Sorrow to the Point of Death
While urging his disciples to stay and keep watch with him, Jesus tells them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Can any of us imagine this? Jesus understood the full extent of what was going to happen to him (John 18:4), and he went to it obediently.
Today—on a day we call Good Friday—we remember the agony experienced by Jesus not only through his death on the cross, but also through the spiritual suffering he endured before that. This is a very dark day. During which Jesus’ disciples fell away from him in sleep and betrayal while he prayed alone until he was arrested and taken to be abhorred and crucified by those he came to save.
So, it’s a valid question: Why do we call Good Friday good?
He Took the Cup
One of the most powerful prayers in Scripture is the one Jesus prayed in Gethsemane on this day: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). This cup is the symbol of God’s righteous wrath; a container for the sin of the world, from which Jesus drank so that we would not have to. This cup that represented the full and unmitigated fury of his Father. That had been filling to the brim since the inception of human sin in that other, older Garden. This is the cup that Jesus presents to his Father, knowing that he’s about to have it emptied it upon himself instead, praying, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
This is the prayer upon which the world balanced on the day we’ve dubbed Good Friday. From the words of three of the four Gospel accounts, it’s possible to picture Jesus there, fallen on the ground (Mark 14:35), his sweat like blood on his brow (Luke 22:44) while his closest followers slept through the hour only a stone’s throw away (Luke 22:41). It’s as if everything pauses here for this agonizing moment. Judas and his mob are still on their way. Pilate is perhaps standing in some courtyard, washing his hands. Herod slouches gloomily on his throne. And Jesus is kneeling in a garden revoking the irrevocable, already at work undermining death.
The simplest answer is that we call it Good Friday because Jesus, in accepting the cup, saved us from death. But it could as easily be called Bad Friday because of what had to happen to our Savior before the joy of resurrection could occur. The disciples—once Jesus had roused them—would, I’m sure, not have considered it good until later when their eyes were open to understanding.
Certain sources suggest that we call it Good for lack of anything more specific to call it. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word might simply designate a day “observed as holy.” Other sources suggest it may be a corruption of the word “God” (as in, God’s Friday). Certainly, “good” is a bland word, hardly functional as an evocative adjective, even in everyday circumstances. Yet it strikes me as a sleeper’s word, appropriate to the easily-straying, muddle-minded flock for whom Christ had such astounding compassion.
Good Friday. When we consider Jesus’ words in Gethsemane and later, during his trial and on the cross itself, we realize that all other words become basically meaningless in comparison. What does it matter what we call it as long as we do not forget that it happened? As long as we realize—even with our knowledge of the full picture as described to us by the Gospels—that we are still sleepy, despite having been saved. As long as we strive to rouse ourselves to his love and to the fact of his taking the cup, which we ourselves could not have survived.
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