Today, the Church celebrates Good Friday. It seems odd to me to call the day Jesus suffered, died, and was buried “good.” Because on this day Jesus shed his blood, we have been rescued from sin and death, and we also know just how deep and wide the love of God for us really is that makes it truly good.
When people say that God loves you or that God is love, it isn’t simple sentimentality. God’s love us in such a way that He cares more for our than for His own… but the trouble with loving like this is that it is dangerous. There are numerous songs written about the timelessness of love and an equally large number of songs written about the heartbreak of lost love. C.S. Lewis writes that this is one of the risks that comes with loving:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” -C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
If we believe that the events of Good Friday show us just how deep and wide the love of God is, then this is also the day in which He makes Himself the most vulnerable. This is shown in the way He is killed: on a cross, one of the most heinous forms of execution human beings have ever dreamed up. Large nails were driven through the condemned person’s wrists and feet before the cross was raised up and planted in the ground. These wounds would be terribly painful, but not usually fatal. What would often do one in was the effort required to breathe. Gravity would pull down on the body, putting a lot of pressure on one’s chest, so the crucified person would need to pull and push up on the nails to open things up every time they took a breath. It is believed that over the course of the hours or days in which one would hang on the cross, their lungs would gradually fill with fluid, and ultimately they would asphyxiate. It’d be a brutal way to go.
As a youth minister, I’ve often given thought to the cause of Jesus’ death – but usually the why rather than the how. The why is that Jesus died in our place to save us from our sins: to do for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves and reconcile us with God.
Since there was no autopsy done on Jesus’ body, the how is an interesting question to reflect on. We know that Jesus died after three hours of hanging on the cross, long before the two thieves hanging on either side of Him – their legs were broken (John 19:32) to expediate their deaths. The Gospel accounts give us a couple of clues as to what may have been happening (medically) in Jesus’ body over the course of His last day.
First, we hear that while Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane late on Thursday night, His sweat became “like drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). There’s a condition one can get called “hematidrosis” where stress and fear cause the blood vessels which feed someone’s sweat glands to rupture – and which often results in one sweating blood. It’s possible that the physical and spiritual suffering which loomed before Him on this night may have caused this condition – and might be the reason why He sweat blood.
Second, we read that after His death, a centurion pierced the side of Jesus, and blood and water came pouring out (John 19:34). Spiritually, we’ve always linked these two fluids to Baptism (water) and the Eucharist (the blood). But if it really was blood and water, an eyewitness shouldn’t be able to tell them apart, since blood and water have a similar viscosity and would mix together. This raises a simple question: if not water, what was that clear fluid?
Without the benefit of a medical examiner to analyze the substances on the Centurion’s sphere, we’re left to speculate. One clear fluid that is found in your body that has a different viscosity than water or blood is found in the pericardium, a sac which surrounds the human heart. If you consider the fact that Jesus had undergone enough stress the night before to cause hematidrosis, it’s equally possible that the physical abuse His body suffered would have put severe stress on His heart – perhaps enough to rupture the pericardium – and ultimately leading to his death.
If this is the case, it would mean that Jesus died of a literal broken heart. Jesus allowed Himself to suffer all manner of pain in His body and in His heart so that we would have no question of how deep, how wide, and how vulnerable His love for us really is. And that is truly good news on this Good Friday.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” -John 3:16