Finding the Goodness in Good Friday – Br. Jim Woodrum
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Why is Good Friday called ‘Good’? This is not a new question. If you do a Google search you will find a supply of answers to this question with no certainty landing on any of them. One explanation is that the title is unique to the English language and is derived from the old English designation, ‘God’s Friday.’[i] In catholic teaching, good is congruent with the word holy. This sounds right considering the sacredness of the Paschal Triduum, the three days leading to the Great Vigil of Easter which celebrates the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Growing up in an Evangelical tradition of the church, I was taught early on that it was good because of the salvation wrought for us by Jesus dying on the cross.
To be honest, all of these feel right to me. But it is the third explanation, the one I grew up with, that grabs my attention. Mainly, this is because of the paradoxical nature of the idea that someone undergoing torture, pain, and death, is considered good. This is what we hear in our gospel text from John this evening. Jesus and his disciples go across the Kidron Valley to a garden, identified in the other synoptic gospels as Gethsemane, where they say he prayed earnestly while his disciples slept, unaware of the intense situation that was about to unfold. Jesus is betrayed by Judas, a member of his circle of friends, and taken to be questioned by the high priest Caiaphas where he was then subjected to abuse. Jesus interpretation of the Law as well has his claim of God as his father was considered blasphemy. The fact that people were beginning to follow Jesus challenged the power and authority of the Temple leaders. They take him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of the Roman province of Judea, to be tried and convicted as a criminal. Using mob tactics, the Temple leaders not only rile up the crowd, but insist that if Pilate does not sentence Jesus to death, he will be seen in the eyes of Rome to be disloyal to the emperor Caesar, which would place him in grave danger.
Jesus is then left alone in the custody of Rome where he experiences his Passion, a word whose archaic definition means “suffering.” Jesus is whipped, kicked, spat upon, mocked, stripped, and made to carry an immensely heavy cross to the place of his execution. All of his closest friends have deserted him with the exception of a handful of followers, and his mother and closest friend whom the gospel writer calls ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved.’ They watch in horror as he is crucified: nailed naked to the cross, he is thirsty, and unable to breathe. Through the gospel writer’s account, we observe Jesus look down on his mother and the disciple whom he loved and give them to each other in a familial bond. He then proclaims, ‘It is finished,’ and takes his final breath. It is not difficult to comprehend the devastation and horror of Jesus Passion and death. It seems reasonable to wonder why that day was deemed ‘good.’
In our modern experience, we also have many reasons to question the ‘goodness’ of this day. In addition to the age-old problems we have been struggling with in our modern experience: bigotry, war, poverty, and homelessness to name a few, our lives have changed dramatically with the spread of Coronavirus, thrusting us into a global pandemic that is causing dire consequences. Isolated from each other we watch as the disease spreads, hospitals are overrun, and people die on a scale that we have not seen in over a century. Our government seems deadlocked with no leaders willing to act outside of party lines for the good of all. Bills go unpaid, the economy is tanking, and many are wondering if they will have jobs when this crisis passes. Probably one of the most heart-wrenching headlines I have encountered online is: “Amid pandemic, loved ones grieve—separately.” The picture under the headline shows a single person sitting in front of a flag-draped coffin, utterly alone in silent contemplation. No one sits with him. No one comforts him.
Perhaps we are able to identify with those at the foot of Jesus’ cross, a feeling of helplessness as we watch those we love grapple and suffer in the midst of great crisis. We understand that the very isolation that is causing us to suffer is the very thing necessary to flatten the curve of this pandemic and bring us onto the road to recovery. We may be comforted by the image of Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved taking care of each other in the face of such immense suffering and loss. In the midst of our struggle we are learning new ways to be community. Those of us who can work from home, attend meetings on video conferencing platforms. People of different faiths are worshipping with their communities online. We are calling each other, writing each other, making masks for each other, and encouraging each other like never before. We are doing our best to comfort each other, sending words of consolation and solidarity to those who are grieving the deaths of love ones while separated from family. We are offering humble gratitude to those who are putting their lives on the line, working in hospitals, pharmacies, grocery stores, post-offices, and other professions deemed necessary for survival. If we are able to ‘pray our lives’ in this moment, we may discover that the qualifying adjective of this day, good is not pointing to the death and suffering in our experience, but rather to the new possibility of life emerging from the Lenten ashes that were smeared on our foreheads a few weeks ago; the ashes that assured us of our mortality.
On a winter evening a few years ago, we brothers were visited by a Montessori Middle School class who had been studying different faith traditions. Before Compline we met in the chapel to give the students the opportunity to ask questions. One young man raised his hands and asked, “Why are all the depictions of Jesus in this church images of him on the cross, dying? I do not see a ‘living’ Jesus anywhere.” I froze in fear for a moment, not expecting that question and I scrambled for an answer. I said that the depiction of Jesus on the cross is an image that assures us of God Emmanuel, which means “God with us,” even in the midst of suffering, bearing all that we cannot handle. The answer seemed to satisfy his curiosity, but it did make me wonder also since I had not noticed what he had observed before. The next morning as we brothers were praying Morning Prayer, the sun began to rise and illumine the stained glass. At that moment I had an epiphany! The risen Jesus was everywhere in the glass: in St. John’s chapel, in the lancet windows of the Lady Chapel, and most especially in the great Rose window. How could I have missed the resurrected and ascended Jesus in our Church windows all this time? I was then reminded of the line from the Psalms: Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.[ii]
One of the great leaders of the Oxford Movement, John Keble, once encapsulated the goodness of this day in one of his Good Friday sermons. He writes: “For on the first Friday that ever was, Adam was created pure and good after God’s own image; and on this, the best Friday that ever was, or can be, we the sinful and fallen children of Adam obtained in a manner a right to be new-created after the same image, through the death and Passion of him who made himself our second Adam, that he might be the father of eternal life to us, as the first Adam had been the father of sin and death.”[iii] This day is ‘good,’ because it is the portal that leads us to our everlasting Easter, to new and unending life through the final destruction of death by Jesus Christ. This day is good because we see in Jesus the new life we are called to and created for. But in order to reach the everlasting life that God has intended for us to share with him, we have to enter into death to the self-sufficiency created by the first Adam in Genesis, chapter 3. We do this by striving to love one another as God has loved us, to support, encourage, and take care of each other. We do this by being vulnerable enough to say ‘I’m sorry’ and then forgive. We do this by having the courage to say ‘I don’t know’ in the face of questions we cannot answer. We do this by abiding with each other in all that we cannot endure alone. We do this by realizing that there is nothing we can do to enact our own salvation except depend wholly on God’s grace. If God calls us to the victory of the cross, He will call us to the nakedness of the cross.[iv]
Today we must pray our lives and offer up to Jesus our isolation, grief, anxiety, and helplessness. We must hear Jesus admonition: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy burdened and I will give you rest.”[v] We must acknowledge that our death to self is a process and we will have many opportunities to follow Jesus example, an example that passes through the gate of Good Friday. Through it, in the word or our founder Richard Meux Benson: “We are buried with Christ. Christ was not buried that we might live to the world. Our burial with him lasts until the great Easter of the final Resurrection. This burial is no condition of sadness. It is a life hid with Christ in God. Those who are buried with Christ shall share in his glorious Easter.”[vi] And that is very good!
[i] Ferguson, Jane Anne. “Homiletical Perspective on Hebrews (Good Friday).” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, by David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 291.
[ii] Psalm 30:6
[iii] Keble, John. Sermons for the Christian Year: Holy Week. London: Walter Smith, 1885. Print.
[iv] Benson, Richard Meux. A Cowley Calendar. London: Mowbrays, 1932. Print.
[v] Matthew 11:28
[vi] Benson, Richard Meux. The Followers of the Lamb. London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1900. Print.
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