What’s “Good” About Good Friday
The Rev. Dr. Andrew R. Guffey
April 19, 2019 – Good Friday
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
In the name of the One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + AMEN.
On Sunday I proposed that Holy Week is our opportunity to slow the story down, and to watch. I reached out toward Jesus’s disciples and pondered with you how they must have felt, their great grief, and the love at the bottom of it all. I proposed that “Love is watching someone die.” I only barely hinted at what that means for all of us. In part because we needed to hear about Jesus’s inexhaustible love at Maundy Thursday first.
But now it is time.
It is time to consider the question: What is good about any of this? What is good about Good Friday?
The cross has been the central symbol of Christianity, Jesus’s crucifixion the defining part of our favorite story, from the beginning. On the face of it, this makes no sense. Given what we have felt in the grief of Jesus’s friends, their horror of that day, their wide-eyed terror and numb disbelief as they watched their beloved die, broken and tortured, on the cross. Given all of that, it would seem to make no sense to call Good Friday good. The cross was, after all, not just an instrument of some quick an easy death. It was a torture device.
And that’s all you probably need to know about it. It was a torture device. I don’t think you need me to go into the details. And you don’t need to watch Hollywood depictions. You only need to read the faces of his friends as they watched, drawn and pale at the sight of a butchered loved one. The cross is an instrument of torture and execution, which the Romans—please note that, the Romans, not the Jews—had perfected. And we hang it casually around our necks, plated in gold. Why would we do such a thing? We sing praises to the cross, and later in this service, we have the opportunity to venerate the cross. Why? Is this some sort of morbid joke? Why do we cling to this story? What are we missing?
And here we enter a great mystery together, and I am trying to choose my words well. There is a part of me that wants to sit down and stop talking, to take refuge in silence. Because this mystery is almost too great. But then again, it is also too great NOT to say something. So, I will do my best.
It is a traditional and popular notion that on the cross Jesus saves us from our sins. That our sins accrue in some debit account, and that while we are in the red (which is apparently all of us), we are destined for hell or some such. Jesus dies on the cross, because in his innocence, his merit is so great that it covers all of our debts. We are magically in the black and destined for glory. I don’t like this version. It’s too neat and too external. Jesus didn’t come to save souls but to heal our broken hearts. The cross becomes just one big transaction, and one has to wonder whether it can possibly be the case that the torture and execution of Jesus is the required payment. I don’t think so.
Because that kind of ledger is not all I am guilty of, or all that is broken in the world. I feel more like Peter of Damascus, who said, “I regard myself as unworthy of heaven and earth, and as deserving every punishment, not simply because of the sins I have committed, but much more because of the blessings I have received without my showing any gratitude…. For Thou, Lord, who dost transcend all goodness, hast filled my soul with every blessing. I dimly perceive Thy works and my mind is amazed.”
There is something more in the cross than a transaction. And anyway, what sense would Jesus’s last commandment—that we love one another as he has loved us, to the end—what sort of sense would such a view of the cross make of that?
Neither is it the case that the cross is true because of the violence and gore of Jesus’s execution. It was violent; it was undoubtedly gory. But that’s not the point, either. We do not lift high the cross because of what it was, but because of what God made of it. The cross does not hold power for us because of what it did to Jesus, but because of what Jesus did to it. We do not venerate the cross because it wrecked Christ, but because Christ wrecked it, reforged it, made it a sign of its opposite.
Christians have always heard the message of the cross in Isaiah’s prophecy:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
But the key here is not the affliction, but its effect: by his bruises, we are healed.
Dame Julian of Norwich is well known for the words she heard in a vision: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” But these words came to her as she was meditating on her vision of Christ’s passion! They are not blithe and cheery. They are not simply a rose-colored optimism. Jesus says, “It is so, that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” As Julian says, there is a tenderness in this, there is no blame. The forgiving of sin is only the beginning of the Cross’s power. We venerate the cross because through it, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” Jesus’s death broke something in the foundations. The sun was blackened, the temple curtain torn. Behold, I am doing a new thing, says our God, do you not perceive it?
In her vision, considering Jesus’s passion, Julian asks about her current sufferings and those of the Church. Jesus says: “I shall make of this a great thing in heaven—a thing of everlasting worth and endless joy.” “He wants us to know,” Julian says, “that all this will be changed into glory and profit through his passion; to know, moreover, that we do not suffer on our own, but with him; to see in him the ground of our being; to recognize that his suffering and self-abnegation so far surpasses anything we might experience that we shall never wholly understand it.” And maybe now we can begin to see what makes Good Friday good.
Good Friday is good because we know something the first disciples did not yet know: the story isn’t over; it’s just beginning. From the Cross Jesus says, “It is finished,” because without that ending there can be no new start. The old story is done. The new one is just opening. For freedom Christ has freed us, Paul says. For freedom from our sins, yes, but also from our hard hearts, from our pettiness and carelessness—our indifference. Our grief is good because it draws us to the cross: we cannot be indifferent here! But Jesus hangs that grief, with our sin, with our broken hearts, with our stubborn wills on the cross. On the cross Christ frees us not just from these things, but more importantly for new life. In Christ’s compassion, we are set free for compassion. And that is good.
But there’s still more. The most important thing to say. He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief. Acquainted with your grief and with mine. The drama that is playing out before us is not just the wiping away of sin; it is the undoing of death. The undoing of despair and degradation. The undoing of everything that keeps us from our God.
Good Friday is good because God entered our frail flesh, shared our human pains, and knows them intimately. Good Friday is good because God knows your hurting heart. Good Friday is good because by entering into suffering and death, God could break it. Good Friday is good because there is now no night too dark, no pain to sharp, no despair too thick, no step too far, no grave too deep, that God’s love cannot find you. In fact, God’s love is waiting for you there. The compassion of Christ is waiting for you in the Cross. Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end, and meets them, loves them, embraces them in his own death, that holding them fast, they might yet rise with him.
 Revelations of Divine Love, chs. 27-28.