I’m incredibly empathetic to physical suffering (which probably explains why I pursued a career in medicine), and every time people talk about Jesus’ death on the cross, I have a visceral reaction to the death-by-torture we observe on Good Friday.
Last week I had lunch with the pastor of the church where I’m currently the writer-in-residence. I asked him how the three members of the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son and God the Spirit — decided who was going to have to take on physical form, be born in a barn, and then be crucified.
It seems to me like Jesus must’ve drawn the short straw in heaven that day. While the other two members got to sit up in heaven, Jesus went through unbelievable emotional and physical torture.
As they packed Jesus’ soul into a baby’s body, I can imagine the angels shaking their heads, saying, Man, Jesus, for the next 33 years, it’s going to suck to be you.
“You think the Son suffered more than the Father?” my pastor asked me.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because he was crucified. He was beaten all night and then nailed to a cross and just hung there for six hours. I can’t conceive of a more painful way to die.”
“Maybe physical suffering isn’t the worst suffering there is,” he said.
I was incredulous.
He continued, “Remember how, when you were telling me about everything that went wrong while you were on chemo, you said the emotional pain of losing people was worse than the physical pain of cancer and surgery and chemo?”
I nodded. It was true. I had said that, and I had meant it. While I was going through chemo for breast cancer at 28 years old, my boyfriend broke up with me, my good friend died of cancer, and a lot of my close friends moved away. Feeling alone in all of it felt way worse than any of the physical pain.
“So….” my pastor said.
He let the word hang in silence between us, and after a while, I finished the sentence.
“So… the pain God experienced in being separated from his children was even more excruciating than the physical pain Jesus experienced on the cross.” The weight of those words was so heavy, I could barely speak them.
It seemed unbelievable.
Until I thought about my cancer experience.
And then I thought about the answer I’d get if I asked a mom which was worse — the physical pain of childbirth, or the emotional pain of losing that child to an accident or an illness.
I thought about the answer I’d get if I asked a father which hurt worse — being slapped in the face by his angry teenage son, or not hearing from that son for the next ten years in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.
I realized that when Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, he knew what he was talking about from personal experience. Because his Father was like the father in the story, waiting, just waiting, for the first glimpse of his children in the distance.
He wanted his children to come home so badly, he was willing to send his son to retrieve them — even if it meant that his son would have to be tortured and killed to get through to them how much they were loved, and how badly their Father wanted them home.
I remembered reading that the word prodigal doesn’t mean someone who rebels or runs away; it means someone who comes home. So even in telling the story of the son who treats his father terribly, squanders his inheritance and ends up living in a pig sty, God names the son not by his running away, but by his returning home.
I imagine God as the father in the Prodigal Son story, taking all his meals on the front porch of his heavenly mansion because he doesn’t want to take his eyes off the horizon for a second.
I imagine him straining to see the road as twilight turns to night. I imagine him nodding off to sleep when the last light is gone, his servants covering him with a blanket because he refuses to leave his chair to go to bed. He wants to see his son so badly, he’d rather sleep in a wicker chair on the porch than in his lavish bed, with its down comforter and overstuffed pillows.
And at dawn, when he sees a familiar figure limping down the dusty road towards home, the father leaps up and goes sprinting down the road to welcome his wayward child home.
This Good Friday, I think about the physical pain Jesus endured in the crucifixion, and then I think beyond it to the cosmic pain of God the Father, whose pain of being separated from his children was infinitely more excruciating than any torture the Romans could contrive.
And I am humbled beyond words.
In the light of that love, I drop all the things I have loved and clung to more than God.
I lift my broken frame out of the mud I’ve been living in.
And I start limping Home.