Friday, March 15, 2013

Merriman: Good Friday

Thinking about Good Friday

Reflections on the symbols and ceremonies of Holy Week by Michael Merriman

Back in 1979 when the American Book of Common Prayer was made official it seemed obvious that with a full rite for Good Friday for the first time, Episcopalians could stop putting together Good Friday services with little or no rationale such as a three hour "Preaching the Seven Last Words of Christ."  Or one congregation I knew that managed a three hour service composed of Morning Prayer at Noon with a sermon followed by the Great Litany with sermon, Liturgy of the Word with sermon, then Evening Prayer and sermon and finally compline.  Hymn being interspersed in these. 

What seems to have happened instead is a kind of attempt to preserve the idea of a three hour service and making the BCP's rite last that long.

Perhaps we can revisit that and accept the idea that the liturgy on Good Friday might be of ordinary length and the Good Friday rite in the Prayer Book be followed.  There is a logic in the rite that deserves to be respected as we move from Word to intercession to veneration of the cross and, if desired, Communion and then simply concluding without a dismissal.

There are some issues raised by elements in this rite.  I am particularly concerned to reflect on our reading of the Passion of John.  If it is read by a number of voices we may want to revisit the custom of giving the congregation the words of the crowd.  The people of God present are the Body of Christ.  Perhaps they might read the part of Jesus and have a small group read the parts of the crowd and the priests.

There is another issue in the Passion of John and that is the repeated use of the term "the Jews."  Many New Testament scholars tell us that in that context the writer was not speaking of the Jewish people but of the group of priests and other Jewish aristocrats who ruled Jerusalem under the watchful eye of Rome.  I wonder if we would be wrong to render "the Jews" as "the Jewish authorities" or even as "the authorities" or "the council."  When we do that the only time that the word "Jew" need be used is on the lips of Pilate, "Am I a Jew?" he asks.

Let us also remember that the Liturgy of Good Friday is not meant to be a funeral for Jesus.  We after all know the end of the story and to conduct this rite as if we don't isn't helpful.  While we don't wish to anticipate Easter, we might use hymns that glorify the Cross rather than penitential and sentimental hymns that stress individual piety rather than the praise of the community for God's great love inscribed (in words of one hymn) in shining letters God is love.

Michael Merriman is a member of APLM Council. He will be a featured presenter at Go, Make Disciples, a training institute offered by the North American Association for the Catechumenate, April 25-27, in Houston, Texas. For more info:


About the image: The artist is Theyre Lee-Elliott (1903-1988), a man who was the son of an Anglican priest. Apparently he fancied that trees were like human beings. After a period of serious illness, he created this piece in which Christ crucified, trees, the violence of world war and his own sufferings fuse into a single image, with the hint of hope and glory evident in the background colors.