Good Friday: holiday or holy day?

Text: Mark 15:21-47 (Jesus’ crucifixion and burial)

Easter is about new life within the heart of God. This is the good news that we proclaim each week in worship and which we try to live out as a church in acts of compassion and justice-seeking.

But Jesus shows us that new life is found through death, even death on a cross. And so I struggle sometimes to understand or preach this good news.

The joy of Easter Sunday morning might come easily to us. But the hard truth of Jesus’ teaching — that we can’t get to Easter morning’s Hallelujahs without the pain of Good Friday — might give us pause.

The difficulty can be seen in our numbers today. The crowds that gather on Good Friday are always smaller than those of Easter Sunday.

Good Friday reminds us of what we are up against. Jesus teaches that there is no resurrection without death and so he calls on us to take up our own cross. But as we know, death often involves pain and agony.

Last Sunday’s Palm/Passion service included the reading about the crucifixion which we just heard. At lunch afterwards, my sister said she was struck by how long the crucifixion took — from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon.

The six hours of agony suffered by Jesus can be hard for us to contemplate. Hearing Mark’s account of Jesus’ death might raise fears of our own death. Will we die peacefully in our sleep as most of us hope, or will we linger in pain, confusion and distress for months or even years? These are uncomfortable thoughts, of course. But on Good Friday, such fears may flood into our hearts.

At the political level, Good Friday reminds us of how difficult it is to overcome oppression and injustice. In his ministry, Jesus stands up to the Romans and the religious leaders who collaborate with them. But in turn, these elites plot against Jesus, arrest him, and execute him on a cross.

Jesus calls us to live with courage and hope despite our fragility and mortality and to serve our neighbours with compassion. But the cross reminds us of the powerful forces that stand against the world we want. We may value solidarity, equality, and love, but the rulers of the world do not. Like the Romans long ago, today’s rulers will often stop at nothing to maintain inequality and injustice. Good Friday can remind us of this tough truth.

Happily, I believe that the joy and love we find in Holy Week and Easter is not just about resurrection. The death symbolized by Good Friday is also about the gracious death of our illusions, distractions, and addictions.

Religion provides us with an illustration. Sincere followers of God often stumble, as with the religious elite of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus who believed that collaborating with Rome was a faithful choice. The Bible is filled with other examples – kings of Israel who oppress the poor, and early churches founded by Paul that are torn apart by petty disputes about food or doctrine.

This makes me wonder about us. What traps have we as a church fallen into? Perhaps Good Friday itself can be an example. In an increasingly secular and intercultural country, I wonder why Good Friday is still a statutory holiday.

Like Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are the products of the imperial church of the Fourth Century. Easter has a much stronger biblical warrant than Christmas, as shown by all the readings we have heard this week from Mark. But just because Good Friday is central to the church, why does this lead the state to shut down commerce and industry each year on this day?

A further complication flows from how Good Friday and Easter jump around on the calendar. The early church tied the dating of Easter to ancient lunar calendars in an attempt to link Easter to the Jewish Passover.

Easter can be as early as March 22 and as late as April 25, which both charms and annoys me. And so in the spirit of death and resurrection, I wonder if it is time for the church to advocate that Good Friday no longer be a statutory holiday; and that we start celebrating Easter on a fixed date — perhaps the third Sunday of every April.

It is not that I have anything against statutory holidays. Far from it! In fact, I am dumbfounded that our governments have yet to create at least one long weekend every month of the year. I also realize that it might seem strange for a minister to suggest on Good Friday that this no longer be a state holiday. But then Good Friday is a day that confronts us with shocking and painful change.

If a campaign to eliminate Good Friday as a holiday ever got off the ground, traditionalists would howl, I am sure. Canada, they would argue, was founded by Christians and should retain its Christian heritage.

It is true that Canada was founded by the Christian empires of France under Louis XIV in the 17th Century and of Britain under King George III in the 18th Century. But were not these empires as violent as the Roman one of Jesus’ day? Surely Canada can jettison some of this heritage given that these Christian kings created Canada through conquest and genocide. I would be happy to celebrate Good Friday on a workday evening if it helped to unlink Canada a bit more from its imperialist past.

And although ancient lunar calendars have their charms, I would also be happy to have a more stable church calendar in exchange for some of this charm.

Good Friday is about the death of Jesus, but it is about much more as well. When Mark writes that the curtain in the Temple is torn in two when Jesus dies, it reminds his hearers that sacrificial worship at the Temple is no longer possible. Jerusalem and the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. And when the ironic sign “The King of the Jews” is put over Jesus’ cross, it reminds Mark’s hearers that their dream of a new King David is also dead.

Good Friday is a confrontation with the pain of death. First and foremost, this is the death of Jesus. But it is also the death of old ways of worship in the Temple; and the death of dreams of national glory for Israel.

Jesus is raised on Easter, which is God’s “yes” to Jesus’ life, ministry, and mission. Easter revives the worship of God and the hope for a new Christ to bring peace. But after Easter, worship no longer occurs in the Temple, and the people of God are no longer just the Israelites. The God of Love revealed by Good Friday and Easter is worshipped by all people of good will. And the Christ of Easter is not just another corrupt monarch. He is a democratic king who reigns in the heart of everyone who follows Jesus to the cross and beyond.

Given the pathos, power and passion of Good Friday – given how it points to a new life of worship and mission that is radically different from what came before — and given how surprising the events of both Good Friday and Easter were to the first followers of Jesus — can we not use some of this pathos, power and passion to live into new ways of being church today?

Canada and its churches still betray their imperialist past. But on this solemn day when we mark both the painful death of our saviour and the death of political and theological illusions, I look forward in hope to an Easter of surprising new life. May this new life help us create a church that is radically different from the one of the past, and lead us to a future in which the people of Canada are freed from its imperialist traditions just as the first Christians were freed from the traditions of the religious elite who collaborated with Rome.

In a few minutes, we will leave this sanctuary to journey on the last steps of Lent. Tomorrow is the vigil of Holy Saturday. May the surprising and quiet light of Easter beckon to us and help us maintain our vigil. And may the new life that arises in our hearts this Easter help us find a way forward that is as surprising to us as was new life within the Risen Christ for the first hearers of the Gospel of Mark more than 1900 years ago.

Today is Good Friday. Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, the still point of our year. And despite today’s pain, our hope remains. And so into the stillness, let us say once again . . . “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”


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