If one were to travel back in time to tell most observers of the events on the original Good Friday that the day would be remembered as “good,” they would have thought it a sick joke and you a madman. It was wall-to-wall awful.
Judaism of the first centuries was a messiah-rejecting machine. One after another, would-be redeemers of Israel would amass a following, come into conflict with the authorities, and be killed or flee. Those followers that weren’t put to the sword would scatter, and it was back to square one. And on this day almost 2,000 years ago, it looked very much like the wheel of history had ground another one under.
This time Rome had seemed more reluctant than usual. Its vassal ruler, Herod Antipas, and its Judean prefect, Pilate, passed Jesus around like a hot potato. Pilate had sought to punish him and then he appealed to the mob. Yet ultimately it was Rome’s right hand who gave the kill order. This is memorialized in the creed: “He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered, died, and was buried…”
That’s what Good Friday is about: suffering, death, burial — failure, really, and what we do about it. Jesus’ closest followers were betrayed, taken by surprise and scattered. Their likely leader Peter denied his association with this messiah so forcefully that any regrouping looked impossible. They had thought this man the anointed one, but his lonely, embarrassing death had proved otherwise.
Crucifixion was a particularly heinous way to go: it was humiliation, torture, and slow suffocation wrapped into a neat, splintered wooden package. The condemned would be stripped down to nothing, or almost nothing, and nailed to a cross at the joints: wrists and ankles. The nails would exert constant pain and as the victim pressed on upper and then lower nails for relief, it would become more difficult and then impossible to breathe.
All of this would take place in front of a taunting crowd. No wonder many today prefer to hurry past the events of Good Friday and think about Easter instead.
That is a mistake, I think. For people who believe in the truth of the Gospel stories, today ought to be a day of prayer, of fasting, of scripture reading and somber reflection. Besides, those that hurry to Easter too quickly, might miss a few things.
Like what? Here are a couple of lessons I’ve gleaned from Good Friday readings past:
One, when the high priest Caiaphas declared Jesus a blasphemer, he tore his clothes. A lot of people in the Bible tear their clothes, so it’s easy to miss this one. The “clothes” torn here were likely instead a single garment held out in front of him, rent from top to bottom. He was judging the defendant guilty and inviting all of the other jurists to stop disputing and render their own verdicts.
That image helps to sharpen another image that Gospels relate to us after Jesus’ death. The temple’s veil is torn from top to bottom by an invisible hand. This is the beginning of their verdict being overturned by what you might call a higher court.
Two, some of Jesus’ followers must have though him different from the typical failed messiah/conman because of their actions after his death. A rich but quiet follower named Joseph of Arimathea, along with the pharisee Nicodemus, petitioned Pilate for the body, were granted it, and laid Jesus to rest.
That was a risky thing to do. It could have cost them more than their reputations. The recriminations against followers when a would-be messiah died could be savage. They either didn’t care or, more likely, they shouldered past their cares. The message they had taken from Jesus’ life is, they ought to do the right thing come what may. It was a very simple lesson and the hardest of all lessons. It’s one of the reasons some call this Friday “good.”