By Susan Brooks Thislethwaite, Friday, April 22, 2011
The word “good” in “Good Friday” is actually an older way of saying “pious” or “holy.” In the Christian tradition, this is a holy day that marks the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth by the Romans on Friday, April 3, in the year 33 C.E., by contemporary calculations.
The crucifixion is an historical fact, but it is also holds deep religious meaning for Christians. It raises the profound question of the meaning of human suffering in light of the belief in the goodness of God. And the suffering of Jesus in being crucified was horrifying. The Romans, perhaps one of the most vicious and tyrannical regimes in human history, knew the value of causing prolonged public pain to keep occupied people subjugated.
The historian Josephus (b. 37 C.E.), in his “Antiquities,” describes the practice of crucifixion by the Romans at some length, and he mentions the crucifixion of Jesus almost in passing in Chapter 3. Josephus as well as other historical sources document the use of crucifixion by the Romans, as well as others, as a form of torture leading to execution. It could take hours or days for someone crucified to die. The point was not merely to kill someone, but to extend the agony in a public way.
What could be holy about this? Christianity has interpreted the sufferings of Jesus in many ways. The role of the crucifixion is central to what is called the “atonement,” the doctrine that discusses how human beings can be reunited with God, overcome the estrangement from God caused by sin, and be restored to relationship, i.e. “at-one-ment,” with God. All Christian theologies of the atonement stem from the fact of the crucifixion. Jesus underwent this horrific death. Why?
A common view is that Jesus had to suffer the great pain of beating, scourging and crucifixion, and die a horrible death, in order to pay for the sins of humanity. Sometimes this payment is considered a “ransom” paid to the devil, sometimes as an innocent substitute paying for someone else’s crime, and sometimes as the moral example of sacrificing for others.
The problem is that suffering, in these views of the atonement, becomes an end in itself. Even the moral theory of the atonement, the model of self-sacrifice of Jesus, has been used through human history to justify suffering in the name of religion. This becomes even more extreme in the classical theories of the atonement, the so-called “penal” or “ransom” theories. As I wrote about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, in a chapter called “Mel Makes a War Movie,” the extreme focus on the violence of the crucifixion in the movie, to the almost complete exclusion of Jesus life and teaching, skews the Christian narrative toward an unhealthy focus on humanity’s overwhelming guilt for Jesus’ death. This leads to religious, cultural and political justifications of suffering for its own sake.
But despite these issues, there is a crucial truth about Good Friday that must be recognized. There is tremendous suffering in human life. That’s real.
What I think is holy about Good Friday is that as Christians we stop and remember the victims. Innocent human beings, and even the not-so-innocent, are routinely tortured and killed by the cruel and the unjust. I do not believe that God authorizes this suffering, but is God-with-us in the fact of suffering and death. I believe that really was God on that cross.
Too many Christians want to just skip over Good Friday services and get on to the celebrations of Easter. Compare the attendance at Good Friday services to Easter Sunday morning.
But Easter isn’t about hats, bunnies, eggs and hallelujah. It’s about the astonishing contradictions of the human condition. Unless you go to the depths of despair caused by the reality of human suffering on Good Friday, you won’t know the holy surprise of hope that is the reality of resurrection on Easter morning.