The Good in Good Friday

Friday, March 29, 2013 - 8:20 am

The Good in Good Friday

Of all the tales told in the gospels, Good Friday has to be the most perplexing. What’s good, after all, about the day when Jesus is tortured and executed, when his leading disciple perjures himself, when Roman authority gives its power up to the mob?

Hearse for Tenebrae

The 15 candles pictured above in the triangular holder (called a “hearse”) are central to the Tenebrae ceremony. The candles are blown out one by one as selections of readings and psalms are chanted or recited. At the end of the service one candle remains to symbolize the return of Jesus by resurrection. (Photo by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr, cc by-nc 2.0)

My church honors Good Friday with a Tenebrae service that links the Bible story to our contemporary mourning for a wounded world, and to our work for its recovery. The darkness of Friday exists alongside the surety that it will be dispersed on Sunday morning. My own love of Good Friday centers on the apostle who didn’t live to see that dawn.
In Thou Art That, Joseph Campbell describes Judas as “the midwife of salvation.” Using the Gospel of John as his text, Mr. Campbell asks:

“When Christ takes the bread, dips it into the dish, and says, ‘He to whom I hand the sop will betray me,’ is that a prophecy or an assignment? I think it is an assignment.”

From Mr. Campbell’s perspective, Judas is chosen, and chosen because he’s the one who can get the job done.
As always, interpretations break down when we start to compare gospels. The Gospel of Matthew also uses bread and wine to indicate who will betray Jesus, but adds a darker element. Jesus declares, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed!” His declaration is followed by Judas’s heartbreaking, “Master, is it I?”
The most telling moment comes when Judas stands before Jesus in Gethsemane, his work complete. The Gospel of Mark, characteristically terse, has Judas kiss Jesus to indicate who the soldiers should arrest. The Gospel of Luke tells a similar tale, but adds that Jesus responds, “Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” In John, Judas merely stands among the crowd.
It’s Matthew who puts the good in Good Friday. He tells of Judas leading the soldiers to Gethsemane, and even gives him a snippet of dialogue:

“Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.”

And at that kiss, the world shifts, for Jesus replies, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”
Hours earlier, Jesus warned that it would be better that Judas had not been born. Indeed, the man will be vilified for two thousand years and more. But here, in the garden, Jesus calls him friend and asks his purpose, knowing full-well the answer.
I imagine the two men looking into each other’s eyes, understanding the other’s sacrifice as no other being ever will. It’s a moment of forgiveness, accomplishment, and farewell. If we were to pick a line from the New Testament upon which to build a religion, surely this is it: “Friend, wherefore art thou come?”

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is an essayist and award-winning playwright whose work has been commissioned and produced by theaters ranging from the Kennedy Center in his hometown of Washington, D.C. to the Karlin Music Theatre in Prague. His commentary has been published by The Washington Post, broadcast by WAMU-FM, and can be found online at Tin House, OnFaith, Howlround, and others. Read more of his work on his website.

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