It is ironic that we call Good Friday – good. It is the singular day of the year when we focus all of our attention, all of our prayers and all of our thoughts on the passion and death of the Lord. It is the story of a cruel and violent end to a life well lived.
Our cultural history is rife with tragic, often heroic deaths, which are the consequence of virtue and a life well lived. In literature we can think of the tragic death of Sophocles’ Antigone or Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Dickens’ Sydney Carton or Tolkien’s Gollum.
Then there is the death of Socrates. Each of these is the death of a person who met their demise because of some choice for goodness.
The death of Socrates is among the most meaningful moments in western history. It has been told and retold, dramatized and memorialized in sculpture and painting down through the centuries. It is remembered because it is powerful. Socrates, a good, and brilliant, and humble philosopher is put on trial: charged with blasphemy, and impiety, and the corruption of youth. And he makes a stirring defense.
In his self defense, Socrates testifies courageously “a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong… God orders me to fulfill the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, if I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange… I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy.”
For his courage, Socrates is put to death.
The death of Socrates is a powerful, compelling, beautiful testament to truth and to a life well lived. There are other deaths we know of which are brave, or self-sacrificing, or heroic. The soldier who risks his life for his companions. The parent who dies rescuing a child. The martyr who is put to death for the faith. Death can be a powerful testimony to a life lived heroically.
But the death of Jesus Christ is unlike any other. Because it was only Jesus Christ who was put to death and, three days later, rose again.
Christ, and Christ alone, is the conqueror of death. In his resurrection, Christ undoes the finality of death—and sets us all free to live eternally. By baptism, we are configured to Christ—and because he conquered death, we too can be set free. In Christ, there is no sting, no pain, no tragedy that need not end in eternal victory.
We celebrate Easter because in Christ’s death and resurrection, all of us can be set free from the enduring tragedy of death.
When we think about our own deaths – and we should from time to time - we often hope to die nobly, heroically even, dying to defend or to protect or to promote something good or something beautiful. We hope and pray for an honorable death. But in the end, what matters only, is that we die in the friendship, and the goodness, and the grace of Jesus Christ.
Apart from life in Jesus Christ, no measure of nobility in life or death will be enough to free ourselves from the finality of our own death. God calls us to virtue, to be sure, and to heroism, and to goodness and beauty. But apart from the grace of Jesus Christ, nothing we do will lead to the eternal freedom of heaven.
God wants us to live and die virtuously, heroically, and committed to the truth. And he wants us to live and die in the grace and friendship of Jesus Christ. In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and there alone, is the way to eternal life. Christ’s death is unlike any other—and we are invited to share in his passion, and to share in his resurrection.
And this is why we call Good Friday – good.