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.”
It’s a day when I remember several visits 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 the ancient skull formation overlooks a large terminal serving a fleet of tour buses: just below its hollow eyes, 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 convergence was most appropriate. Jesus died for this: for a world of people who do not know him, and who pay no more respect to his memory than the Jerusalemites did in his life.
On this Good Friday, perhaps we would do well to ponder whether our actions show any more reverence for the One who died an ugly death so we might live a beautiful life.