Editor's Postlude: What to Do with Good Friday?

December 14, 2022
Three crossed on a deep orange sunlit background

I’ve had the conversation with more than one colleague. Holy Week is coming. We are preparing to preach Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. What are we going to share?

The issue isn’t that we have preached Holy Week repeatedly for several decades. It is much more complicated than that. First of all, Good Friday is uncomfortable in our culture because it is all about death. Ever notice how the congregation on Good Friday is so much smaller than the Easter Sunday congregation? No matter how many times I explain to the congregation that you can’t understand Easter joy without going through the grief and pain of Good Friday, it seems a losing proposition. Our culture would rather avoid death. Yet, Easter Sunday is a hollow observance unless we can proclaim “Christ is risen” with all the gusto of people who have experienced the pain, grief, and loss at the foot of the cross and then discovered transformation and possibility in the most unexpected of places, the empty tomb.

Adults, youth, and children together must journey to the cross with Jesus. It is a practice for our own journey toward death. Yes, children need Good Friday, too. Well-meaning adults want to protect children from the sorrow and pain, but it will come into their lives and they won’t know what to do unless they have journeyed that path with us, in a ritual way such as we share on Good Friday.

An even greater complication of Good Friday is the inherent racism. For a denomination committed to becoming an anti-racist church and challenging antisemiticism, the marking of Good Friday needs to be carefully considered. While we may feel that we have distanced ourselves from the antisemitism of Good Friday, every time we read John’s gospel, and especially if we don’t change the language, we are allowing the echoes of past racism to reverberate.

The tradition of reading the crucifixion story from John’s gospel goes back to the fourth century. This tradition was continued in the Revised Common Lectionary, with the Gospel of John reading assigned to Good Friday for all three lectionary years. The Gospel of John is the gospel that has been most used to blame Jewish people for the death of Jesus. We might change “the Jews” to “the religious leaders” or “the Judeans” but the antisemitic tenor of this gospel still breathes through. (See Worship Sparks p. 28 for alternatives.)

Consider Good Friday rituals of the past, such as throwing stones at the houses of Jewish people or at Jewish people themselves, dragging a Jewish person to the steps of the church in order to be slapped by a Christian, praying for the “perfidious” or “deceitful” Jews, and the chanting of the “Reproaches” (or accusations against Jewish people) during the veneration of the cross. These rituals, going back to the Middle Ages, were a way for Christians to assert power over Jewish people. Such Good Friday practices have laid the foundation for antisemitism around the world, including the horrific Holocaust of Jewish people during the Second World War.

We need Good Friday, this ritual day of moving toward death, grief, and loss. It is important for us as human beings and as followers of Jesus. In a society that tries to pretend that death doesn’t exist and that quickly changes the topic when too much time has been spent discussing death and grief, we have a Good Friday message that is so needed and so important, the message that God, in Jesus, has chosen to be with us right in the midst of death, pain, grief, and loss.

But it is also a day when we must move with great care, knowing that a day meant to proclaim God’s loving presence in the midst of pain and death was turned into a day of blaming another racial and faith group and meting out pain and death on that group. The words that we share on Good Friday, no matter our own intentions, still hold the echoes of the accusations against the Jewish people.

As a denomination choosing the path of anti-racism, Good Friday is a day when we can show that we truly have embraced the commitment to anti-racism. What will you do with Good Friday this year?

Susan Lukey, Editor