Passion play close-up

When I was a child, at Easter time I often used to wonder, Why is Good Friday called “good”? How can a day that is remembered for an act of injustice ending in bloody, violent death be known as “good”?

Many have answered that Good Friday is good because it was necessary to our salvation: without Good Friday, there is no Easter Sunday. While that is a fine and true answer, I’d like to offer a different one. But to get to my answer, I need to first ask a different question: What is God like? It’s a question that has occupied minds both humble and great through the ages. And we mainly try to answer it in two ways: from our understanding and from our experience.

As children, our understanding is shaped by imagination. We might picture God as a benevolent old man with a white beard seated among the clouds, doling out sweets to those he favours. As our critical thinking skills develop, our conception of God may be shaped by philosophical or theological considerations: perhaps we see God as an impersonal, existential force who is really no more than a philosophical construct; or maybe we see Him primarily as a mechanism for ensuring that the scales of justice are ultimately balanced, that there is finally always an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, if not in this life then in the next.

As we grow older, understanding intersects with life lived, and our view of God is increasingly shaped by our experience. This can be a double-edged sword. If we have been blessed to have loving parents and a relatively trouble-free life, we may have no problem seeing God as a loving father who is pleased to give good gifts to His children, even when they err. On the other hand, if we’ve known what it is to be abused or rejected by those we trusted, be they family members, close friends, or anyone else we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable to… well, perhaps then we may find it hard not to see God as capricious at best, if not downright unpredictable, angry and uncaring.

Of course, there are as many ways in which we might imagine God to be as there are shades of individual understanding and experience. There is also the Bible, which anyone earnestly seeking to know what God is like must surely turn to. But even when we turn to scripture, if we are not careful we may come away with a confused picture. In the New Testament, the divine nature is summed up in the beautiful simplicity of three words: “God is love”. Yet flipping back through the pages and the centuries, we also appear to find a God who visits destruction on his enemies, favours some and condemns others for reasons that seem hazy to us, and is much more concerned with justice as an abstract concept defined according to His own whim than He is with appearing to be the embodiment of love. Throw these depictions of God into the mix alongside our own understanding and experience, and where does that leave us? It might leave us feeling that any possibility of arriving at a clear, consistent and tenable answer to the question “What is God like?” is no more than a distant dream.

Thankfully, there is another way to answer the question of what God is like. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”. In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Watch him have compassion on those who are lost, hear him teach about a kingdom that is radically different from our very best efforts to build a free and fair society, and see him heal the sick and raise the dead.

But if you really want to know what God is like, you must observe Jesus as he fulfils the very purpose of what he came to do. Watch him on that Friday two thousand years ago, as he stands silent while his accusers charge him with blasphemy; see the flesh torn from his back by the cruel lash; witness him mocked, spat upon and forced by callous soldiers to wear a crown of thorns; see him stagger and fall under the crushing weight of a Roman cross; hear him cry out in pain as the crucifixioner’s hammer falls; behold him hanging there, “King of the Jews”, bloodied, beaten, despised and rejected of men. Some king.

But listen, too, listen carefully and you might hear a prayer fall from his cracked and broken lips even as his executioners go busily about their ghastly work: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Later, suspended there between earth and heaven, his body wracked with pain at every ragged breath, hear him promise paradise to a worthless thief. And as the sky darkens and his life ebbs away, hear him whisper “It is finished”.

In their song “What kind of love is this”, writers Bryn and Sally Hayworth put it like this:

What kind of man is this
Who died in agony?
He who had done no wrong
Was crucified for me
What kind of man is this
Who laid aside His throne
That I might know the love of God
What kind of man is this?

This is the kind of man who finally answers the question, “What is God like?” Who shows that “God is love” is not merely abstract philosophy or sentimentality. Who demonstrates that God is a God who willingly lays down His own life, a God who is prepared to literally go to hell and back to save His wayward and rebellious children. A God who not only weeps with those who weep and mourns with those who mourn, but who dies with those held in the clutches of sin and death. And He does all this not to satisfy His divine sense of justice or to get His creation project back on track; He does it because, quite simply, He is Love. That is what God is like.

And so, finally, we return to the question we started with: Why is Good Friday called “good”? And I offer my answer: Good Friday is good because it settled, once and for all and beyond any shadow of doubt, the question, “What is God like?” And the answer is better than we ever imagined.

[ Image: Richard Vignola ]