A friend of mine recently posted an Evite to her Facebook account. "Potluck+Good Friday Service," the banner proclaims. Next to the title is a picture of a cherry pie with a slice perfectly extracted in a way that never happens in real life. Guests are invited to bring a side dish or dessert, to complement the provided pulled pork and chicken. "After the service," the invite concludes, "we will enjoy some s'mores around a bonfire."
Now, I'm willing to give my friend a bit of a pass on this one. Her church tradition is not one that regularly hosts Good Friday services. And, judging by the content of the Evite, they don't seem to be aware that, traditionally, Good Friday is a day of fasting, not of feasting. If anything, the church should get some credit for wanting to commemorate in some way the events of that day nearly 2,000 years ago. And anyone who knows me knows that I'm not one to pass up a good potluck dinner.
Still, I can't help but feel a little uncomfortable about this method of commemorating Jesus' death on the cross. Perhaps this is just a case of my liturgical sensibilities clashing with a more evangelical approach to worship, but it seems to me that the solemnity of Good Friday is an ill fit for noshing on flame-roasted confections around a campfire. Rushing through a Good Friday service in order to gather around a fire and sing songs only serves to distract from taking the time to reflect on the death of our Savior, as well as our complicity in His crucifixion.
Generally speaking, human beings, Christians included, prefer the joyous and celebratory to the solemn and circumspect. Thus, it is not surprising that many Christians choose to scurry past the dark moments in Gesthemane, the Sanhedrin, and on Golgotha on their way to the empty tomb. Talk of death is certainly not conducive to celebration. We live in a culture where death is seen as the ultimate evil, as something final and without any redeeming value. Yet, it is through this death that redemption comes. And without taking the time to look unswervingly at the cross, we rob ourselves of a clearer understanding of the joy that comes on Easter morning.
Many years ago, I attended a Good Friday Tenebrae (darkness) service with a congregation that was not my own. As we prepared to leave the sanctuary in silence, I noticed a large wooden crucifix affixed above the door from which we entered, and through which we were exiting. The symbolism was striking: it was only through the death of Christ on the cross that we were able to enter into the presence of God. Furthermore, it was only through the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit that we were enabled to go out into the world and proclaim His Gospel in word and deed. It wasn't hard to envision the blood dripping from the pierced hands and feet of Jesus and landing on the heads of all that passed underneath it, providing protection and forgiveness of sins.
It's tempting to jump forward to Sunday and declare, "The strife is o'er, the battle won!" And indeed it is! However, to do so without first reflecting on Christ's sacrifice would be the epitome of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace"—a grace that does not require the cross. And a proper understanding of the cross is an understanding that each of us placed him there.
The second verse of the hymn, "Ah, Holy Jesus" puts it well:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee? Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee. ’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee! I crucified Thee.
As dark and oppressive as the Good Friday narrative can be, the darkest element for me is knowing that I am wholly culpable for Jesus' execution. As the late Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote in his book Death on a Friday Afternoon:
We cannot just take the scissors to all those Bible passages that say he died for us and because of us, that they were our sins he bore upon the cross. Yes, Christianity is about resurrection joy, but do not rush to Easter. Good Friday makes inescapable the question of complicity. . . .
. . . "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by who we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God, who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.
There is good news on Good Friday. When Jesus declared, "It is finished," he announced the redemption of the world and the ultimate defeat of the powers of Hell. Easter is the exclamation point of what was accomplished on Good Friday. But to fail to reflect on that from which we need to be redeemed is to fail to see the big picture.
No one appreciates freedom more than the one who was rightly condemned, and who was given an undeserved and unexpected pardon. When we fully grasp the hopeless nature of our sinful condition, and our need for a redeemer, we can be truly free to shout, "Allelulia! Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!" on Easter Sunday.
So save me a piece of pie and a seat around the bonfire. I'll be there on Sunday! In the meantime, you'll find me on the Via Dolorosa, walking in the footsteps of my Savior, and remembering the price paid on my behalf.