It feels slightly gauche to talk about the Crucifixion during the octave of Easter, but it’s worth noticing how frequently Good Friday is referenced in the readings this week, and in the earliest proclamations of the Easter message. In St. Peter’s famous Pentecost sermon, he boldly declares that “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” and concludes by saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:23, 36).
It’s tempting to treat Easter as erasing Good Friday, as if it means that we don’t have to think about the cross anymore. But that’s not how the apostles approached it. They saw Easter as revealing the deepest meaning of Good Friday and showing how the cross was a place of God’s victory, not his defeat.
That radical message should transform how we understand the events leading up to Easter. Take, for instance, the conversation that Jesus has with the mother of the apostles James and John when she approached him to ask for a favor:
She said to him, “Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father” (Matt. 20:21b-23).
On the surface, this looks simply like another example of the Twelve not getting it: expecting that Jesus was going to be a sort of worldly Messiah, and being overly concerned with their own success in the kingdom to come. St. Matthew says that “when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers” (Matt. 20:24), so it’s safe to say this is how the others understood Jesus’ words at the time. But in fact, Jesus is showing them (and us) something about the connection between the cross and glory, something too easily missed.
Jesus responds to this request, and the indignation it inspires among the rest of the Twelve, by explaining that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). That’s the most obvious reference to the cross, but there are others. When Jesus asks about the “cup,” James and John seem only too happy to sup with Jesus at his table. But Jesus seems to have something else in mind. After all, his question is if they’re able to drink it. His meaning isn’t clear until the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s there that he prays, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39), and it’s there that he rebukes St. Peter by saying, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).
At first, this might seem like a rebuke: the disciples want to share in Christ’s kingly glory, and he wants them to share in his cross instead. But the whole point is that these are one and the same. Jesus tells Nicodemus, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14). He’s referring to Numbers 21, in which God had Moses mount a bronze serpent on a pole so that whoever looked at it might be saved from the deadly serpents plaguing the Israelites. The meaning is clear: the Crucifixion is Christ’s elevation (both literally and figuratively). A bit later in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (12:31-32). That might sound like a reference to the Ascension, but John tells us in the next verse that “he said this to show by what death he was to die” (v. 33).
Christ’s entrance into glory comes with his deposing Satan as ruler of this world and drawing all people to himself through the cross. That’s the meaning of Good Friday, but it’s a meaning that we can see only in the light of Easter glory. Only with the benefit of the Resurrection can we see in hindsight that Calvary was really an enthronement upon the cross, and this is why Jesus can’t talk about entering his kingly glory without talking about the cup he is to drink, and about giving his life as a ransom for many. Not for nothing, the first time we find the title “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” applied in writing to Jesus, it’s in the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek inscription above the cross (John 19:19).
Realizing that Jesus is talking about the cross also sheds light on his response that “to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” When Christ is enthroned upon the Cross, “two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left” (Matt. 27:38). Consider the matter from the perspective of these robbers. From all eternity, God willed that their lowest point should also be the most graced moment of their lives: that as they died the brutal death of crucifixion, they should be joined by God himself on the adjacent cross. To put it another way, their final moments before death were at the enthronement of Jesus on Calvary. This is the honor of a lifetime, and (for a pair of condemned criminals) the opportunity of a lifetime.
There’s a lesson in this for each of us. At our lowest, most painful, and even most disgraced moments, do we recognize the figure of Jesus Christ beside us? One thief responds by becoming embittered at Jesus, demanding, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). If Jesus is the Christ, how come we still suffer? Where is the “penal substitution” in which his cross replaces our crosses? Where are the health and wealth for those who follow him? But the second thief, the one tradition remembers as the “Good Thief,” realizes the absurdity of such complaints, and responds, “Do you not fear God?” (v. 40). The first thief was given the extraordinary opportunity to die alongside Christ, and he wasted his cross in self-pity and scorn. The second thief, in contrast, admits the justice of his own punishment, turning to Christ for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power” (vv. 41-42). And Jesus promises to fulfill his prayer “today,” since it is right here that he is entering that “kingly power” (vv. 42-43).
This is part of the good news that Easter reveals: that what seemed to be Christ’s lowest point was in fact the moment of his victory, and that what seem to be our lowest points are precisely those places in which we can find victory in Christ as well. All that’s necessary is that we don’t waste the crosses that God, in his strange mercy, sends our way.