Today at 12:30 we will have a liturgical celebration of the Crucifixion of Jesus. In the Collierville (Memphis suburb) area we are going to be part of a very small number of people doing this. Atheists obviously think that the service is a stupid waste of time. Nominal Christians are satisfied with Easter and Christmas. Hearty Individualist Christians don't see much value in any church service, they have their own special relationship with God. Most of our church going neighbors (in big churches, much bigger than mine) will not offer the option. And many will say it is not necessary to have such a liturgy at all. In fact, there are some who would see it as an error, perhaps a blasphemy, to conduct such a service at all.
Is it a good idea to have Good Friday in church? If Jesus died, once and for all, in an unrepeatable act, then is this service implying that we can repeat it? If Jesus died to take care of our sins and our sins are taken care of, is it wrong to go back to the crucifixion? Aren't resurrection people supposed to be joyful and thankful? Isn't this why we hold high the cross but keep crucifixes out of view? (Except for Catholics, of which I happen to be one, in an Anglican variation) Are we at risk of becoming morose by focusing on the bloody execution? Is such a meditation bordering on "pornography" as I heard many Episcopal priest complain about Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" some years ago. There are solid theological arguments to pass this day by, and historically the Twelve Apostles don't mention it as God's intent.
So, as part of this very small subset of Christians who will be in church for an hour, reading the passion account, praying, and reverencing a wooden cross to honor Jesus, how am I to understand what we are doing? Is it a good thing, an indifferent thing, or a bad thing?
No surprise, as I am the leader of this small band of 'outlier' disciples, I think it is a very good idea. Good Friday liturgy is a powerful opportunity to gather with other believers and publicly declare that the death of Jesus is worthy of public remembrance. There has been much discussion about whose lives matter in our society. I would see Good Friday as a proclamation that Jesus' life mattered. The manner of death is too often reduced to a singular meaning--penal substitution. Perhaps if we think the cross is completely understood (Jesus took my place and died for me) there is not much sense in pondering the event. After all, if it is all about Me (and my sin) and it is already done (Jesus said it is finished) then I probably should celebrate the new life in grace and not darken my mind with gory details of Roman brutality.
What if penal substitution, though true, is but one aspect of the crucifixion? What if there is more to sift through here? I believe there is.
The horrors of the suffering of Jesus are worth contemplating. We need to know that the whip didn't leave a red mark. As an instrument of torture it has unparalleled success at opening up huge gashes and deep wounds. The body of Jesus was literally torn to shreds. Not pleasant to think about, but most important for those who ask the question, "where is God in the midst of so much human suffering?" Today in worship we gather to answer that question. God is right there, at the front of the line, absorbing in His fragile human body the same abuse that terrorizes our world. Victims of oppression, illness and any other inhuman suffering have a companion on their journey. It is good to ponder that, to see the suffering of The Holy Other, the one who chose to share in our suffering of His own volition. He emptied Himself to become like us. On this day we remember that it was at a terribly cost. It's good to be reminded.
Loneliness and betrayal haunt the human soul. Feeling so alone, sometimes in the midst of friend and family, leads some to drink, others to suicide and others to empty lives of misery. Can we spend an hour hearing Him cry out with us "My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?" Is there a source of hope in knowing that when we are most alone we have entered in the heart of the Crucified, there to find the human-divine companion who knows, who understands, who hangs dying with and in us. No dark place is so alone that He is not there. And if He can pray Psalm 22 (those words indicate that He did just that), then we can take encouragement in our own dark times that at the worst moment of abandonment it is possible to complain to God but also declare unaltered trust in Him as well. We can pray the whole psalm--words not quoted in the text, but spoken by "the mouth dried out like a potsherd" His "tongue sticking to the roof of His mouth" "surrounded by" a "pack of dogs" which "pierce His hands and His feet." What did the abandoned one of Psalm 22 pray? "I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born," "Praise the Lord you that fear Him...give glory," "I will declare your Name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you," "My praise is of Him in the great assembly," "My soul shall live for him, my descendants shall serve him; they shall be known as the Lord's forever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that he has done."
To pray that whole prayer with Jesus changes everything to me. That is the psalm He prayed, words of horrible suffering, but many words of unbounded faith and trust. It is good to sit in church and see Jesus hanging on the cross announcing that we (His descendants) will serve God. Jesus believed it hanging there. Is there any excuse for doubt when I face my struggles?
Finally, we gather to ponder His request. "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do." My theory of salvation includes this verse. How did Jesus save us from our sins? Well, He was unjustly executed and His dying request was that we who did the crime be forgiven by His Father. Call it a dying man's last request, a particularly innocent man dying a particularly awful death. The kind of man and kind of death that makes the request hard to ignore. Why did Jesus dying on the cross save us from sin, because He loved us so much that He asked God to forgive us. And He did.
So why are we doing this? Because humans need to think deeply on what the cost of salvation is. Humans need to spend time thanking the Lord, in an inconvenient time and space, for all He has done. People need to delve deeper, in community, into what really happened. People need to understand the shadow side of Easter, how we got to that empty tomb. One day set aside to remember and enter the saving mystery of His death is life-giving....So it is a good idea.