Today is one Good Friday on which a considerable number of people in our nation - perhaps even in our world - will have a detailed and vivid idea of what Christians on this day have commemorated for many centuries.
Mel Gibson's film, "The Passion of the Christ," leaves little to a viewer's imagination, and it has been so widely viewed and so frequently discussed that much of our population will know Good Friday focuses on the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth. I feel certain that Gibson was being quite intentional in choosing the season of Lent to open his film to the eyes and ears of the American public.
I suspect, however, that many who agonized through the events portrayed so vividly in "The Passion" will not understand why in the world Christians have called this day good. When one of the members of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, was interviewed on National Public Radio recently, he was asked what he thought of Gibson's film. The interviewer explained to the radio public that members of the Jesus Seminar attempt to understand Jesus through the eyes of secular history, though many of them are ordained clergy.
Crossan, who once was a Roman Catholic priest, paused for a moment before he answered. He went on to explain that for the Romans in Jesus' day - and especially for the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate - the purpose of crucifying a person was to make that person suffer so miserably that it would serve as an incentive to the wider public to obey the Roman government.
Crossan then said that he found the movie horrifying. He remarked that Gibson provided so little explanation for Jesus' crucifixion - outside of the opening scene with the tempter, a quick glimpse of the resurrected Jesus at the end, and occasional, brief flashbacks - that the ordinary movie-going public would also find the movie horrifying.
Why then do some people call today Good Friday? Today, when so many people expect instant gratification, continued good health and comfort and convenience whenever possible, how can suffering be considered good?
Even those of us who have been professionally trained in religious thought often find ourselves embarrassingly mute at the moment those answers are most needed. We often can do no more than to ease the suffering of others by silently sharing their suffering with them.
The author of the New Testament letter to the Hebrews makes a valiant attempt to answer the question of why Jesus was willing to suffer as he did. He is emphatic about the fact that "God had the power to save Jesus from death." He also was convinced that "while Jesus was on earth, he begged God with loud crying and tears to save him" and that Jesus "truly worshiped God, and God listened to his prayers" (5:7 CEV).
For the writer of Hebrews, the reason is stated like this: "Jesus is God's own Son, but still he had to suffer before he could learn what it really means to obey God. Suffering made Jesus perfect, and now he can save forever all who obey him. This is because God chose him to be a high priest" (5:8-10).
I take this to mean that Jesus was human enough that he needed the passion to establish in his own life, in an unmistakable way, the priorities of his heavenly Father. Jesus' suffering also served to clarify, for all who really want to know, the extent to which both Father and Son are willing to go in order to bring us back into fellowship with God.
The first letter of Peter claims Jesus has shared the role of priest with each of his believers, for he writes "you are also a group of holy priests, and with the help of Jesus Christ you will offer sacrifices that please God" (2:5 CEV). If that's true, then Christian suffering might also be good for us, if it serves both to bring us into obedience to God and others into a saving relationship with him. And the price we must pay makes the whole matter sort of a "good news / bad news" proposition.
So today might also be referred to as Good Friday / Bad Friday.
Doug Rich is the pastor of Pioneer
Presbyterian Church on Clatsop Plains in Warrenton.