Just like this year, Good Friday in 1865 fell on April 14. But, for Abraham Lincoln, it really wasn’t such a good Friday. That was the day our 16th President was shot by John Wilkes Booth. My inquiring mind can help but wonder how things might have played out differently had the Lincolns gone to a Good Friday church service instead of going to Ford’s Theatre.
Believe me, I’m not judging Mr. Lincoln’s decision of where to spent that Friday evening. After the heart-wrenching drama he’d lived through in recent weeks, a comedic play was probably what our nation’s chief executive needed most. And based on what I’ve read, a Good Friday sermon wasn’t necessary for our President’s belief in the Almighty to remain intact.
Like the patriarch in the Old Testament after which his parents had named him, Abraham Lincoln was a man of faith. He regularly looked for Divine help as he surveyed the chaos that characterized the divided nation he governed. He routinely referenced the God in whom he invited Americans to trust.
Regardless of where he chose to spend Good Friday evening, I think I am safe in assuming Lincoln was looking forward to celebrating the message of Easter morning two days later. He had reason to believe that a costly war was nearing a much-anticipated end.
On Palm Sunday of that very week, General Lee’s confederate army had surrendered to General Grant’s union forces. The triumphant joy celebrated in church sanctuaries in the North reflected what had reverberated on the cobblestone streets of Jerusalem two millennia earlier.
On a personal note, the President and First Lady had additional reason to thank God. Robert, their oldest son, had safely returned home from the frontlines. As Mrs. Lincoln would later recall, her husband was in a most upbeat mood that Good Friday.
As the nation observed the fourth anniversary of a less-than-civil war, Lincoln was hopeful the message of Easter would not be reserved for America’s pulpits alone. He had faith that death would be swallowed up in victory. His optimistic perspective was focused on what would play out in the weeks to come. He believed love would dominate hate. He was convinced that truth would trump the deception of injustice.
In the meantime, the stench of death hung over a country defined by racial prejudice and personal hatred. Since April 12, 1861, when the “war between the states” began, more than 600,000 lives had been lost. The price tag of this bloody conflict was reflected in more than bodies or even dollars. Entire families had been divided by the borders that separated states. Our young democracy (only 89 years old) had suffered a mortal wound.
Much like then, Good Friday this year finds America less-beautiful than the portrait painted by Katharine Lee Bates’ familiar lyrics. Our union is threatened by political walls that separate us. Prejudice and hatred are quick to crucify the dreams of the innocent. A selected memory finds us forgetting the immigrant stories of our ancestors. Right remains at risk by those who delight in doing wrong.
A victim of cross-purposes, even Jesus was caught in the cross hairs of those who misunderstood his message. As with Abraham Lincoln, Good Friday did not prove to be such a good day for the one who called himself the Prince of Peace. Both would die before Easter Sunday. But the deaths of both would galvanize their followers to pursue their dreams.
The month following Lincoln’s death the Civil War ended. Two days after Jesus’ death, a movement was coalesced thanks to his abandoned grave. In the case of both men, a Good Friday tragedy paved the way for a great legacy. For both, it took looking beyond Good Friday to see the rest of the story. In the case of one of them, the injustice inflicted proved to be a necessary price tag that would purchase the peace he promised.
Rev. Greg Asimakoupoulos is the fulltime chaplain at Covenant Shores Retirement Community on Mercer Island. He is the faith and values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter and contributes original poetry each Blue Friday to KOMO news radio.