Friday, 3 April 2015

What's good about Good Friday?

This post is on the theme we’re often scared to discuss: religion. So if you object to religion, stop reading now. However, if you can bear with me, you might just come to see that being religious doesn’t mean you’re opinionated, self-righteous, and in-your-face, or that you necessarily have to believe in implausible miracles.

I don't often write about religion on my blog, and I certainly don’t wish to bore people who are not interested, but if I can’t write about religion at the most important times of the Christian year, when can I? It is very sad that it seems to be becoming embarrassing to call yourself a Christian: a gay clergyman friend of mine recently told me that he now finds it harder to tell people he is a Christian than to tell them that he is gay. I rejoice with him that we live in a society that now overwhelmingly accepts peoples’ sexuality as no big deal and certainly no reason for hostility and prejudice, but there is something wrong if peoples’ religion has become an object of embarrassment and even hostility. It doesn't help when Christians make fools of themselves by being over-sensitive about their faith, as happened last week with the storm-in-an-egg-cup about the National Trust's supposed dropping of the word "Easter" from their Cadbury's-sponsored Egg Hunt. Those, including the Prime Minister, who professed such outrage should have looked at the relevant websites before making public statements, as the reality was that both websites made plenty of references to Easter.

As a Unitarian Christian, the whole business of Jesus’s death and resurrection is complicated for me. Many people now pay little attention to the traditional meaning of Good Friday and Easter, yet nobody can deny that the events of what we call Holy Week are as significant as any in the history of mankind. The fact that many of us are on holiday from work, that we are eating hot cross buns today and chocolate eggs on Sunday is a direct consequence of our commemoration of those events 2000 years ago.

If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, the events of Holy Week and Easter are pretty hard to deal with. The day on which the hero of our belief system was cruelly and violently put to death by a tyrannical occupying power is called, in English at least, “Good”. As if that’s not bad enough, Christians are then supposed to believe that he did it “for their sake” and that he then rose from the dead, thereby defying the one certainty in life: death. According to many, that’s what’s “good” about Good Friday – the idea that Jesus “died to make us good”, to quote C F Alexander’s wonderful hymn, “There is a Green Hill far Away”.

Actually, calling it “Good” is a largely English-speaking oddity. Most other languages have a different term, most commonly some variant on the word “Holy” – in French, for example, it is “Vendredi Saint”. Of the major European languages, only Dutch – which is the living language closest to English in many ways – uses the term “good”: “Goede Vrijdag”. I actually think the German term is pretty apt in terms of telling us what happened: Karfreitag – which means Sorrowful or Suffering Friday.

Whatever you call it, it wasn’t a very good day for Jesus and his followers. They would have taken some convincing, at the end of that terrible day, that what he went through was in any way good. I too struggle to see what’s good about the cruel and horrible death of a patently good man.

As a Unitarian, I certainly don’t accept the idea that we are all inherently sinful and need someone to suffer and die in order to save us. I believe that we human beings are all capable of the most terrible sins, but that’s not the same thing as being sinful, and I certainly believe that our salvation lies in our own hands, not those of an innocent man. So in that sense, there is nothing good about Good Friday for me.

However, I have an aversion to well-meaning attempts to manipulate language to make it match literal truths. After all, Easter is a term derived from the name of a pagan goddess of Spring and fertility, so at one level I’m happy to accept Good Friday as “just a name” for an important day.

Yet the explanation that today is a good day because it recognises the good thing that Jesus did for us is not necessarily the correct explanation for the name of the day. Another very plausible explanation comes from the fact that the words “good” and “God” are often interchangeable in the English language. We need look no further than the word “goodbye”, which means “God with you” (God-by-ye) for proof of that. So if we accept this explanation for the term, “God Friday” is perhaps a little easier to accept.

I certainly prefer this explanation: to call it God’s day is much easier for me to accept, in that my own interpretation of God is that it simply means “good”. My concept of God is not as an omnipotent father-figure and creator who ordains all that is, was and shall be, but rather that “God” means all that is good in the world. After all, it is commonly observed that there is only one letter of difference between God and good, and also only one letter of difference between devil and evil. Etymologists rightly point out that this is probably just a neat coincidence, but it certainly suits me to believe that “God” can simply mean all that is good in the world, while “devil” can simply mean all that is bad in the world.

Jesus’s death, and especially the manner in which he was condemned by a fickle and baying mob, was surely the work of the devil – of evil. No different from many other acts of betrayal and violence throughout history. But it is my view that wherever there is evil, good is never far away, and good always has the last word. Time and again, when something dreadful happens in our world, we are left to despair of humankind’s capacity for evil. Yet invariably, and especially if we look for it, there is a response which is good, although you often have to look harder for it, because the media prefer bad news to good news. There are so many examples, but one that always sticks in my mind is the way in which the family of 12-year-old Tim Parry, the boy killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993, used his death and that of 3-year-old Johnathan Ball in the same incident as a catalyst to set up a peace foundation, contributing in no small measure to the eventual end of the IRA bombing campaign and the start of the Ulster peace process. I could quote numerous other stories from throughout history to make the same point. Good – or God – had the last word.

So instead of despairing when something dreadful happens in our world, and bemoaning the absence of God at such times, perhaps we should look for the good – the God – which is always there to respond, to comfort and to heal. And in that respect, Good Friday is aptly named, in that it however hard it must have been to believe it at the time, God (or good) was not far away. Good Friday comes just two days before we remember that even if the physical Jesus was put to death, his spirit, his values and his example of how to live a good life continued to shine in an at times dark and evil world, and still do so to this day.


This Friday is indeed good.

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