April 7, 2023 - 7:00am

“In spite of that, we call this Friday good.” 

TS Eliot’s conclusion to part four of East Coker hints at the fundamental paradox of this most solemn day of the Christian calendar. Holy Week has been full of extraordinary human drama — the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Judas’ betrayal, the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the arrest of Jesus, the trial before Pilate. And now we come to the seeming ruin and collapse of all the dreams and hopes that had attached themselves to Jesus Christ. The man who called himself the Son of God will be executed like a common criminal; a cruel, prolonged death. He seems to acknowledge that he has been abandoned by the divine: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” The crowds standing by are scornful. 

The gospel writers emphasise the humiliations undergone by Jesus. Not just the mockery and torture at the hands of the Roman soldiers, but also his being forced to carry the instrument of his death out to Golgotha, “the place of the skull”. There is the crucifixion itself, an almost unimaginably brutal method of execution. Jesus hangs on the cross most of the day, but after his death — around mid-afternoon — Joseph of Arimathea has his body decently buried. Keen students of Arthuriana may recall that Joseph later brought the Holy Grail to England, hiding it somewhere below Glastonbury Tor. 

And yet, we are not at the end of the story. Perhaps this is not simply the disposal of a provincial rabble-rouser by a ruthless imperial power. Even Pontius Pilate, the patron saint of cowardly crowd-pleasing politicians, seems to have an inkling of that fact. When the religious authorities object to the Romans writing “King Of The Jews” on Jesus’ cross, he refuses to change it, retorting with cryptic brevity, “Quod scripsi, scripsi”; “what I have written, I have written”. 

Then there is the apocalyptic detail recorded by Matthew and Mark, who tell us that Jesus’ last hours were accompanied by darkness and earthquakes, and his death itself marked by the tearing of the Temple veil, provoking that famous remark from the attending centurion, “Truly this was the Son of God!”. The loyal women stand by at the foot of the cross, in stark contrast to the disciples who abandoned him the night before. Most striking of all, for my money, is the beautiful detail of the penitent thief, recorded by Luke. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he pleads, and the Messiah assures him that they will be together in paradise. 

In the Catholic Christian tradition, Good Friday is the middle act of the Triduum — three days of tremendous liturgical drama, starting with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Maundy Thursday. It is the only day of the year on which the Eucharist is not celebrated, and from the end of the Good Friday devotions until the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, the tabernacle — the sacred vessel which usually contains consecrated hosts — is kept empty, symbolising Jesus’ absence from this world until the great celebration of Easter Sunday.

Even for believers, the story of Easter is full of strangeness and difficulty. For many modern people it is incomprehensible or alien, entirely divorced from the gentle pleasures of a four-day weekend and a well-roasted lamb joint. But in the dying words of Jesus — “it is accomplished” — there remains a burning question. What exactly was accomplished that day? 

So much of the meaning of human life hinges on the answer.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.