Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday in Holy Week: Good Friday

The Annunciation by Gloria Ssali

Why on earth do Christians call a day on which Jesus was brutally tortured and executed by the Roman Empire "good"?

It's complicated.

At 9:00 in the morning on the day before the Sabbath, so the gospel of Mark tells us, Jesus was nailed to a cross- probably a crossbeam, actually, which was then attached to/ suspended from a more permanent pole.

Crucifixion was the preferred form of capital punishment for those the Roman Empire deemed especially dangerous criminals. Though some of our translations speak of those crucified alongside Jesus as "bandits," the truth is, they wouldn't have been crucified for simple theft. They must have been, like Jesus, considered insurrectionists, or worse. They must have done something the state was convinced was a crime against its security.

One of the advantages to crucifixion, for Rome, was the fact that it was so horrifying. Jesus was one of the lucky ones, dying within a matter of hours. Many lingered for days. It was the custom to leave the body on the cross after death, so that birds could eat away the flesh. No burial for those crucified-- not normally, anyway. Jesus seems to have been an exception. The advantage was, the punishment was a deterrent to those who looked upon the executed. The roads into Rome were lined with crosses. The message was clear: Threaten the empire, and this will be your fate. Make no mistake: the crucifixion was a political act.

So far I'm not making much of a case for calling the day "good."

This year Good Friday falls on the day many scholars believe was the actual date of Jesus' crucifixion.  It also happens to be the date much of the church marks the Feast of the Annunciation, the occasion when the angel announced to Mary that she was to be a mother (and, if the gospel of Luke tells it true, gained Mary's consent).

According to some scholars, this is not a coincidence.

It is commonly thought that we do not know the date of Jesus' actual birth, but that December 25 was chosen to coincide with the Roman feast of Sol Invictus (the Unvanquished Sun), a celebration whose name  dovetails neatly with certain theological language often used about Jesus. However, the earliest writings addressing the date of Jesus' birth connect it, not to the Roman holiday, but to the date of the crucifixion. The logic goes, the date of the crucifixion is the date of salvation of humankind by God's gracious self-emptying, in Jesus. But salvation can also be dated to the conception of Jesus in his mother's womb. It stood to reason, to the early church, that the date of salvation was the same in any case-- Jesus' crucifixion must have taken place on the same date as his conception. This is how December 25 was arrived at, as the date of Jesus' birth.

We call this day "good," because it is the date on which God's love for humanity was demonstrated by Jesus' death on the cross. God so loved the world that God came in Jesus, to live as we live, and to suffer the worst of what human sin had to offer. God did not and does not leave us alone and unloved, but goes through it with us, and for us.

It just so happens that this year Good Friday falls on March 25, and we have double the reason to call it "good."

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