Hurrying on our way to the perfect happiness of Easter Sunday, Christians come to a sharp stop on Good Friday. It’s an odd name for the day in which we remember in vivid detail the torture and death of an innocent man.
Reading the gospel accounts in church or watching re-enactments of the terrible anguish of Jesus we are saddened and horrified—not only for Him but for us. We recognize it all too well, this suffering of an innocent at the hands of the ugly and ungovernable passions of his fellow men. It’s been done in some form to us, or to someone we love. Or just as bad, we remember and are stung with remorse for some cruel and selfish action, the one we wish we could erase from our memory, the one we can never put right.
So why in the world do we call it Good?
To understand it is necessary to contemplate a central mystery of Christianity: Christ died for us, to cancel out our sins, and by his dying and coming back to life he defeated death itself. Or to put it another way: Jesus takes on our misery, all the agonies we inflict on each other in our egotism and dysfunction, all the debts we have incurred in our unjust dealings with our brothers and sisters, and bears them all for us. He performs the ultimate act of repentance on behalf of a humanity that has too much to repent of—the gulags and the killing fields, enslavements and tortures, even our individual acts of cowardice and pettiness.
By his willfully taking on the consequences of every human failing he finds himself deserted, abused, humiliated and powerless on the cross. “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Then he shows us how to break the cycle of returning hate for hate: by returning love and mercy instead. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In the faithful remembering and reliving of that crucial day we are dazed and humbled by his goodness and generosity, and called to imitate it.
Cancelling our sins is not a cheap gift. It’s not simply an offer to take the load off our shoulders so that we can go on being proud, dishonest, and intemperate. We are meant to follow his example, so that we can also break that cycle each day and create peace where we are inclined to retaliate in anger. It is the definitive and only way out of the web of dysfunction that all of us, to some extent, are caught up in. This example self-sacrifice and forgiveness is the road to peace both inside us, for it liberates us from bitterness, as well as among us, for it breaks the cycle of hate. As Mahatma Gandhi famously said: “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.”
So we stop on the way to the glory of Easter and remain a while at the foot of the cross – the instrument through which goodness was restored to the world. And although we are confronted there with the unspeakable results of human wickedness, we are also given the key to their defeat. We are liberated, inexplicably, from the weight of our past failings, and pointed into a brighter and better future – in which we can freely follow His example of perfect love.