A good question! Good Friday, as even non-Christian Americans know, is the day on which Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. It is also the day on which observant Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and perhaps others spend three hours, from noon till 3 pm, in church. In this so-called Tre Ore [Latin for “three hours”] service, they are presented with sermonettes on the last seven words Jesus is said to have uttered from the cross. In some of these services, a classical ensemble—in our congregation this Holy Week, it was a string quartet—intersperses the seven corresponding movements from Josef Hayden’s dramatic Last Seven Words of Christ...
So how can the day on which the Christian Savior is crucified between two criminals in any sense be called good? The Sunday-school answer is that if Jesus had not been killed for preaching love and tolerance in the double domination system of Temple-based religiosity and Roman rule, God could not have raised him from the dead on the third day as a “perfect sacrifice” to atone for the sins of humankind. (Even though God is considered all-powerful, there are evidently limits. For example, the Almighty can’t put two mountains next to each other without creating a valley in between.) This so-called vicarious atonement is at the heart of much Christian doctrine and belief. The New England Primer illustrates the letter A by the verse “In Adam’s Fall we sinnèd all.” St. Paul goes beyond this concept by arguing in Romans 5:18-19: “… Just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (NIV).
The larger principle at work here is the so-called idea of progress, or more broadly, of hope for the future. Bad things happen all the time, and as Rabbi Harold Kushner pointed out in his much-read 1981 book, not just to bad people. Consider the thousands of innocent civilians now being maimed and deprived of life in Ukraine just because the Russian leader wants to fold that country into a revived Greater Russia. Yet in a general sense humanity has grown kinder and more tolerant; people do live longer, healthier lives; literacy and education have spread to more and more people; and the benefits of modern technology, from television and computers to smart phones, have reached an ever-growing fraction of humankind. It seems like paradise must first be lost before elements of Eden can be restored. The German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (d. 1831) sums this situation up as follows: Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis, or in the Miltonic sense, Paradise given – Paradise lost – Paradise regained. And in the Christian context, Jesus is born, Jesus is crucified, Jesus is risen. So, in this time of lingering Covid 19 and a dangerous war of aggression, I wish all of us, Christian and non-Christian alike, a blessed Easter of hope.