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.
“It is finished.”[i]
Logically, there should be no more to say. “It is finished.” The altar is naked, the flame extinguished, the holy water dried up.
And yet, we linger here where powerful truths have been expressed and ineffable mysteries suggested.
The Truth: that the Love of God risks everything, forsakes all sense, abandons natural order, acts contrary to human expectation. We read in this truth the voluntary self-gift of God’s only-begotten Son “into the hands of sinners” that he fashioned from clay.
And the Truth: that the Love of God can – and shall – convert every instrument of death that cruel humans can invent into a key that opens the door to Life. We read this truth in the Cross that bore his Body.
And the Truth: that the Love of God endures the worst imaginable suffering. Through this, not in spite of this, as a ray of light pierces the darkest storm cloud, God’s glory is made manifest. We read this truth in the flesh of Jesus Christ: beaten, bleeding, broken, dying…drawing all people to himself.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Our efforts cultivating the fruit of the earth were modest at best, because growing up in Brooklyn meant not have having much gardening space. In our backyard, we had a few small rectangles of soil in which to plant our hopes for fresh vegetables and herbs. We experimented with everything from eggplants to pumpkins, but what I remember most is the tomato plants tended by my father and grandfather, taller than me at the time and filled with beautiful ripe tomatoes. That such a prodigious crop could come from so tiny a handful of seeds never ceased to amaze me. And after we had planted the seeds for next season, I waited with a mixture of hope and awe for what seemed like a miracle, new tomato plants rising from the ground in which the seeds were buried.
Nowadays, many of us who live in cities don’t consider anything about our food very miraculous, and we probably aren’t familiar with placing all our faith in a seed. But the lives of our ancestors, certainly in Jesus’ time, were intimately woven with nature’s cycles of death and new life. The fruit of each plant gives its life for the rich potential of its seeds, and each seed itself must die so to bring forth new growth.
Isaiah 52:13-53:12 / Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 / John 18:1-19:42
The suffering of Jesus, which we remember on this holy night, would be appalling enough if this put an end to something so terrible: if Jesus’ death on the cross forever ended the tyrannical power of unjust rulers; or forever ended conspiracy and betrayal and discrimination; or forever ended martyrs’ giving up their lives; or forever ended suffering from disease and diminishment, or even death itself. None of this has ended. If anything, Jesus’ death on the cross was the start of something. We are not spared the experience of the cross, we are shared the experience. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (1) Down through the centuries, many people in many places have understood Jesus’ words about “taking up your cross” quite literally. Even today Christians are being killed in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and countless other places around our world. Tyrannical power, injustice, discrimination, disease, and death continue without end.
I have come to know a young man who is now incarcerated in prison. He was charged and convicted on multiple felonies. If you knew the gentle family who raised him, you would be as shocked and numb with despair as they are, asking how in the world could it have come to this… for their son, whom they love and thought they knew so well?
I haven’t been able to get that question out of my mind: how did it come to this? As I’ve read what we all see relentlessly in the media, I often ask myself, “how has it come to this… for them?” Why do people make wrong choices? How do people come to be broken as they are and, and then, so often, do unto others the harm that was done unto them? Sometimes, it seems it’s with only a fleeting moment’s reaction, and sometimes from a day or week or many years of planning, preparing, and anticipating, a person will act or react in a way that proves tragic – tragic for them or others or both. It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself a good many times.