Thursday, April 9, 2009

Good Friday is Not a Funeral for Jesus

While the tradition of highlighting the mournful character of Good Friday and the agonies of our Lord's suffering persists in parts of the Church (underscored by veiling crosses in black and by using black for vestments and hangings as a "liturgical color" for the day), that practice is deeply at odds with the actual liturgy in The Book of Common Prayer assigned for the day. Yes, it is a solemn liturgy. Yes, it acknowledges the reality of Jesus' suffering and death. But it is also a liturgy that highlights the theme of Christus Victor, the victory of Jesus over sin, suffering, and death.

Liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell puts it well:

The Good Friday liturgy is a solemn commemoration of and participation in the great events of this day, the salvation of the human race through the victory of Christ, who by dying destroyed death, not a funeral for Jesus. The older custom of wearing black vestments, and the Anglican custom in some places of vesting choir and acolyte in black cassocks without surplices on this day, tends to reinforce the funeral theme. This latter custom apparently stems from the recognition that the Three Hours was not a liturgical service, hence the 'vestments' were not worn, but only the cassock, the 'street dress' of the clergy. The liturgical color of today is Holy Week red, for Christ the King of martyrs, and albs or surplices are appropriately worn [Lent, Holy Week, Easter and the Great Fifty Days: A Ceremonial Guide (Cowley, 1996), pp. 69-70].

The theme of Christ's victory surfaces in several places in the Prayer Book's Good Friday liturgy. In the prayer that concludes the Solemn Collects, for example, we read this:

... let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord (BCP, p. 280).

Already, on Good Friday, we anticipate the victory of Christ's resurrection.

This becomes even more clear in the Good Friday anthems recited or sung as a devotional response to bringing a wooden cross into the church. Consider this part of Anthem 1:

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world (BCP, p. 281).

The theme of victory sounds again in Anthem 2:

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world
(BCP, pp. 281-282).

One of the rubrics after the anthems again highlights the Christus Victor theme of the liturgy: "The hymn 'Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,' or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross, is then sung" (BCP, p. 282).

And then, of course, there's the fact that the assigned Passion Gospel for every Good Friday comes from the Gospel according to John. And in John's Gospel, the moment when Jesus is lifted high upon the cross is paradoxically both his moment of greatest humiliation and his moment of greatest exaltation. For John, Jesus' death by crucifixion is also Jesus' victory over the powers of sin, evil, and death (cf. Jn 12:31-33).

So wearing black and fixating on the violence and gore of Jesus' suffering misses the central point. This is not a funeral for Jesus, and it's not a liturgical version of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." The Good Friday liturgy is a Christus Victor liturgy. How our churches enact that liturgy should reflect this reality.


Caelius said...

By that argument, the Holy Saturday liturgy is a funeral service for Jesus, considering how many elements of the Burial Service it contains.

Bryan Owen said...

You are correct, Caelius, to note the connection between the Holy Saturday liturgy and the Burial Office.

But remember what the Prayer Book says about the Burial Office: "The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection" (BCP, p. 507; emphasis added).

So whether it's the liturgy for Good Friday, Holy Saturday, or the Burial Office, fixation on death and dead bodies is inappropriate. Instead, the Prayer Book rightly places the focus on where our faith as Christians truly lies: the resurrection of our crucified Lord.

Joe Rawls said...

But dude, black vestments are like, so cool! How else do we evangelize the goths(not the Germanic tribe)?

bls said...

The Prayer Book also says, just two paragraphs later, that "This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn."

Bryan Owen said...

Yes, indeed, bls. The Prayer Book's acknowledgment of the reality and faithfulness of human grief (including Jesus') in no way diminishes the point that the central focus of the Burial Office, the Good Friday liturgy, etc., is the resurrection, not suffering, anguish, death, and decay.

bls said...

The focus on Good Friday is death and sorrow; the resurrection hasn't happened yet.

Bryan Owen said...

bls, you are correct that, in terms of the unfolding of the story, the resurrection hasn't happened yet. And it is certainly true that death and sorrow are acknowledged as a part of the Good Friday liturgy (just as death and sorrow are also appropriately acknowledged in the Burial Office).

But if the focus of Good Friday is, as you say, death and sorrow, how do you account for the parts of the Good Friday liturgy I've cited which so clearly focus on the victory of Christ, and for the assignment of John as the Passion Gospel for that day?

It seems to me that if you are correct, those parts of the Prayer Book's Good Friday liturgy should not be there, and we should have another Passion Gospel (the Christus Victor theme is just so strong in John).

It's a both/and point I'm trying to make: that the Good Friday liturgy both acknowledges the reality of death and sorrow, and anticipates the victory of the resurrection over death and sorrow.

The same can be said of the Burial Office: it both acknowledges the reality of the death that has taken place and the sorrow of those who grieve, and it anticipates the resurrection of the deceased loved one (and of all who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus).

I think that if we lose the both/and vision which these liturgies give us, we run into the problem of either (a) fixating so completely on death and sorrow that if we can even acknowledge resurrection, it seems like pie-in-the-sky idealism, or (b) we deny the pain and suffering caused by death and loss.

plsdeacon said...

The Alb is not an appropriate vestment for Good Friday as it is a Eucharist vestment - meant for the celebration of the Eucharist and, by the rubrics, Eucharist is not to be celebrated between Maundy Thursday and the Great Vigil.

While Good Friday is not a funeral, it is a time to remember that we incurred a price and that Jesus paid that price. There is sorrow and agony on Friday and the Holy Saturday liturgy. Allowing this sorrow and reliving the agony makes Easter that much more joyous.

I believe that to remove the "blood and gore" from Good Friday is to also "civilize" the cross and minimize the pain and suffering that our sins cause Jesus.

On Good Friday, we remember the death and pain and suffering. But we remember it with an eye (or half an eye) looking to Easter because we know that Jesus surrender to death is part of his plan for victory over it. So, we cry and "bewail our manifold sins and wickedness" that caused the cross and we also proclaim that the victory has been won. We proclaim that through the cross new life has entered the world.

So, is Good Friday a time of mourning or a time of celebration?


Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

I think we're almost completely on the same page, Phil. I, too, would answer your question "is Good Friday a time of mourning or a time of celebration?" with a resounding "Yes!" That's why, in response to bls' comment, I tried to clarify by saying that we need a both/and approach.

However, I disagree that "to remove the 'blood and gore' from Good Friday is to also 'civilize' the cross and minimize the pain and suffering that our sins cause Jesus." I don't think the Good Friday liturgy removes or civilizes anything at all. Note that each of the four gospels does not go into the "blood and gore" in any detail. So to focus on the "blood and gore" is to add something to the liturgy that goes beyond the reticence and restraint of Holy Scripture.

Why do the gospel writers not go into such detail a la Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"? Perhaps one reason is that everyone at the time knew only too well the whole world of pain, suffering, and horror entailed within the words "there they crucified him."

But I think another reason is also out of respect for our Lord's sufferings. There's something almost pornographic and sadomasochistic about going into play-by-play detail of each moment of torture inflicted on Jesus' naked, defenseless body for all the world to see (again, a la the Mel Gibson film). The gospel writers don't do that, and we don't do it in the liturgy, either. And the reason we don't do it is not because we are in denial about the reality of what happened (the Good Friday liturgy is, after all, a solemn liturgy precisely because we do recognize the reality). We don't do it because nakedness, humiliation, torture, degradation, bloodshed, death and dead bodies are not the focus and heart of the Christian faith.

plsdeacon said...

I did not mean to say that the Good Friday liturgy denies the Cross of its power.

But our culture and, increasingly, our Church both tend to "civilize" the Cross.

For example, rather than being a statement of faith, a cross is often just a piece of jewlery - even for Christians.

We speak of small burdens as "our cross to bear."

These things can trivialize the Cross.

If we move too quickly through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, looking forward to Easter, we lose something. We trivialize the pain and suffering.

I try and watch Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" on Good Friday because it reminds me of the price of my sins.

Easter will come. God always brings Easter after Good Friday. But today is not Easter. The focus of Good Friday should not be Easter. The focus of Good Friday should be the Cross.

Phil Snyder

Bryan Owen said...

While I'm not with you when it comes to the Mel Gibson film (for reasons already cited), I agree with you, Phil, about the ways in which our culture can and often does trivialize the cross. I also think that our Good Friday liturgy serves as a much needed corrective by focusing on the cross, but without going off the cliff into sadomasochism. And at the same time that it focuses on the cross (and precisely by focusing on the cross), the Good Friday liturgy's Christus Victor theme also anticipates the resurrection.

Cross and resurrection: our Prayer Book liturgies hold the two together, and rightly so.