‘Easter Sunday’ is obvious – it’s when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. But what about ‘Good Friday’ – what’s so good about it?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘good’ is an old way of saying that a day is regarded as holy by the church. A saint’s day might be ‘good’, or a season like Lent or Pentecost. There is even a Good Wednesday, the Wednesday before Easter, though this has fallen out of use.
For Christians, though, the day has a much deeper meaning. Friday is when we remember the death of Jesus on the cross – and we call it Good Friday for a reason.
All the Gospels tell the same story, in slightly different ways. They highlight different aspects of what happened and there are tensions at some points between what they say. This isn’t surprising – we know people who see the same event will remember it in different ways afterwards, and the slight differences confirm the reliability of the overall account.
On the first Good Friday, after a series of trials and interrogations by the Jewish and Roman authorities, Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion, a common Roman punishment. Aware of his innocence, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, offered the crowd the choice of releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a murderer; they chose Barabbas. Pilate ceremonially washed his hands to assert his innocence of Jesus’ death.
He had Jesus flogged – in itself a brutal punishment that frequently led to the death of those who suffered it – and led out to crucifixion. In keeping with the custom, Jesus had to carry his own cross – probably just the horizontal beam – to the place of execution. Exhausted and in pain, he fell under the burden and the Romans forced a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, to carry it for him.
Jesus was crucified between two thieves, one of whom cursed him while the other said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ A sign over his head read, ‘This is the King of the Jews’.
He died after six hours of pain, a relatively short time when victims could linger for days. The authorities were anxious to conclude their business before the Sabbath began, and broke the legs of the two thieves to hasten their end. Jesus was already dead, but a soldier stabbed him in the heart to make sure.
Different Gospels preserve what Jesus said as he was dying. He said of the crowd, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’ To the thief he said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ He commended his mother and his disciple John to each other, saying: ‘Behold your son…behold your mother.’ In a moment of desolation, he cried out with a line from Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He said ‘I thirst’ and was offered wine and vinegar on a sponge; immediately before he died he said, ‘It is finished’ and ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’
A centurion standing by said, ‘Truly, this man was the son of God.’
When the bodies were taken down, in contrast to the usual fate of crucified people – they were usually thrown in lime pits – Jesus was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. The tumultuous, chaotic first Good Friday was over.
What, though, could possibly be ‘Good’ about a day like that?
Christians believe the death of Jesus accomplished something wonderful. When we try to put it into words, we struggle. But while we might believe different things about how it ‘worked’, we all believe that the death of Jesus on the cross was the moment at which God showed his highest and most costly love for the human race. As Paul says, ‘Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful’ (Romans 5.6, CEV).
So on Good Friday, Christians remember what Jesus did for us and we are deeply thankful.