What makes ‘Good Friday’ good?
It certainly wasn’t good for Jesus, and I have to think it wasn’t very good for his mother, or friends that watched it happen.
So why do we call it ‘good’?
About 25 years after the crucifixion, an early Christian, reflecting upon its meaning, wrote: “but God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
The writer was St Paul, in his letter to the Romans. Now Paul never met Jesus. He wasn’t one of the 12 disciples. He wasn’t one of those who had personally experienced the crushing despair of Good Friday and the subsequent joy of Easter Day. And yet he writes ‘Christ died for us’. ‘Us’ being the Roman Christians, and Paul, and you and me and all the women and men who have lived in the 20 centuries in-between.
The point is this: from the earliest days, Christians have never been content to say merely ‘Christ died’; the message is ‘Christ died for us’. In other words, the cross wasn’t some purposeless, inexplicable event. The cross of Jesus had meaning and significance. Somehow, in some way, it was ‘for us’. How it was for us is more difficult to understand and ever since Christian scholars have kept themselves busy devising clever theories and ingenious explanations.
While these may satisfy some, it seems to me that Good Friday isn’t the time and place for philosophical reflection. Rather the cross speaks to us at a much more basic level, to our deepest emotions; our innermost fears and concerns.
The fact is that most of us know what the crucifixion is all about, even if we have only encountered a sliver of the terror that Jesus and his disciples knew at that particular moment in time. For we have all been touched by death – whether it is through the personal experience of losing a loved one or through witnessing the latest images of war and disaster, no longer kept at a safe distance, but beamed right into our homes through the TV and internet.
And even if we have not yet experienced the death of a loved one, we know how often senseless acts disrupt our orderly lives, and our plans for the future. Losing a job, exchanging angry words with friend or stranger, the break-up of a friendship or a family falling apart; these are all heartbreaking events, especially when seen against a backdrop of systemic violence that continues to dominate life in our world and in our society.
And it is at these points of change, disruption and confusion that we need the Messiah we have. Somehow, because Jesus suffered crucifixion, death, dissolution, abandonment, betrayal, we know our God is the God of the emergency room, the hospital ward, the battlefield, the crime scene, the broken family, the broken friendship, and our shattered lives. And it is here that we meet our Lord every bit as we meet the Spirit of God in the sunsets, the gardens, and in the laughter of our friends and loved ones. (1)
Because we want a gospel that is all sweetness and light we are distinctly uncomfortable with this message of the cross. We would rather forget the dark and nasty side of life, the brutality of existence for so many people. We would rather have a religion that distracts our attention, anaesthetises us, lifts us above such brutal realities. Isn’t that what we go to church for, to forget the pain and problems of everyday life? No wonder Christianity is regarded as an irrelevance by so many people. The only faith worth having is one that does not seek refuge from the dark places of the world, but confronts the world at its very worst.
This finds powerful expression in the words of George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community.
“I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the centre of the market place as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap; at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek at the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died. And that is what he died about. And that is where Christians should be and what Christianity should be about.” (2)
Good Friday proclaims that God is fully immersed in human life, and not just on the cross of Calvary but in the torture cells of petty dictators and the gas chambers of Auschwitz; in the wrecked streets of Haiti, the evacuated zones around Japanese nuclear power stations and the refugee camps of Sudan; even in the streets of our own city, its crack houses and crime-ridden estates. God is here. God knows.
The cross shows us that God is here not because of something we do: God is here is spite of what we do. The cross is the place where humanity does its worst. It is the place where we reject the love of God and shout our defiance of God. But God’s forgiveness and reconciling love is not conditional upon our recognition of our sin or on repentance. “It is finished” says the dying Jesus on the cross and there is no more that we need to do to secure the love of God. The cross becomes the sign of hope, the promise of unmerited forgiveness. As a collect in the Book of Common Prayer says: “O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life…”
This is the Good news of Good Friday. God has been and is and will be in the most awful places in which we find ourselves, even in the places where we are sure he is absent. That is what we learn when we confront the cross in all its ugliness and horror. Through Jesus, God has been there, God is there, bringing his grace and healing to the darkest parts of our lives, though we may be unaware of this at the time.
And beyond the darkness there may yet be a third day of new life and new promise.
So what makes Good Friday good?
If you have ever believed that love inevitably leads to betrayal
this day says it doesn’t.
If you have ever believed that some people are unloveable, irredeemable
this day says they aren’t.
If you have ever believed that there is a limit to forgiveness
this day says there isn’t.
If you have ever believed you aren’t worth saving
this day says you are.
If you have ever believed that you don’t deserve freedom
this day says you do.
If you have ever believed that fear, anger, hate and despair will always win
this day says they won’t.
And this day is good for you. (3)
(1) The above three paragraphs are based (and extensively quoted from) a sermon by Richard Heimer
(2) Quoted in many places on the internet. e.g. here. I have slightly altered the final sentence.
(3) From a Good Friday liturgy by Cheryl Lawrie