Why We Broke from Tradition on Good Friday (and started a new one)1
In countless churches here in OKC and throughout the country, people gathered last week to observe what we call Good Friday. You will notice that I did not say they gathered to “celebrate” Good Friday. There is a long-standing tradition in evangelical, and especially liturgical, churches that Good Friday should be approached with sobriety and sadness. If there is one word that would appropriately describe the mood of Christians on Good Friday it is somber.
I must confess that I’ve never fully understood or embraced this approach. At most Good Friday services leaders go out of their way not to mention the resurrection of Jesus. Their reason for this is that they want people to put themselves in the mindset of those who were with Jesus on the day he was crucified. They want you to feel what they felt, namely, the discouragement and disillusionment of watching the Lord Jesus suffer and die as he did. They want you to return on Sunday with heightened expectations of his rising from the dead. Then, so they say, we can truly celebrate.
This is the rationale for an announcement made at the close of most Good Friday services that the people should depart the auditorium in silence. I assume the primary reason for this is that the early followers of Jesus left the foot of the cross confused, frustrated, and unable to fathom what they had just witnessed. Their sadness and sobriety turned to joy and exhilaration only when, on Easter Sunday morning, they discovered that the tomb was empty.
It’s important that you know that I do find it spiritually beneficial to contemplate how the early church experienced the unfolding of Holy Week. It is highly instructive and sheds considerable light on how we interpret the meaning of what Jesus achieved for us in his obedience and suffering.
But I find it hard to justify viewing Holy Week and its consummation on Good Friday from any perspective other than that of the empty tomb. You and I will never, ever stand on the front side of the cross. Our entire existence, and that of the church for the past 2,000 years, has been from the point of view of life conquering death and of the fulfillment of God’s promise to defeat sin through the cross of his Son.
So, last week at our Good Friday service we broke from tradition. I don’t know yet if our people were disappointed, although the ones who have spoken to me were incredibly grateful for the approach we took. It’s important that you understand why we chose to break from tradition.
First of all, as stated above, I can understand the despair in the hearts of those who stood on the front side of the resurrection. In other words, I understand the mindset and the feelings of those who watched Jesus be crucified and wondered if all their hopes and dreams had just come to nothing.
But dear friend, we don’t stand on the front side of the resurrection, and we never will. We stand on the back side. Yes, Jesus suffered and died a horrible death at the hands of his enemies. But he rose again! And we have lived every day of our lives since that Easter Sunday morning in the reality and joy and jubilation of the resurrection having already taken place. That is why I find no lasting benefit in trying to pretend that the resurrection has not yet occurred. Yes, I can understand to some degree what James, John, Peter, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, together with others were feeling on Friday and Saturday. But they didn’t know then what I know now. I can never view the cross from a posture of ignorance or doubt or unbelief in the reality of the resurrection, and I refuse to pretend as if I do.
So, following my short message about the cross of Christ we at Bridgeway entered into a joyful celebration of the resurrection. We didn’t pretend to be somber. I saw no reason why we should have to wait three days before we could celebrate.
I seriously doubt if what we did will reverse the long-standing tradition of Good Friday being a somber, sad, and somewhat silent experience, but who knows: perhaps we set in motion a new perspective on how this day should be observed and celebrated.
Let me close with a comment from Charles Spurgeon. I found this in a blog post by Tony Reinke, published on April 17 of this year. Here is the portion of Spurgeon’s sermon that I found most helpful.
“The Lord of life and glory was nailed to the accursed tree. He died by the act of guilty men. We, by our sins, crucified the Son of God.
We might have expected that, in remembrance of his death, we should have been called to a long, sad, rigorous fast. Do not many men think so even today? See how they observe Good Friday, a sad, sad day to many; yet our Lord has never enjoined our keeping such a day, or bidden us to look back upon his death under such a melancholy aspect.
Instead of that, having passed out from under the old covenant into the new, and resting in our risen Lord, who once was slain, we commemorate his death by a festival most joyous. It came over the Passover, which was a feast of the Jews; but unlike that feast, which was kept by unleavened bread, this feast is brimful of joy and gladness. It is composed of bread and of wine, without a trace of bitter herbs, or anything that suggests sorrow and grief. . . .
The memorial of Christ’s death is a festival, not a funeral; and we are to come to the table with gladsome hearts and go away from it with praises, for ‘after supper they sang a hymn’” [Matt 26:30, Mark 14:26].
Reinke points out that a number of scholars believe the disciples would have closed their Passover-turned-Lord’s-Supper gathering with a hymn taken from the joyful Hallel Psalms (113–118), perhaps even a majestic one like Psalm 136. Similarly, for Spurgeon Good Friday, like any celebration of the Savior’s death in the Lord’s Supper, was a proper and suitable context for worship, joy, and gladness.
In Spurgeon’s mind, Good Friday was no funeral.
I agree. Perhaps with that a new tradition might be launched in celebration of a death that we know with certainty culminated in resurrection life!