This weekend we celebrate Palm Sunday and the gospel reading at Mass is the Passion of our Lord, where all the events of the Last Supper and Good Friday are read.
As a child, the Passion gospel had a profound effect on me. I can remember standing in church, a 12-year-old budding theologian, listening as the central drama in all of human history was described, and prayerfully and reverently thinking to myself: “Is this thing ever gonna end?! Fer cryin’ out loud, that guy’s been talking for 25 minutes!”
Alas, when you’re 12 years old and used to three minute Scripture readings, a 25 minute gospel seems like 25 hours.
But at least after going to Palm Sunday Masses year after year as a kid, I knew the story. I knew what happened at the Last Supper, and in the garden of Gethsemane, and before the Sanhedrin, and in Pilate’s courtyard, and at Calvary. I may not have been paying close attention all those years—and I certainly wasn’t happy to be there—but the story sank in.
Later, as an adult, when my atheistic belief system was proving itself to be thoroughly bankrupt—intellectually, emotionally, morally, physically, and spiritually—I was ready to take another look at the claims of Christ. Thankfully, I didn’t have to learn it from scratch. I already knew many of the details. I could concentrate on why it happened, not on what happened.
Which brings me to my second childhood memory of the Palm Sunday Passion gospel (besides its unusual length). I could never for the life of me figure out why they called the day Christ died “Good” Friday.
You take an innocent man who’s been preaching about love and forgiveness. You arrest Him in the middle of the night and drag Him before a vengeful assembly, which ignores all the evidence and sentences Him to death. You beat the snot out of Him and rip open His back with a metal-studded whip. You strip Him naked, impale Him on a pole with spikes, and hang Him up in the air so a crowd can jeer and insult Him as His life slowly and painfully ebbs away.
Yeah, sounds like the perfect description of “good” to me. What could we do to make it “great”? Maybe some bamboo shoots under the fingernails, or some red ants and molasses? Sheesh.
Using the word “good” to label the day an innocent man was tortured and killed always seemed to me to be the most inappropriate use of language in history—even worse than the countless bald-faced lies we’re hearing from presidential candidates.
The key to Good Friday is understanding that it was not good on that day. It was bad, real bad. It did not become Good Friday until after the fact. Good Friday was Awful Friday for two days…and then Sunday came.
On Sunday morning we got, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story. God’s full plan was finally revealed. Jesus’ death was not an unfortunate and tragic accident. It was part of the plan. His death was the atoning sacrifice for all of mankind’s sins.
And on Sunday morning the second half of the plan was completed. Jesus conquered death once and for all—and He promised us that if we put our faith in Him we can do the same. The Resurrection transformed Awful Friday from a defeat into a victory.
Now if Jesus did not really rise from the dead, as many “sophisticated” people claim today (“Why do you insist on taking metaphor and symbolism so literally?” progressive Christians ask with exasperation), then Jesus’ death on Friday was not a victory. It was a dreadful defeat; it was evil triumphing over good.
St. Paul said as much in is first epistle to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins….If only for this life do we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:17,19).
Without the Resurrection, the term Good Friday is the ultimate oxymoron. The Sunday morning rising from the dead is absolutely necessary for anything useful to come out of the events of Friday.
Only through the lens of the Resurrection can we see that Good Friday was indeed good. Yeah, it was gruesome and painful and unfair. But it was necessary. Just as cancer surgery can be described as gruesome and painful and unfair—while at the same time being necessary to defeat death—so too was the crucifixion of Jesus.
If Jesus did not die on the cross, the cancer of sin would still be eating away at us unchecked. If Jesus did not die on the cross, He would not have been able to defeat death—and neither would we.
And in the grand scheme of things, eternal life with Jesus in Heaven is as good as it gets.