It may sometimes seem unclear what it is that Jesus reveals on Good Friday, for it is a revelation. And we must be careful not to simplify the depth of the Good Friday mystery. Here is one way of entering into this revelation and understanding it.
In our lives, and in history, we carry enormous burdens of guilt and self-hatred. We may try to be good but, turn by turn, step by step, we find we are ever more completely lost into the maze of life. And so much of this, how we behave, what we say, what we think, who we think we are, is an accident of where we are born, our family background, our biases, and then there is the secret world of our unconscious where grief and rage and sadness are buried; all these factors, accidents of birth and buried unconscious forces exert their gravitational pull on our personalities.
There are some breathtakingly simplistic versions of Christian faith which revolve around the very weak and over-used word, choice: what do we choose, do we choose Christ? This version of choice seems to think that choice is a simple matter. But for so many of us choice is never a free choice because our personalities are, as said above, always to some degree prisoners to unconscious forces and biases we are, of course, unaware of. You want to be a loving parent but the rage that rises up in you is a primal rage you cannot understand. You want to be a heroic leader of your country but what you find instead is an ever-growing desire for power and control. You want to be a good teacher but you feel such pure hatred at times for the children in front of you. You want to be responsible with the accounts but it seems imperative to create your secret slush-fund which no-one will notice and anyway you deserve it.
What is revealed on Good Friday is that we are known and loved no matter what we do or who we are. We may do unspeakable things out of our desire to be good. We may find we are choosing evil even as we desperately search for the good. And yet Jesus says these words on the cross in Luke's gospel. They are the greatest words of love ever spoken. They are God's words of ultimate love to the hidden war which rages in the human heart, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'
'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' These are the greatest words of love because they spring out of an infinite mercy, a mercy that understands us in the depths of our alienation from the good. These words are not spoken to our best selves, our ideal selves. They are spoken to our real, ugly and hidden selves. We do not know what we are doing because we do not know who we are. We may think we know who we are: I am a strong leader. I am a faithful partner. I am a good priest. I am a patient parent. But the pull of the unknown side of the personality is so strong. The lust, the rage, the hatred, the anger, the sadness, in us. The desire to bully, to belittle. Jesus was crucified by good people. They didn't know what they were doing. They were blind to the shadow cast by their goodness. I'm sure most of them thought they were doing their duty.
On the cross Jesus speaks his words of love and mercy to the unknown sides of who we are, he brings the unknown sides of us into the illumination of his compassion. 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'
There is in our Christian heritage a long-standing belief in a God of love and mercy who will still let some souls go into the outer darkness, even into some absurd vison of an eternal hell. I believe this to be a thoroughly unbiblical and un-Christlike belief. A belief in an essentially loveless God who saves and condemns like a tyrant. It is a belief refuted by Good Friday. If Good Friday is the full revelation of God's love and forgiveness then it is the full revelation of a God who will transform and save all, because Good Friday teaches us that we are loved and understood in the depths of our crimes, in the middle of the maze that we have found ourselves in. There are no words like it. There is no forgiveness like it. Here is God, the crucified forgiver of our souls.
'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.' BEN