Rolheiser: Straining to hear the voice of Good Friday

11 April 2022

Appears in: Columnists

They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced!  A phrase that names the voice that’s left behind on Good Friday.

In 1981, an anonymous young girl was brutally raped and murdered by the military at an obscure location in El Salvador, fittingly called La Cruz (the Cross). Her story was reported by a journalist named Mark Danner. In his account of this, Danner describes how after a particular massacre some soldiers shared how one of their victims haunted them and how they could not get her out of their minds long after her death.

They had plundered a village and raped many of the women. One of these was a young girl, an evangelical Christian, whom they had raped many times in a single afternoon and tortured. However, throughout it all, this young girl, clinging to her belief in Christ, had sung hymns. The soldiers who had violated and eventually executed her were haunted by that.

Here are Danner’s words:

“She kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing – a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear – until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.”
(The Massacre at El Mozote, N.Y., Vintage Books, 1994, pp. 78-79.)

They shall look upon her whom they have pierced! Notice the feminine pronoun here because in this instance the one who is looked upon after being pierced is a woman.  Dying such a violent, unjust, and humiliating death with faith in her heart and on her lips makes her the crucified Christ, and not just because she (like all Christians) is a member of the Body of Christ. Rather because at this moment, in this manner of death, with this kind of faith overt in her person, like Jesus, she is leaving behind a voice that cannot be silenced and which will haunt those who have done violence to her and all the rest of us who hear about it.

What haunted those soldiers? The haunting here is not that of some wounded spirit that now seeks retribution by frightening us and forever unsettling our dreams. Nor is it the haunting we feel in bitter regret, when we recognize a huge, unredeemable mistake which had we foreseen the consequences of, we would never have made. Rather, this is the voice that haunts us whenever we silence, violate, or kill innocence. It’s a voice which we then know can never be silenced and which irrespective of the immediate emotions it evokes in us, we realize we can never be free from, and which paradoxically invites us not to fear and self-hatred but to what it embodies.

Gil Bailie, who makes this story a corner-piece in his monumental book on the cross and non-violence, notes not just the remarkable similarity between her manner of death and Jesus’, but also the fact that, in both cases, part of the resurrection is that their voices live on.

In Jesus’ case, nobody witnessing his humiliating death on a lonely hillside, with his followers absent, would have predicted that this would be the most remembered death in history. The same is true for this young girl. Her rape and murder occurred in a very remote place and all of those who might have wanted to immortalize her story were also killed. Yet her voice survives, and will no doubt continue to grow in history long after all those who violated her are forgotten. A death of this kind morally scars the conscience and leaves behind a permanent echo that nobody can ever silence.

When we parse out all that’s contained in that echo, when we take a reflective look at Jesus on the cross or at the death of this young evangelical, we cannot but feel a wound at a gut level. To gaze upon the one whom we have pierced, Jesus or any innocent victim, is to know (in a way that undercuts all culpable and invincible ignorance) that the voice of self-interest, injustice, violence, brutality, and rape will ultimately be silenced in favor of the voice of innocence, graciousness, and gentleness. Yes, faith is true.

A critic reviewing Danner’s book in the New York Times tells how, after reading this story, he kept “straining hopelessly to hear the sound of that singing.” In our churches on Good Friday, we read aloud the Gospel account of Jesus’ death. Listening to that story, like the soldiers who brutally murdered an innocent young, faith-filled woman, we are made to look upon the one whom we have pierced. We need to strain to hear more consciously the sound of that singing.

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