On “Good Friday,” I often contemplate the name we have given this day, a day one would think we might call “Black Friday” or something equally bleak. At least one explanation is that the name evolved from a Germanic version of “God’s Friday,” much as “goodbye” evolved from “God be with you.”
And, I often recall a visit to “Gordon’s Calvary,” the place many people believe Jesus died. It sits just north of the Damascus gate leading into the city of Jerusalem, no more than 100 yards from a beautiful garden that contains an ancient tomb with a rolling stone that recalls the burial place of Jesus.
The hill in question is a rugged outcropping of crumbling rock that bears the unmistakable shape of a skull in its weathered, cliff-like side. The top of the hill is covered with a cemetery of Muslim tombs going back to the 15th century. In the late 19th century, a British general named Charles Gordon declared this to be the site of Golgotha, the place of the skull, where Jesus was crucified.
If you’ve ever wondered why we call it both “Golgotha” and Calvary,” it’s because Golgotha is the Aramaic word used to describe the “place of the skull.” In the Vulgate translation that dominated the church through most of its history, the Latin term is “Calvarius.”
If you visit the site of Gordon’s Calvary today, you will find that a large terminal serving a fleet of tour buses operated by an Arabic company sits within a few yards of the rocky cliff: just below the hollowed eyes of the ancient skull formation, asphalt steams in the Judean sun and buses idle, their exhaust drifting over the hill where Jesus may have died.
To the modern Christian, the urban scene seems somehow sacrilegious, and when I first saw it, the sight bothered me considerably.
Upon reflection, however, it occurred to me that the scene was most appropriate: Jesus died for this for a world of people who do not know him, and who treat his memory as shamefully as the ancient Jerusalemites treated him in life.
On this Good Friday, perhaps we would do well to ponder whether our actions show any more respect for the One who died an ugly death so we might experience a life both beautiful and eternal.