To call today “good” might be among the strangest things that Christians do, because it’s just the opposite.
Not all Christians call today Good Friday.
In many parts of Europe, today is known as Holy Friday.
In Denmark, it’s Long Friday, which is apparently also what the Anglo-Saxons also called it .
In Greek liturgies it is “the Holy and Great Friday.”
Exactly how the English-speaking world came to call it “Good” is not known.
But it does name something important about today, because while being a Christian on Good Friday can certainly be both “long” and “holy,” it is more than that.
Calling it good challenges us to see some of God’s redemptive purpose at work, even from within the terrible injustice and sadness and violence of everything that today asks us to remember.
The particular challenge for us is to hold the gory details in tension with this call to understand its goodness, and not just to breeze through what happens because it all turns out all right, or to dismiss the larger meaning as merely sentimental or wishful thinking before the reality of life’s pain.
It’s a day that asks a lot of us.
As the Gospels make clear, Good Friday is an elaborate performance of the world at its murderous worst, and its betrayals are many.
The disciples are spineless and scared, but far from villainous.
The story also tells us about those strange bedfellows, the Roman Governor and the Temple leadership, who manage to find common cause only long enough to get Jesus killed and then seem poised to become quick enemies again.
The crowd, some of whom had likely cheered Jesus when he had arrived on Palm Sunday, now cheer wildly as the Romans nail him to the cross, perhaps craving the immediate outlet of violence more than the definitive resolution of justice.
By contrast, the Roman soldiers themselves are relatively compassionate, charged with attending to the mechanics of death, but able at their own discretion to see that it happens quickly, which they do.
At the foot of the cross, it appears that putting someone out of their misery is what mercy has been reduced to.
The whole day would appear quite differently in the light of Easter, when it would be clearer that much more was happening than had appeared from on the ground at Golgotha, the place of the skull.
Much later, the Church would come to claim it was nothing less than the death of Death itself that happened on the cross.
It was the end of brokenness and betrayal and sin as the bottom line or final word about human destiny.
Why that required the death of God’s son is complicated, and the answers offered by some of the Church’s top people over the last two thousand years can still seem more technical than comforting.
Maybe the best we can say is that on this day when everything good in people and everything good about the world seemed clearly so absent, God was nevertheless present.
Something supremely redemptive was also there, taking hold in the world even as Jesus commended his spirit into the hands of God and breathed his last.
So we call it “Good Friday,” not because the events of the day are supposed to be good, but because God is good, which it is the church’s vocation to remember, and because Jesus is alive, not only in his own redemption, but in ours.
It’s good when a person gives up addiction and decides to live.
It’s good when families and communities and nations add up the astronomical costs of division and decide to work for peace.
It’s good when someone who has lived under lies and self-delusion decides to reach for truth.
Whenever someone leaves the certainty of brokenness and steps into the in-between space of the not yet, it is good—so brave, so hard, so fragile, so hopeful, and so good.
As Christians, we understand Jesus to be active in such moments, leading the world to new life and patiently gathering all Creation to himself.
Today also challenges us to imagine where the world would be if he were not – if today actually had been the end, and the hope he represented had turned out to be in vain, and today was not Good Friday, at all, but just, well, Friday.
Maybe it is only as we come to know God that we can learn how to call today “good” and mean it.
It is in remembering that the one who felt so forsaken in his last moments does not forsake us, and in seeing him at work even now in lives redeemed, trust restored, minds changed, and hearts finally ready to love and be loved.
As he commended his spirit into the Father’s hands, may today teach us to commend our spirits into his, remembering with gratitude that his hands are ever ready to receive us.