GOOD FRIDAY commemorates one of the most pathetic events in history. The orthodox idea of the death of Jesus takes us back to the dim beginnings of Hebrew history, when Jahveh, the national god, was conceived as the special source of thunder and the storm, of plagues and pestilence, and when, according to the legend, the fierce wrath with which he smote the Egyptians, destroying the first-born in every house, was only stayed as against the Hebrews by the blood of lambs dashed upon the door-posts or the lintels of the houses wherein they lived. The sight of blood was thought, according to the legend, to have softened the heart of the stern god, and in his mercy he passed by the houses of the Israelites. Thence, according to the Biblical account, arose the festival of the Passover. Thousands of lambs were slaughtered every spring in ancient Israel, to commemorate the god's favor in the past and to secure his favor for the future. It happened that it was during one of the Passover festivals that Jesus came to his untimely end, and the coincidence could not fail to affect the imagination of the early Christians. Jesus was their Passover, they declared, their lamb, and they had no need to sacrifice any other. Behind him and his blood they could take shelter, and the destroying hand that would soon be stretched out in the dread day of judgment would pass them by. The Gospel traditions even represent Jesus as taking this view of his death. As the shadows of his coming fate fell upon him he spoke mysteriously of giving his life as a ransom, by which the destruction of many should be averted; and the night before the crucifixion, at the last meal with his disciples, he identified the bread and wine upon the table with his body and blood, which were about to be offered up as a propitiation to Israel's God. This is the meaning of the communion which all Christian churches celebrate; here lies the significance of the Catholic mass : to Protestants figuratively, to Catholics really, the bread and the wine are the body and blood of that precious paschal lamb whose life was taken eighteen centuries ago. Unless God is appeased, unless blood is shed, there is thought to be no favor from the unseen world for man; and to those who do not trust in this sacrifice already made there is only, to use Scriptural language, a certain fearful expectation of judgment and of fierce, devouring fire.1 Here is one explanation of the power which orthodox Christianity still has over the minds of men. At bottom it is a religion of fear; and before the advent of science and its disclosures of an equable reign of law, fear is more natural to men in contemplating Nature than any other feeling. There is nothing men crave so much as to have their fears allayed; and so to ignorant, anxious men and women everywhere, whether among the earliest Jewish converts, or among the thronging multitudes of Rome, or among the untutored barbarians of the north, or among the uneducated masses in our great cities to-day, Christianity has come as a boon, assuring them that if they will trust in " the blood " that has been shed for them, the unseen powers of the world will be kind and gracious.
1 Hebrews, x. 27.
What occasion have those to whom this whole circle of belief is illusory and pitifully erroneous to speak of Good Friday ? I answer, Because the death of Jesus may be looked at from a different standpoint. We may ask ourselves, What led to it; what does it show us as to his character; what is its meaning as an incident in the moral progress of the race; what value has it still for us personally, when we look upon it simply as the death of a great and heroic man ? We may treat the death of Jesus as we would that of Socrates or of Savonarola or of John Brown, tragic deaths, all of them ; deaths that have moved the hearts of men and influenced the course of history, and still have an inspiring power. The death of Jesus, it seems to me, surpasses them all in pathos and in its influence on the fortunes of mankind. I think it not presumptuous to depart from Jesus' own estimate in this matter. We human beings often fail to understand ourselves. President Garfield said that "the lesson of history is rarely learned by the actors themselves." We who are really living are too earnest about the matter to sit down and form calm judgments ; time and the perspective which time gives are necessary. Jesus may have valued his death for one thing, history may value it for quite another.
How was it that Jesus died so soon ? Why did he not live on to a ripe old age, like Socrates ? I answer, essentially because he was not a philosopher, but a reformer, an agitator. For this reason his predecessor, the ascetic Baptist, was cast into one of Herod's dungeons, and came out only to be decapitated; he had spoken too boldly of social iniquity in the court. Jesus had no ascetic ways about him. He did not love the lonesome wilderness, he frequented the towns and cities where men were congregated, and was touched by human sufferings and privations as well as human wickedness. But he threw himself into the social agitations of his day ; and the one agitating thought that with which all secretly sympathized, though few dared to promulgate and hope anything immediately from itwas that of an overthrowal of the hated Bo-man power, and the inauguration of a new social and political order, under the name of the " kingdom of heaven." This was the Messianic dream of his people. During his youth or early manhood there had been actual uprisings and bloody resistance to the Roman authority. Jesus had a horror of war, and looked not to the hands of any soldiery to accomplish the great revolution on which he, too, had set his heart. The great god Jahveh, he who had flashed fire out of heaven in approval of his faithful prophets, who had parted the waters of the Bed Sea to let his people pass through and escape from their oppressors, his arm, Jesus thought, would be stretched out again; and it was necessary only that he be trusted, and that the people be gathered out of Israel who should be worthy to form the new and glorious kingdom. By a bold leap, and yet no bolder than other Messiahs took before and after him, Jesus assumed the leadership of a new movement, gathered followers, spoke with authority, foretold the coming change, and made others feel, and believed himself, that when the "kingdom of heaven" should come, he should be at its head. "The old order will soon cease," he said, " and a new one is coming; in the old is oppression and cruel suffering and abject misery and sensuality and all manner of evil; in the new there will be a recompense for every wrong, and comfort for all who mourn ; in the new, the poor and the persecuted and the pure in heart, and those who love others as they do themselves, will be the privileged ones, while all who oppress, all who are sensual, all who are hypocritical and for a pretence make long prayers, shall be humbled and cast out." The heart of the people responded to such fervid utterances. Those in authority, on the other hand, the props, the pillars, the ornaments of the old order of things, looked askance at Jesus. It is the old story of conflicting interests; the Sadducean nobility, the zealous, punctilious Pharisees, the lawyer-scribes were in a place of reverence, and it did not look as if in the dream of the future which Jesus unfolded they should have any place at all. On the other hand, those who were oppressed and miserable had everything to gain ; and that many of them were inspired by no higher motives is shown by the fact that when Jesus got into the clutches of the civil power they made a very rabble against him. The Roman authorities never seem to have troubled themselves at all about Jesus ; so peaceful was his attitude and so exclusively did he address himself to his own countrymen, that they scarcely knew of him; and when he was brought to trial before them they seem to have regarded him as a harmless dreamer, and would never have consented to his death had they not been driven to do so by the fierce and determined attitude of the leaders of Jewish orthodoxy. But the conflict into which Jesus had precipitated himself could have no other issue. He did not trim his words, he spoke as conscience prompted him to speak. Sharper invective than that he poured out against the false guides of his people was perhaps never heard, they would not enter into the " kingdom of heaven," nor would they let others go in. It was but a question of time; and when one of his disciples, momentarily chagrined at a rebuke his master had given him for his penuriousness, or possibly with the thought of forcing him to take his position as the nation's king, offered to put the Jewish authorities in possession of him, the offer was readily closed with; Jesus was made a prisoner, and the next day, after being hurried through a judicial trial, which was little better than a farce, he was nailed to the cross.