It is sometimes the case that the test of how well we understand something comes when we have to explain it to children. I recently had just such an experience.
Following church last Sunday, as I was sitting with my kids in a cafe eating ice-cream, out of the blue Lucy asks:
“Daddy, why do we call it ‘Good Friday’ when it was the day that Jesus died? Shouldn’t we call it ‘Bad Friday’ instead?”
As soon the question was posed, my theo-brain immediately leaped into action. I began mentally searching through the topics as though flipping though a drawer of old-school library catalogue cards: atonement theories, justification and the necessity of the cross, penal substitution, the wrath of God, the fall… How do I explain the ‘Good’ in Good Friday to a seven year old? Where do I even begin?
And then, I looked down at my daughter’s expectant face: her bright green eyes, her cute freckled nose, the ice-cream smeared around her mouth. I looked over at my other kids, both blissfully engaged in the serious business of licking ice-cream, only half-listening to anything I was saying, and I realized my mistake. I was about to try and answer Lucy’s question like an expert with superior knowledge, and by doing so, end any chance that this might develop into a meaningful conversation. I was making this about me. In my limited experience I’ve come to understand at least this much about conversing with children, they immediately know when you’re talking at them rather than with them. And they give such behaviour the response it so often deserves: they tune out. (Actually, adults do this too, but I’m a preacher so it’s hard to control myself.)
So I decided to take off my ‘Expert-Religious-Professional-Pastor’ hat, put on my more homely, much less polished ‘Dad’ hat, and did my best. Starting with Jesus’ favourite tactic of posing a question in response to a question, I said:
“That’s a great question! Why do you think we call it ‘Good Friday’?”
Lucy squirmed a little in her seat (like her Father, she doesn’t like not knowing the answer to things) and said:
“I don’t know. That’s why I asked you, Dad.”
I smiled and said:
“I think it’s because although it was a really bad day for Jesus, it was a really, really, really good day for us.”
“But Jesus died and that’s sad! It doesn’t make sense.”
“Yes, but Jesus did it for us, and that’s why we call it good. He didn’t have to die for us, but he wanted to. His death means we can be forgiven, and become friends with God again.”
“But we’re already friends with God, so why did Jesus have to die?”
“Hmmm, well, some of the bad things we do can’t be ignored, can they? They can’t just be ‘forgiven’ like it never happened. There must be punishment. Something has to be done to make it right. Imagine if someone took your favourite doll and destroyed it: cut off all her hair, broke off her legs, tore her dress. Now if they got caught, would it be fair if they didn’t get into trouble? Imagine if they got away with it and didn’t have to fix what they did. How would that make you feel? That wouldn’t seem right, would it?”
“Well, we’ve all done bad things, sometimes very bad things, we’ve all broken God’s rules. Even me - I know that’s really hard to imagine…”
“… you do bad things all the time, Dad.” She said with a wicked grin.
“OK monkey, that’s enough cheek from you. I suppose what I’m saying is that we’ve all done bad things and someone has to make it right. The good part is that instead of making us face the punishment, God decided to come to us as a human, in Jesus, and ‘get into trouble’ for us. That’s why Jesus died. He was willingly taking our punishment for all the horrible things we have done. And because of that, when we believe in him, it means his death gets us out of trouble with God too. Because of Jesus, there’s nothing in the way of us becoming friends with God again!”
At this point her eyes were glazing-over a little, so I went back to my original tactic, and asked again:
“Now do you understand why we call it good?”
“Sort of, I guess…” She shrugged.
I could see I had to wrap this up. Thinking as quickly as I could, I asked myself: what’s the most important thing a seven year old needs to understand about Easter? Man, this is tough! Finally, I settle on:
“Listen Lou, the main thing is that the cross is God’s way of showing us how much he loves us. That’s why we call it ‘Good' Friday. It was a very bad day for Jesus, but a really good day for us. His death was sad, yes…”
“…but Jesus came back to life again on Sunday!” Said Lucy jumping up and down in her chair.
“That’s the best part: resurrection! Now… you better hurry up and eat your ice-cream, it’s melting. And you, Oscar! Son, please stop smearing ice-cream on Ella’s face!”
And thus, our conversation was over. As so often happens in our family, in mere seconds we had moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. And lest you think that because I am a pastor that this somehow comes naturally to me: it doesn’t. And please let me dispel the myth that because I’m a Pastor my family must be having these kinds of conversations all the time. That also isn’t true. Most of the time when I initiate these conversations, they don’t go so well! It is my hope that retelling this discussion has helped you to think through the Easter story in a fresh, simple, and child-like way. As Jesus said: “unless we have faith like a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
However, for those of you who like your theological reflection to go a little ‘deeper’ (Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:1-4 notwithstanding), I leave you with one of my favourite explanations of the cross, by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann:
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man's godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” (The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology.)
I pray that the remainder of your Holy Week be blessed. I also pray that the grace of God will go right down into the very depths of your soul this Easter weekend - even if you don’t fully understand it - cleansing and freeing you from your godforsakenness and sin, and drawing you up once again into communion (friendship!) with him.