Today is Good Friday, the day that we commemorate Jesus' death. How is this day remembered and why, given the nature of that remembrance, is it called "Good Friday"?
From the Gospel of Luke:
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals-- one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!" But the other criminal rebuked him. "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." When he had said this, he breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man."
Here is how the day is remembered by the Christian sects:
Its origins as a special holy day go back to the development of the Holy Week in Jerusalem in the late fourth century.... It is observed in the Western nations in many ways. For example, in Roman Catholicism the liturgy of the day, used between 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., has three parts--readings and prayers, adoration of the cross, and Holy Communion with bread consecrated a day beforehand. The Eucharist is not celebrated on this day. Anglicanism observes the day in a variety of ways, including the use of the Roman liturgy, a three-hour service (noon to 3:00 p.m.), or a simple service of morning or evening prayer. Some Protestant denominations celebrate the Lord's Supper.
P. Toon, "Good Friday," in The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, page 512.
But why is a day filled with such pain, abuse, and death called "Good Friday"?
"Good Friday" is certainly not the only thing we could call this day. In Latin countries, it is called "Holy Friday." In Germany, it is called "Mourning Friday" or "Friday of Mourning." Norway refers to it as "Long Friday" (a reference to the length of the day's services). The Orthodox Churches call it "Holy Friday" and "Great Friday."
All of these names are instructive and understandable. So how did it come to be called "Good Friday" in English-speaking lands? The reality is that we do not know for sure. After scouring the internet and other sources, there appear to be three plausible alternatives.
1. An archaic meaning of "good" is something akin to "holy." Thus, it used to mean "Holy Friday."
2. It was recognized that the evils of that day lead to the greatest good, the salvation of mankind. Thus, despite the bad, the day was truly good.
3. An archaic meaning of "good" is "God," just as "good-bye" means "God be with you." Thus, it used to mean "God's Friday."
Each of these alternatives is apt and instructive. But perhaps the one most relevant to our culture and times is the middle one. Despite the evil of that day, God evoked the greatest good from it. But by good we do not mean happy or a time of celebration per se. As stated well by Chris Armstrong in Christianity Today:
Of course, the church has always understood that the day commemorated on Good Friday was anything but happy. Sadness, mourning, fasting, and prayer have been its focus since the early centuries of the church. A fourth-century church manual, the Apostolic Constitutions, called Good Friday a "day of mourning, not a day of festive Joy." Ambrose, the fourth-century archbishop who befriended the notorious sinner Augustine of Hippo before his conversion, called it the "day of bitterness on which we fast."
Many Christians have historically kept their churches unlit or draped in dark cloths. Processions of penitents have walked in black robes or carried black-robed statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary. And worshippers have walked the "Stations of the Cross," praying and singing their way past 14 images representing Jesus' steps along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha.
Yet, despite—indeed because of—its sadness, Good Friday is truly good. Its sorrow is a godly sorrow. It is like the sadness of the Corinthians who wept over the sharp letter from their dear teacher, Paul, convicted of the sin in their midst. Hearing of their distress, Paul said, "My joy was greater than ever." Why? Because such godly sorrow "brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret" (2 Cor. 7:10).
For me, the day is a somber, reflective one. I focus on all that Jesus gave up and suffered for his Church. The humiliation, pain, and death are a sacrifice on our behalf. Today, we appreciate the price of that sacrifice. At the same time, however, we should not forget the great good that Jesus' sacrifice effected. Afterall, Resurrection Sunday is on the way.
Update: Releasing the Word has additional thoughts on why Good Friday is Good.