For many years, Good Friday was a day of vague confusion for me. As a child and as a Lutheran (the two coincided for me) I felt that it was to be a day of sadness. I was supposed to be sad, think of my sins and how they made Jesus suffer, think of Jesus taking my place in being condemned and rejected even by the Father, see the black liturgical altar drapings at the church service, and watch the movies of Jesus' crucifixion that used to be on TV in those days.
Then I spent a few Good Fridays in the pentecostal world. I remember one service in particular that was like a giant party. Any hint of being sad or somber was pretty much rejected as an expression of not knowing Jesus. It was all rejoicing that Jesus was crucified. (In the fellowship I belonged to, as I recall we didn't observe Good Friday in any particular way at all.)
And then I entered the Catholic world. And for the first time, Good Friday was about fasting. And there was a long, somber service where we all venerated a cross -- one of those uncomfortable, unscripted Catholic moments where we were supposed to freestyle in public. And since I never really had anyone explain to me what was supposed to be going on interiorly during all this, I simply had to pull stuff out of my hodgepodge of past experience. But generally I was so hungry by the evening of Good Friday that the only thought I was capable of was whether Jesus felt as completely incoherent when he was being led to crucifixion as I did from eating nothing all day. So I figured that Good Friday, for Catholics, was about experiencing Jesus' suffering with Him.
What gave Good Friday its vague confusing sense was having deeply conflicting theological ideas rumbling around my head. Yes, it is true that Jesus took our sins to the cross and paid the price for them. No, it is not true that He became so repulsive to the Father as sin that in His wrath the Father turned away from Him. (How do you really get the Trinity to rip apart just for that moment?!) Is the cross primarily a court that changes our legal status with God? Is righteousness imputed to us, Jesus' holiness substituted for our sin? (No.) Or is the cross the mystery of the revelation of God's self-giving love? Did God plan from all eternity to show His love by the second person of the Trinity taking on human flesh and then demonstrating the depth of love that God is from all eternity? Is it that action of God made man that pays in our own flesh the price we could never pay to gain access to union with God by opening up the life of the Holy Spirit to us -- the bond of love? Yes, yes, and yes! Suffering does not save the world. Love saves the world. The reality of love is that, because of sin, it causes suffering.
So, sure, we can rejoice in Jesus' death, but it isn't a fitting nor a human response to just party at the thought of suffering love, even a suffering love that bought us so great a victory. Because the cross isn't just a past legal event that gets us free admission to heaven. It is an invitation to enter the same self-giving love that Jesus demonstrates. It is the meaning of our suffering, of our lives. It is a moment to glory in the faith, the hope and the love which are given those who have put on Christ. Faith and hope are things we need in a world that isn't heaven yet. We still have to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. And the love is the glue. We see Jesus' tremendous love poured out, and this not only fills us and empowers us, but overflows through us. But the sufferings overflow to us, too. It isn't Christian to deny them or try to escape them. It is Christian to have hope that a far exceeding glory is being worked in us. Jesus Himself -- His life -- is being formed in us and lives through us.
So it behooves us to look closely at His passion with more awe than sadness, and with more courage than celebration. Yes, it was the price of our ransom. But it is also the life we live.