The Meaning of Good Friday

10 April 2009

Christ arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jörg Breu the Elder (ca. 1475-1537)

Christ arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jörg Breu the Elder (ca. 1475-1537)

Another Naturalistic Sermon


On this penultimate day of Passiontide it is appropriate to reflect upon the meaning of Good Friday and its place both within the Passion story as well as within the larger intellectual context of the Western tradition. To do so is to realize the profundity of the influence, not only of the Passion story upon the larger tradition, but also the ways in which the larger tradition have shaped the Passion story and transformed it into something that could become, and has been, a central reference for all of us who count ourselves as a part of that tradition, as I do.

Christ Before Caiaphas, c.1305, Giotto di Bondone, Italian Early Renaissance, 1267-1337

Christ Before Caiaphas, c.1305, Giotto di Bondone, Italian Early Renaissance, 1267-1337

Good Friday — the Friday before Easter Sunday — is the traditional date for the most dramatic moments of the Biblical Passion story. It was on Good Friday, starting in the early hours of the morning, that Christ was arrested, condemned by Caiaphas, denied thrice by Peter, brought before Pilate, sent to Herod, brought back before Pilate, passed over in favor of Barabbas by the crowd, flogged, made to carry his cross to Golgotha, crucified, suffered the Three Hours’ Agony, delivered the Seven Last Words, died, was pierced in the side by a soldier’s lance, taken down from the cross, and buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea, who had donated the same. In the Christian tradition, then, many of the most moving elements of the passion story, and many of the most powerful symbols of Christianity, are summed in this single day. It is much to consider: the manifold meanings of Good Friday constitute an embarras de richesse.

A mosaic from Ravenna illustrating the crow of the cock after Peter has thrice denied Christ.

A mosaic from San Apollonaire Nuovo at Ravenna illustrating the crow of the cock after Peter has thrice denied Christ.

The other passion of note in the Western tradition — that of Socrates — took place over a much longer period of time. Socrates was held in prison for some time so that his execution would not profane a religious festival, and he held his famous prison dialogues recorded (more or less) by Plato. This is a story of great dignity and drama, but without the fast-paced action of the Good Friday Passion story. We recall here that it was Aristotle, Plato’s pupil and therefore coming after the Passion of Socrates, that defined the three unities of drama: time, place, and action. In classic Greek drama, according to Aristotle, all action of the play was to constitute one narrative with few if any subplots, the action was to take place in one location, and the action was to be completed within one day. Thus the Biblical Passion story is structurally a classical Greek tragedy, with the three unities being Christ’s execution, Jerusalem, and Good Friday.

Christ before Pilate, Monogrammist L Cz., Master of the Strache Altar, c. 1500

Christ before Pilate, Monogrammist L Cz., Master of the Strache Altar, c. 1500

Despite the adherence of the Passion story to the Aristotelian unities, as we have seen above, Good Friday is rich in meanings. We could compare Good Friday to a Gothic cathedral, as Good Friday has as its central theme the cross, the crucifixion, and this theme is layered with additional symbols and meanings. So too the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages all conformed to a simple cruciform plan and yet were layered with every imaginable decoration, some of which depart considerably from any unitary plan of construction. Despite the complexity presented by the details that have been gathered into the Good Friday story, however, the central narrative is never obscured. The singular strength of the story is undiminished by the many subplots and minor narratives.

A medieval manuscript illumination of Christ before Herod.

A medieval manuscript illumination of Christ before Herod.

What strikes us about Christ’s Passion, especially in relation to the other events commemorated by Passiontide and Holy Week, is its compactness and its self-sufficiency. The story is self-contained as a single unit, and this certainly embodies the sense of “unity of action” among the classic dramatic unities. Indeed, the Passion story has been told and retold countless times in every conceivable media, and most recently on film. One need not know the entirety of the story of the life of Christ to appreciate or to be touched by His Passion. Everything essential to the narrative, including the relevant backstory, is filled in by the many episodes that are the historical accretions that the tradition (mostly the traditions of the medieval world) has added to the central narrative.

Barabbas is set free while Christ remains in the custody of Roman soldiers.

Barabbas is set free while Christ remains in the custody of Roman soldiers.

While the events of Good Friday are almost too much for a single day to bear — both in number and dramatic intensity — when we compare the Passion story to other classic tragedies, say, the three plays of the Oresteia, these latter are similarly replete with one grim event following upon another in the space of a single day. Some of the Evangelists, at least, would have been aware of this tradition. Even fishermen of Roman antiquity may well have attended theatrical productions — it was a form of mass entertainment of the time, like gladiatorial combat — and the classic Greek tragedies were part of the repertoire of every theater company. Indeed, the Evangelists all came from the Greek part of the empire, that later went on to become Byzantium, so we may safely assume that the Greek cultural influence was profound and continuous in ancient Palestine.

The Flagellation of Christ, Cimabue (Cenni di Peppo), c. 1240-c.-1302

The Flagellation of Christ, Cimabue (Cenni di Peppo), c. 1240-c.-1302

If the Good Friday story in the Gospels has the structure of tragic drama, was Christ a tragic hero? There is, among dramatic theorists, no consensus regarding the essence of the tragic. There are many theories of tragedy, and all have their advocates and detractors. Perhaps the better question here would be: was Christ a tragic hero for the Evangelists?

Hieronymous Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1485-1490. Bosch is known for his fantastical images, but this painting is remarkable in its own way for its focused study of heads and for Christ shown in serenity among a grotesque mob.

Hieronymous Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross, 1485-1490. Bosch is known for his fantastical images, but this painting is remarkable in its own way for its focused study of heads and for Christ shown in serenity among a grotesque mob.

Living, as they were, in the midst of Roman civilization, with its liberal borrowings from the intellectual achievements of the Greeks, the Evangelists could not but have been aware of the tragic hero as a figure in tragic drama. If, as suggested above, they had been exposed to some classic tragedies, and had enough Greek to write the Gospels, they had enough Greek, too, to be aware of the basic elements of tragedy. And as they wrote their accounts of the life and death of Christ, foremost in their minds, other than Christ Himself, would have been the literary models available (ready for exaptation, as it were) in the ancient world.

The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

Whether or not Christ was a tragic hero — the question of whether or not he was may be meaningless, sensu stricto — Christ in the Gospels is cast, at least in part, in the role of the tragic hero. And while in much of the following two thousand years of Western Christian art Christ appears as the Man of Sorrows, nevertheless in the many depictions He is shown in tragic dignity. This is especially true of scenes of the deposition and entombment.

The Deposition, Rogier van der Weyden, 1399/1400 - 1464

The Deposition, Rogier van der Weyden, 1399/1400 - 1464

We can better appreciate the meaning of Good Friday when understood in both its Christian context, in which it is one especially dramatic episode in the life of Christ (but followed by the more dramatic resurrection), and in its classical context, in which the self-contained drama of the suffering and execution of Christ appears as a tragic drama of a stature to stand with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. One might even employ such a motif — the duality of the divine Biblical story and the secular classical tragedy — as an illustration of the dual nature of Christ, the human and the divine, each with a story as moving and as profound as the other.

entombment

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As the above is subtitled “Another naturalistic sermon” the curious reader may want to know what preceded “another” and it was A Meditation on the Occasion of Palm Sunday: A Naturalistic Sermon.

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