When I was a kid, I recall that on Good Friday we had a day off from school, a good thing, for kids anyway! I was confused, however, for when my thoughts turned to playing outdoors with the neighborhood gang, I discovered that most of the neighborhood had to stay indoors, especially between noon and 3pm. What good was a Spring day off, if you had to spend it indoors? I eventually learned that it was the time of day Jesus was dying.
When I started working as a pastor in the 80’s, Good Friday was a good chance for Christian churches to show cooperation, collaboration, an ecumenical spirit. Many towns had the custom of honoring the “7 Last Words” of Christ with mini-worship services between noon and 3pm, each section of 25 minutes being led by a different church or pastor. The intent was good, but over time fewer schools and businesses gave people time off (an important move in nondiscrimination), so preachers were almost literally preaching to the choir, their own …. and it could feel like a contest to see which preacher could best keep people awake after lunch! It did not feel “good” and I’m glad we are not currently doing it here.
Seriously, I don’t think the earliest followers of Christ would have called the day, or its anniversary “good.” Nor would anyone who has heard of or watched the Mel Gibson version of Jesus being tortured at length and executed. Any goodness to be found is in post-Easter interpretations of how his life and death affected the world. The Apostle Paul started speaking about the merits of his death with regards to the forgiveness of sins, and it was not until the Middle Ages that the Roman Church began to solidify theories of “substitutionary atonement.” Protestant Reformers followed suit, emphasizing a “penal” satisfaction theory, whereby Jesus’s death is a substitute for ours, the death we deserved as punishment for sin. And this is good? Marcus Borg speaks succinctly about the problem: “A punitive character of God dominates - somebody must pay the penalty. God requires blood - ours or the blood of Jesus.” So Good Friday is good because we celebrate escaping a punitive God?
Our gut tells us that Jesus’ death was very sad, and every anniversary also. We know that he was bucking an oppressive system and was killed for doing so. There are many theories of atonement, how Jesus’ death can help us be more “at-one” with our Creator, neighbor and self. For me, being at-one has to do with Love, therefore any theory of efficacy of Jesus’ death must deal with love. Jesus “so loved the world” that he gave his life to this world, gave his all to make the world better. For me, Good Friday is good only insomuch as it is about a Love that never quit, a Love that stood up for the poor and marginalized, against tyrannical rulers, a Love that was loyal in the face of betrayal, a Love that shared sorrows, a Love that could forgive, even if they “know not what they do,” a Love that continued to promote transformation of the world at the peril of death, and this Love his followers saw in Jesus of Nazareth. If we want to find the goodness in Good Friday, let us take a few moments to meditate upon the Love of this Man of Sorrows in whom “sorrow and love flow mingled down, and thorns compose so rich a crown.”
Rev. Ross Varney is pastor of Belleville Church in Newburyport.