Everyone knows Good Friday is about the death of Jesus. Humanly speaking, what's so good about death? Most everybody knows Jesus was executed as a criminal. What's so good about that? Whoever heard of a religion built around someone convicted of a capital offence and executed for it? This is good?
Most likely, we come by the modern phrase Good Friday the same way we come by Good Bye -- "God be with ye" over time crystallised into Good Bye, and the name God's Friday, or in its earlier English form, Godes Friday, morphed into Good Friday. The good in Good Friday is God.
The Passover seder begins with the youngest present asking, Why is to-night different than all other nights?, and the story of the Passover of the Angel of Death of those marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb is told and the meal commanded in the story eaten. Last night, we celebrated Jesus' celebration of the Last Seder (Supper) and his transformation of it into what we call the mass in the West, into the the pledge that is his last will and testament, his body and blood given for us and given to us. The question Why is to-night different than all other nights might seem to belong there, but even more we may ask it of this night, Good Friday, when we confront and are confronted by not the sacrament he left us but the historical event of the death of the Lamb itself. It isn't pretty. It's brutally ugly. My dad was a physician, and he used to say that the average person, reading a detailed medical account of what happens to the human body in the process of dying from crucifixion, probably wouldn't be able to finish it because it is so gruesome and horrible. It is so ghastly that under Jewish law, which does sanction capital punishment, it is not allowed. And so as we gather to mark this event, we have a night unlike any other night, when the Passover Lamb is slaughtered. No mass, no communion, no joyous recessional and conversation on leaving -- but silent darkeness, unlike any other service of the church. Why is to-night different than all other nights?
In the Eastern church, there are three related services: before noon the Royal Hours; around 1500 hours (3 pm) the time the Gospels give for the death of Jesus, and in the evening. In the Western church, there is a single service around 3 pm, often also said later. In neither case is this a mass, or divine liturgy, different than all other observances. The Western service historically has two parts, A Liturgy of the Word, similar to the first part of the mass, but instead of a Eucharist a service of Adoration of the Cross follows.
In the first part, the reading are Hosea 6:1-6, with its call for a return to the Lord and prophecy of raising after three days to live in his sight, then Exodus 12:1-11, the institution of the Passover meal of the sacrificial lamb (Hey, Why is tonight ...), then the conclusion of the Passion account of John begun last night, John 18 and 19, telling the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Then follows a series of intercessory prayers, quoted in The Lutheran Hymnal as the Bidding Prayer, page 166: for the church; for church leaders; for catechumens; against illness and disaster and calamity; for heretics and schismatics; for the Jews; for pagans.
In the second part comes the focus of the while thing, the Cross. Veiled since Palm Sunday, we now see it in its stark reality, nothing abstract about it, not a pious meditation, but a gruesome execution, all the more so because the victim was innocent. The celebrant removes the veil from the upper portion of the crucifix and chants, Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we answer, Come let us adore. Then the celebrant moves to the Epistle side of the altar (anyone remember which side that is?), uncovers the right arm, and chants again, Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we answer again, Come let us adore. Finally the celebrant goes to the middle of the altar, uncovers the whole cross, and again chants Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world, and we again answer, Come let us adore. The celebrant, who significantly has removed his chasuble, the vestment put on over the others to signify his service of the Lord, to underline the focus on the Lord himself, now kneels and takes off his shoes too, and begins the adoration of the cross.
While in turn everyone comes before the cross, the Improperia, also called the Reproaches, are sung. It begins. O my people, what have I done to thee, or wherein have I afflicted thee? Answer me, and beginning with the Exodus, the acts of the Lord to deliver his people are mentioned in answer to the question each time -- at every stage, God has acted to deliver us, and we have acted to reject him. This question and answer, which so completely lays out the impropriety of what has happened, so to speak, is among the most ancient parts of the liturgy, so ancient that even in the Western rite when said in Latin the full Greek Sanctus hymn is sung. His love and our spite, his faithfulness and our infidelity, laid out fully. And it continues, to further underscore the point, with the Pange lingua, Sing my tongue the Saviour's glory, in verse and response form with the Crux fidelis, Faithful Cross.
And so it ends. No pomp, no ceremony, no smells and bells, no chancel prancing. Nothing.
Absolutely unlike anything else in the church's worship, because what it commemorates is absolutely unlike anything else that has ever happened on earth. What is the point? To feel sorry for Jesus? Not at all. As Bishop Sheen used to point out, for everyone else, death stops his life's work, but for him, this is why he came, this was his life's work. Are we to carry on as if we did not know there was a Resurrection, feel real bad as if maybe this is the end? Hardly.
The utter starkness, the absence of what usually constitutes our worship, the lamentation -- that is what the German name for the day means, Friday of Lamentation -- is not as if just a human being had suffered this. Say, you or me for example. It is because I, you, all of us, should have suffered this, it is what we deserve, not him, it should have been our execution, not his, but God so loved us that he did not regard his divinity and became one of us to be the sacrifice we could not be, do what we could not do, take away our sins, so that whoever is sprinkled with the blood of this Lamb he has provided as he provided a lamb for Abraham instead of Isaac should not taste death but have eternal life. We have witnessed the commutation of our death sentence. We have watched him take upon himself our guilt, so that we make take upon ourselves his innocence. Or in the word so dear to us, justification.
It should have been my condemnation, and at the cost of everything to him it is my justification. We are shown our sin in its grossest reality and we are shown our Saviour in his greatest reality. The supreme moment of Law and Gospel. Yes, the joy of finding the tomb empty will come, but for now we leave in stunned silence at the God who spared nothing to save us who could do nothing to save ourselves, who so loved us that he gave himself for us who have nothing for him, so that whoever believeth in him shall not die but have eternal life.
Sweet wood, sweet nails, both sweet and fair,
Sweet is the precious weight ye bear.
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