Several years ago, while attending a Good Friday service at a fundamentalist or evangelical church (I cannot figure out which one is what), it struck me that something felt wrong in all their praise music, the flowering of the auditorium with lilies, and a rock band on the stage. This was Good Friday, the day Christians mark as a day of suffering, grief, and death. There is no joy in any of that. Good Friday is a grim and dark day and observed as such.
Yes, we all know what comes next. We know that God, through Jesus, will overcome suffering, grief, and death and will bring to fruition the promise of the resurrected life. Nonetheless, if we observe Good Friday as a day of sorrow we will understand Easter better and the joy of that day will be greater than we expect.
If this day is a time for solemn reflection on suffering, grief, and death, why is it good? We can agree, I suppose, that seeing a friend suffer, grieving a loss, and experiencing the death of a loved one is not particularly good. The word good probably comes from a distortion of the word god, such as when we say, “Good-bye.” We are saying, “God be with ye,” maybe. All of this is lost in etymological history. Maybe it would be better to call this day “Holy Friday.”
My point is that the day is to be spent thinking about mortality,Jesus’ and ours. Think about the circumstances described in the Passion Gospels we read during Holy Week. They are complete with descriptions of corrupt leadership, betrayal, brutality, tyranny, and ultimately painful death. If I, or any of us, were living in the first century of this calendar era and had we spoken negatively about Roman governance, I more than likely would suffer the same fate. Further, not only be hung on a cross would be my fate, but there is no escaping the finality of that form of punishment; I would die.
Death is the finality of the story for this day and that is what we must understand about Good Friday. Depictions of Jesus on the cross are often so disinfected we do not get the full message or a complete understanding of what actually happened. The fact of the matter is that Jesus died on the cross. We cannot turn that fact into a nice picture or a beautiful crucifix hanging over the altar. It was a bloody and painful experience for the victims of Roman tyranny.
In retrospect, however, Christians do see the cross as more than a tool of evil. The cross, because of Jesus’ ultimate victory, is a symbol of hope. However, as John, the Beloved Disciple, Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, and the other women standing at the foot of Golgotha saw no hope for the future. Satan had returned at the opportune time and did his worst; evil executed a son and a friend. When the finality of the cross is recognized, Easter becomes more than a day of flowers and a spring ritual. Because of the cross Easter is a day of power, a day of recognition that God does act and intervene in human history. Therefore, the cross can be seen a symbol of hope for us today, but we must remember, the followers of Jesus did not know this on that bleak Friday outside the walls of Jerusalem.
As Jesus hangs on the cross dying he utters the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? “(22:1-2a). There are several Psalms that seem to foretell the agony of Good Friday. For example, as we hear Jesus’ final words on the cross, “It is finished,” he must have remembered the words of the Psalmist, “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul” (25:1).
The Psalms help us acquire the mental and physical posture for this saddest of days. In Psalm Thirty-one we read, “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away” (31:9-19). Think of Jesus nailed to the cross when you read these words from the same Psalm, “I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me. I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel” (31:10-11).
We can use more such Psalms on this day for meditation and a vision of the ugliness of the event we are observing on this Holy Friday. However, Psalm Sixty-nine captures the despair those who watched Jesus die. Listen to the Psalmist as he cries in despair, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me” (69:1-2). As Jesus climbs to the top of Golgotha, the words of Psalm Sixty-nine must have raced through his brain, ” You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you. Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (69:19-20). As he hung from the cross and offered sour wine, certainly, he remembered the words of the same Psalm, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (69:21).
Nevertheless, we know the result of this terrible day in their lives and we can see the other side of joylessness. The condition of joylessness is something with which all people eventually have to deal. At some point in life there will be a time of suffering, there will be a time of grief, and ultimately we must face our own mortality. Life is a thin line snapped away in an instant or dragged to the cross of long-term painful illness. We learn from the Good Friday observance that eventually we come down from the cross and find there is another side, another shore, another life.
The ultimate hope that comes from the cross reminds me of the old English hymn that gives me much strength when sung by a congregation of believers. The hymn I find that completely captures the mood of Good Friday is Isaac Watts’ “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Isaac Watts(1674-1748), in his poem, reminds us that while the Cross of Christ is wondrous it is also an instrument of sorrow. As Watts looks at the cross he sets aside all his own vanity, his own personal loses, and sees in the Cross of Christ sorrow and love mingling and flowing down to offer an amazing love of sacrifice and total forgiveness.
On Good Friday, all who have committed themselves to follow Christ Jesus need, as Isaac Watts wrote, to set aside vain personal worlds and cry out with the prophetic words of Jeremiah in the Book of Lamentations, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (1:14). Then feel the profoundness of sorrow and love mingling down.