Christian History Home > 2003 > The Goodness of Good Friday
LENT & HOLY WEEK
The Goodness of Good Friday
An unhappy celebration—isn't that an oxymoron?
What a supreme paradox. We now call the day Jesus was crucified, Good.
Many believe this name simply evolved—as language does. They point to the earlier designation, "God's Friday," as its root. (This seems a reasonable conjecture, given that "goodbye" evolved from "God be with you.")
Whatever its origin, the current name of this holy day offers a fitting lesson to those of us who assume (as is easy to do) that "good" must mean "happy." We find it hard to imagine a day marked by sadness as a good day.
Of course, the church has always understood that the day commemorated on Good Friday was anything but happy. Sadness, mourning, fasting, and prayer have been its focus since the early centuries of the church. A fourth-century church manual, the Apostolic Constitutions, called Good Friday a "day of mourning, not a day of festive Joy." Ambrose, the fourth-century archbishop who befriended the notorious sinner Augustine of Hippo before his conversion, called it the "day of bitterness on which we fast."
Many Christians have historically kept their churches unlit or draped in dark cloths. Processions of penitents have walked in black robes or carried black-robed statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. And worshippers have walked the "Stations of the Cross," praying and singing their way past 14 images representing Jesus' steps along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha.
Yet, despite—indeed because of—its sadness, Good Friday is truly good. Its sorrow is a godly sorrow. It is like the sadness of the Corinthians who wept over the sharp letter from their dear teacher, Paul, convicted of the sin in their midst. Hearing of their distress, Paul said, "My joy was greater than ever." Why? Because such godly sorrow "brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (2 Cor. 7:10).
I like to think the linguistic accident that made "God's Friday" into "Good Friday" was no accident at all. It was God's own doing—a sharp, prophetic jab at a time and a culture obsessed by happiness. In the midst of consumerism's Western playground, Good Friday calls to a jarring hcaption the sacred "pursuit of happiness." The cross reveals this pursuit for what it is: a secondary thing.
This commemoration of Christ's death reminds us of the human sin that caused this death. And we see again that salvation comes only through godly sorrow—both God's and, in repentance, ours. To pursue happiness, we must first experience sorrow. He who goes forth sowing tears returns in joy.
At the same time, of course, Good Friday recalls for us the greatness and wonder of God's love—that He should submit to death for us.
No wonder, in parts of Europe, the day is called not "Good," but "Great" or "Holy" Friday.
Today, Christian liturgies reflect the gravity of Christ's act. Services linger on the details of Christ's death and the extent of His sacrifice. Often the Stabat Mater is performed—a thirteenth-century devotional poem remembering Mary's vigil by the cross. The poem begins "Stabat Mater Dolorosa"—that is, "a grief-stricken mother was standing."
To commemorate the Lord's hours on the cross, many Protestants hold their Good Friday services between noon and 3. They reflect, in a series of readings and songs, on Christ's seven last words. (1: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." 2: "Today shcaption thou be with me in paradise." 3: "Woman, behold thy son!" 4: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" 5: "I thirst." 6: "It is finished." 7: "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.") This form originated with seventeenth-century Peruvian Jesuits, one of many cases in which modern Protestants have picked up Catholic devotional practices.
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