Why Is Good Friday Good? History, Meaning Behind Christian Festival

Good Friday is a crucial day of the year in the Christian calendar as it marks what the religious take as one of the most momentous weekends in world history.

Shelly Matthews, Professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, suggests there is meaning behind the horror.

She told Newsweek: "Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus, under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.

"All Christians would agree that in this horrendous deed, God was on the side of—or even embodied in—the tortured and executed one, rather than on the side of the torturers.

"In a world where torturers and other destructive imperial powers seem unstoppable, the message here is that Jesus died in humility, 'as one of us.'

"Some Christians would say further that, as God's anointed messiah, Jesus could have rightfully claimed an earthly throne, with all of its attendant powers (including the royal power to punish his enemies!).

"But he willfully refused that power, choosing instead a path of service and love, even though that path led him to the cross."

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Christians believe Easter should be a joyful celebration RomoloTavani/Getty Images

Why Is Good Friday Good?

On Good Friday, Jesus was forced to carry his cross to the site of execution, while assisted by Simon of Cyrene. And there, he was crucified along with two criminals.

The term Good Friday consequently is not taken to mean the day in question was good, positive or pleasant in any way.

English dictionaries state how "good" in this context refers "in the sense [to] 'holy, observed as a holy day.'"

The earliest known use of "good Friday" is believed to reside in the 13th-century text The South English Legendary.

According to the Baltimore Catechism, the standard U.S. Catholic school text from 1885 to the 1960s, Good Friday is good because Christ "showed his great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing."

The school's Fr. Matthew is quoted as saying: "So although it is a very sorrowful day (because we remember the great tragedy of sin and the effects of our sin), we also realize that it's the day that our salvation was secured."

The Catholic Encyclopedia, first published in 1907, confirms the term's origins are far from clear, adding some sources see its origins in the term "God's Friday" or Gottes Freitag, while others maintain that it is from the German Gute Freitag.

Crown of thorns
Crown of thorns. The Bible details how the son of God was flogged, ordered to carry the cross on which he would be crucified and then put to death Javier_Art_Photography/Getty Images

How Is Good Friday Told In The New Testament?

Professor Matthews suggests there are "many intriguing contradictions" in the account of Good Friday which "can be explained if we understand that the Gospel authors are evangelists, not modern historians."

She said: "They are concerned to communicate the meaning of Jesus's life and death, as they understand it."

The gospels preserve different versions of Jesus's last words as he died, which can be explained by the evangelists' concerns about the meaning of Jesus's death.

Professor Matthews said: "In [the Gospels of] Mark and Matthew, Jesus's final word is an anguished cry—'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' This cry communicates agony in the face of suffering, with which many readers can identify.

"In contrast, [the Gospels of John and Luke depict Jesus's last words as more composed, or more Stoic: "Into your hands I commend my spirit' (Luke); 'it is finished' (John).

"These two evangelists emphasize Jesus's self-control, his god-like strength at the point of death.

"We know of a pagan critic of Christianity who ridiculed the version of the story where Jesus is depicted as dying in anguish—the critic suggested his cries proved that Jesus was a coward.

"Some think that John and Luke respond to such criticism by countering with this image of Jesus being in total control of his emotions as he dies."

The Gospel of Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, also contradict John concerning the timing of Jesus's death.

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Passion of Jesus Christ—Hammer, bloody nails and crown of thorns. Goood Friday is the day when Christians commemorate Jesus Christ's crucifixion RomoloTavani/Getty Images

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples and then is crucified the next day.

Professor Matthews said: "In [the Gospel of] John, Jesus dies before the Passover meal, being crucified at the very hour when the Passover lamb is slaughtered.

"This owes to different messages the evangelists wish to emphasize. The Jewish Passover celebrates God's deliverance of slaves from Egypt.

"Mark['s Gospel] teaches that Jesus reinterprets the Passover meal, making it now about deliverance from sins, through his body and blood.

"[The Gospel of] John emphasizes, instead, that Jesus, by dying at the time that the Passover lamb is slaughtered, is like the Passover lamb."

It is also worth noting how only the Gospel of Matthew tells the story that exactly at the moment when Jesus was crucified, a resurrection of holy ones occurs (27:51-54).

In this account, these holy ones stay hunkered down in their tombs until Jesus's resurrection, before appearing in Jerusalem.

Professor Matthews said: "Some Christians are embarrassed by this story, as it does not conform to their understanding that only Jesus was resurrected in the past, and others will be resurrected at the final judgement.

"The story seems to reflect the understanding that resurrection would be a communal event, inaugurated by the messiah, but experienced by others as well."

Finally, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell that Jesus's cross was carried by Simon, "the Cyrene."

Professor Matthews said: "Mark provides the further tantalizing note that Simon was 'the father of Alexander and Rufus.'

"Cyrene was a coastal city in North Africa, and Mark suggests a family from that African city were already devoted followers of Jesus. There is very little mention of Africa in the New Testament.

"But brief mentions like this provide hints of the interest in Jesus on this continent."

Good Friday Getty Images
Sources suggest the day is "good" in that it is holy Getty Images