whatever stupor or numbness that makes it ordinary. If there’s any good in death, it’s that its pain can steal us from our gray, fuzzy existence, and show us life in blood-red Technicolor, and maybe make us grateful for it.

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by Ben Anderson

III.

Consider another poem from a lesser-known, though similarly brilliant Catholic poet named Paul Mariani. It’s called “Pietá,” and it comes from his collection entitled Deaths and Transfigurations:

 Pietá

 New Year’s Eve, a party at my brother’s.                                                                                                          Hats, favors, the whole shebang, as we waited                                                                                                for one world to die into another.

 And still it took three martinis before                                                                                                                     she could bring herself to say it. How                                                                                                                     the body of her grown son lay alone there

 in the ward, just skin & bone, the nurses                                                                                                     masked & huddled in the doorway, afraid                                                                                                             to cross over into a world no one seemed

 to understand. This was a dozen years ago,                                                                                                           you have to understand, before the thing                                                                                                                   her boy had had become a household word.

 Consider Martha. Consider Lazarus four days gone.                                                                                             If only you’d been here, she says, if only                                                                                                            you’d been here. And no one now to comfort her,

 no one except this priest, she says, an old                                                                                                     friend who’d stood beside them through the dark                                                                                       night of it all, a bull-like man, skin black

 as the black he wore, the only one who seemed                                                                                           willing to walk across death’s threshold into                                                                                                            that room. And now, she says, when the death

 was over, to see him lift her son, light as a baby                                                                                              with the changes that death had wrought, and cradle him                                                                        like that, then sing him on his way, a cross

 between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm, while                                                                                             the nurses, still not understanding what they saw,                                                                                                stayed outside and watched them from the door.

 …

The scene, so far from the place they called Golgotha, 2,000 years removed, and yet somehow, so close. Call it allegory if you want, but call it elegy first. As bleak as it is, this poem about a young man slain by what (I’m assuming) would soon come to be known as the AIDS epidemic, is as close as we can come to putting words to the grief of those who’d known Jesus. The mother, twelve years after the death of her son, can barely bring herself to speak of the day. It’s dark, it’s awful, it is downright ugly. The poem itself is a retelling of a story told about the young man’s death, a frame within a frame. Listeners try to imagine the scene in the darkened hospital room, what those nurses standing by might have seen or felt. The passed along grief in the poem is the nature of this very day: listening, looking back, trying to piece together what it might have felt like to see it as they saw it from the ground, looking up at Jesus as he died. And as we peer through clouded windows and listen closely to skipping records, we’re certain only of that moment’s darkness.

 But before I get too carried away, before I stamp out any flicker of hope that might linger in the darkness of a day like this, notice again that final stanza. The music in that unnamed priest’s voice; maybe this is all we can do on this supposedly Good Friday. No grand conclusions, no victory laps or rousing convocations of that moment’s implications. Not yet. Just the gentle, wordless hum—a cross between a lullaby & blues, mmm hmmm—this might be good enough.

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by Ben Anderson

Thanks for joining us. If you’re interested in following along, stay tuned for something different tomorrow. Then, check in again on Easter Sunday for the final installment of this short series of reflections. Have a great day. 

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