So on Good Friday Jesus was laid in the tomb, which begs the question, what was so good about it? Easter Sunday, sure, that’s fine, but the burial of the Son of God doesn’t seem like much of a highpoint.
The reasons for Jesus’ execution are somewhat muddy. He’d been going around healing people and forgiving lepers, saying he was the Son of God, and whatnot for a good while up to then, and apart from some generally pissed-off Pharisees (and when is a Pharisee not pissed off?) no one took much notice. I think he could have gone on indefinitely if he hadn’t been met in Jerusalem by cheering crowds who strewed palm fronds under the feet of the donkey his was riding. You have to be pretty hot stuff if even your donkey is too good to touch the ground. This is the sort of thing that’s apt to raise eyebrows.
King Herod couldn’t help alarmed. Matthew tells us he and Jesus had a sort of thing between them going way back. Hearing a rumor about a “new king” Herod sent a squad to exterminate all the baby boys in Bethlehem; Jesus and his family got away of course, and Herod would have no reason to connect Jesus with a minor massacre thirty years ago. As far as Herod knew, his soldiers had pretty well taken care of business. Besides, this trouble-maker was Jesus of Nazareth. If he’d been called Jesus of Bethlehem-Until-His-Parents-Got-Warned-By-An-Angel-to-Get-While-the-Getting-Was-Good-so-They-Fled-to-Egypt-then-to-Galilee-and-Finally-Wound-Up-in-Nazareth, Herod might have caught wise earlier, but of course he didn’t.
What Herod might have known was that Jesus was first cousin of John the Baptist, a major thorn in Herod’s side. John was a real odd-ball who wore camel skins and lived on locusts and honey. So in addition to being an unsavory character, he was probably sticky – baptizing people would only have kept him clean from the waist down. Herod probably didn’t mind the baptizing so much and could have probably put up with the locusts and honey as long as John kept them out of sight, but John the Baptist was very vocal about certain goings-on in the royal family.
Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great (and he wasn’t a patch on his father, I can tell you.) divorced his wife to marry his niece, named Herodias who had formerly been married to another uncle also called Herod. (The Kings of Judea were all named Herod for some reason I don’t know why. Maybe it saved on monograms.) John the Baptist thought this was a pretty scummy deal no matter how you sliced it, and wasn’t shy about saying so. The legend goes that Herod’s wife’s daughter, who would have been his stepdaughter, or possibly his great niece, or something… I can’t keep it straight any more… but her name was Salome, and I don’t know why she wasn’t Herod-something too, but maybe they were trying to keep things straight – gave Herod (Herod Antipas, remember?) a very special dance involving some veils and a specially installed pole, and Herod rewarded her with John’s head on a platter.
So just when Herod thinks he’s finally restored order, up pops this messiah and it’s here we go again. The handy thing about being a Roman client state is you’ve got someone to do your dirty work, so Jesus is handed over to the Roman Governor Pilate. Pilate’d crucify you as soon as look at you, but when it came to Jesus he got cold feet. His wife had had a dream and warned him not to murder any righteous men that day if he could possibly help it, so being superstitious as he was, Pilate passed the buck down to Herod. Basically, if Herod wanted him dead, he’d have to kill Jesus himself.
Herod tried mocking Jesus, but apparently was unable to do it to the point of death. (Herod could be quite an effective mocker when the occasion arose. Once at a state dinner in Rome, he got off one so good, it made wine spew from Tiberius’ nose.) Herod could have killed Jesus if he’d chosen, but he didn’t. Maybe he needed another lap dance to make up his mind. Herod the Great wouldn’t have hesitated a second, I can tell you.
So back goes Jesus to Pilate who’s got one more maneuver up his robe. He goes to the crowd and says, “I’m going to free one person. It’s either going to be Barabbas, the well-know murderer, or this Jesus guy who goes around preaching love and brotherhood.” Naturally the crowd wanted to set free Barabbas. (Apparently the Mel Gibson film lays the blame for the crucifixion squarely on the Jews. This is rank anti-Semitism. Italians were equally to blame.) So Pilate takes out a bowl of water and washes his hands in front of the crowd saying, “I wash my hands of this man’s death.” Which didn’t work so well, evading-responsibility-wise; apart from Jesus himself, Pilate is the only historical figure specifically mentioned in the Nicene Creed.
After the crucifixion, Pilate and Herod, who had been at odds with each other, made up and became friends. Which is kind of heart warming in a twisted way.
Which brings us back to Good Friday. Jesus died on the cross and was put in a tomb where he lay for a minimum of three days. On this, all accounts agree.
The rest, as they say, is Mystery.