During Holy Week some 40 years ago, just as I was coming to the end of my teenage years, I first saw a concentration camp. It was a beautiful spring morning in the Austrian countryside, with signs everywhere of nature coming to life. Then we arrived at Mauthausen camp. I imagine the birds kept singing and the daffodils still danced in the breeze, but for us — a group of students nearing the end of our secondary school education — everything suddenly seemed totally still, as we entered a world that we had heard and read about but had never seen. Even as a cleaned up monument to this awful, cruel piece of history, the camp was terrifying.
It was Good Friday.
Back then, I was a committed atheist. The terrible appropriateness of the day was not in my mind as we approached the camp. And oddly enough, on the preceding evening, over a drink with my classmates, I had held forth on the impossibility that there could be a divine creator who would allow starvation, war and oppression.
Over the subsequent weeks, while reflecting on the experience, something occurred to me. The Via Dolorosa is not a sentimental journey. It is not the beautification of suffering, it is not the nobility of pain. God’s plan on Good Friday was not to invite us to contemplate a sense of cruelty redeemed, but rather of cruelty understood. We have to believe, and Jesus has allowed us to believe, that suffering can have a meaning. But suffering is not good, it is not beautiful, it is not destiny; it is not God’s will.
On that day, 40 years ago, I began, very slowly, on my own journey back to faith. Part of that faith is the belief that we cannot fully and properly live the Christian life until we have really, really understood Good Friday.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen