To most of us the answer seems obvious: Jesus. But there is more to it than that, as illustrated by the two illustrations that accompany this article. One is the only physical remnant we have of an ancient crucifixion—the ankle bone of a young Jew named Yehohanan, who was crucified not long after Jesus himself. We know that Yehohanan was crucified because those who retrieved his body could not get the nail out of his ankle and so buried him with it. The other is a photo of a graffito on the Palatine Hill in Rome which dates to about the year 200. It depicts a man worshiping a crucified donkey, presumably Jesus, and is accompanied by an ancient “flame” which alleges that “Alexamenos is worshipping [his] God”. Taken together they remind us that Good Friday has two, not just one aspect: the first, its physical horror; the other, its somewhat ambiguous meaning.
Yehohanan’s crucifixion has been endlessly studied, but it is a reminder that Jesus’ execution was by no means exceptional. The Romans used it for at least 700 years before Constantine banned it out of respect for the Saviour. In the first century BC, during the revolt of Spartacus, 6,000 slaves were crucified at intervals all along the road from Capua to Rome.
Today the Alexamenos graffito is of interest in part because it was drawn at a time when people could still see crucifixions; Christian representations of crucifixion began to be made only some centuries after crucifixion itself had been banned. But the graffito is more important than that: it reminds us that what was important about Jesus’ crucifixion was not its horror (then all too familiar) but what it meant. Its original artist thought it had a meaning: Alexamenos’ religion is foolish. But in saying so he called attention to the fact that the only reason Alexamenos worshipped this strange creature was because he too thought it had meaning. It is the meaning that explains why Good Friday is “good”.
We don’t know the details of what Alexamenos thought, but we do know that it was positive. The Church’s faith is that whatever happened on Calvary was “for us and for our salvation”. Beyond that, there’s never been any formal declaration as to its exact instrumentality. Even in the New Testament we can see authors struggling to come to terms with the meaning: how do you explain the crucifixion of the Messiah even if he did rise from the dead? We won’t worry here about the details; what matters is the consistent claim that all of it—_all_ of it—was for us and for our salvation; and not just for our salvation as a group, but for our salvation as individuals. That is what makes Good Friday good. Keep this in mind, and remember that today the Collect of the Day applies especially to you:
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.