Why We Call this Friday Good -- Part 1

Reflections on the Seven Last Words

In place of our usual Service Planning column, in which we offer a series of sendee ideas for several weeks, we present in this issue a single, complete Good Friday service. The service centers around the final sayings of Jesus on the cross, and was developed by organist Robert Busch for the 1991 Good Friday Service at theFlatbush Church of the Redeemer in Brooklyn, New York.

The structure is very simple—Scripture, meditation, and a hymn for each word from the cross. Busch excerpted the meditations or readings from Howard Hagemans We Call This Friday Good (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, copyright © 1961, used by permission of Augsburg Fortress), now unfortunately out of print.

Using the themes of these meditations as his guide, Busch carefully selected the hymns, often looking to older sources. Many of those hymn texts are also "out of print," since modern hymnals do not contain as many penitential hymns or hymns on the suffering of Christ as do those of previous generations. We included only one set of hymns from among those Busch suggested; other appropriate hymns could be substituted from other hymnals.

The service was designed for three speaking participants. The pastor begins and ends the service. An "evangelist" reads the Scripture (the term evangelist is traditionally used in a Passion for the narrator who recites the Scripture text). Then a third person reads the meditations. However, if necessary, the service could be led by one worship leader and the organist.

Although the service was intended for Good Friday, it would be possible to use these seven segments to construct a series of Lenten services.

Organ Prelude: "O Sacred Head Now Wounded"
[Johann Sebastian Bach]

Pastor: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

People: Amen.

Pastor: The Lord be with you.

People: And also with you.

Pastor: Dear people of God, our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved; that all who believe in him might be delivered from the power of sin and death, and become heirs with him of everlasting life.

Let us pray:
Holy God, before you our hearts are open, and from you no secrets are hidden. We bring you now our shame and sorrow for our sins. We have forgotten that life is from you and unto you. We have neither sought nor done your will. We have not been truthful in our hearts, in our speech, and in our lives. We have not loved you as we should. Help us and heal us, we pray. Raise us from our sins to a better life. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

People: Amen.

Pastor: O merciful God, who in compassion for your sinful children sent your Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Savior of the world, grant us grace to feel and to lament our share in the evil that made it needful for him to suffer and to die for our salvation. Help us by self-denial, prayer, and meditation to prepare our hearts for deeper penitence and a better life. And give us a true longing to be free from sin, through the deliverance wrought by Jesus Christ, our only Redeemer.

People: Amen.

Pastor: Join with us now as once again we stand at the foot of the cross. We shall not be watching the unfolding of some tragic scene or listening to the dying words of a martyr. We shall be learning how God's love works through human weakness, failure, and sin, bringing light and love, peace and joy.

Hymn: "Go To Dark Gethsemane"
Go to dark Gethsemane,
all who feel the tempter's power;
your Redeemer's conflict see,
watch with him one bitter hour:
turn not from his griefs away—
teach us, Lord, how we should pray.

Follow to the judgment hall,
view the Lord of life arraigned.
Oh, the wormwood and the gall!
Oh, the pangs his soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss—
help us Lord, to bear our cross.

Calvary's mournful mountain climb;
there, adoring at his feet,
mark the miracle of time,
God's own sacrifice complete:
"It is finished!" hear him cry—
save us, Lord, when death draws nigh.
[Text: James Montgomery, 1825; time: REDHEAD 76]

THE FIRST WORD FROM THE CROSS

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Evangelist: Luke 23:32-34

Reader: The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that this first word from the cross is a kind of creed, small in size, but tremendous in what it comprehends. For here in this one sentence is the Christian understanding of God and the Christian understanding of humans. And I should like to begin at what may seem the wrong end. I should like to begin with what this word has to say about us, so that we may understand in sharper outline and clearer detail what it has to say about God.

Have you never been puzzled about the meaning of the second part of this first word from the cross, "They know not what they do"? To whom was our Lord referring? Where can you draw the line? Did he simply ask forgiveness for the soldiers who must do their duty and go through with this bloody business of crucifixion, even though they had no understanding of its moral meaning? Can you limit his forgiveness that narrowly?

Did he also ask forgiveness for the priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees, whose jealous plotting had produced this terrible result, since they did not foresee to what a frightful end their scheming would lead? Can you in all conscience set any limits to the application of this word? Does it not rather reach out to include all of us so that for you and me, five thousand miles and two thousand years away from the actual event, Jesus Christ is still praying, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"?

... This first word from the cross, this little creed, contains another affirmation—"Father, forgive them." If ignorance of soul be our Lord's verdict on human nature, here is his final belief about God: "Father, forgive." The two words belong together, do they not? It is because God is a Father that his very nature is forgiveness. And it is because forgiveness is the most basic experience that a person can have with God that you and I can say "our Father."

How do we know that God is our Father? Not just because in some vague way he created us and endowed us with life, but because time and again when we come back from the strange ways of our ignorance and stupidity, we find him waiting for us with a welcome heart. And how do we find the courage—the nerve, if you will—to come to God and ask his forgiveness after what we have been and what we have done? Because we have been persuaded that the heart of the Eternal is the heart of a Father.

Here in the first word from the cross is the answer to our searchings—the brutal truth about ourselves and the glorious truth about God. If you see only the brutal truth about human nature, you can easily become despairing and cynical. If you see only the glorious truth about God, you can easily assume a false optimism and a light responsibility. But if you see both, the full extent our ignorance mastered by the fuller extent of God's love, then you can hang on a cross and still keep faith!

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." There we are, you and I, as we are. And there is God as he is, eternally. And to be able to say words like these, even from a cross —there are you and I as Christ can make us!

Hymn: "Father of Heav'n, Whose Love Profound"
Father of heav'n whose love profound
a ransom for our souls has found,
before your throne we sinners bend,
to us your pard'ning love extend.

Almighty Son, incarnate Word,
our Prophet, Priest, Redeemer, Lord,
before your throne we sinners bend,
to us your saving grace extend.

Eternal Spirit, by whose breath
the soul is raised from sin and death,
before your throne we sinners bend,
to us your quick'ning pow'r extend.

Thrice Holy! Father, Spirit, Son;
mysterious Godhead, Three in One,
before your throne we sinners bend,
grace, pardon, life to us extend.
[Text: Edward Cooper, 1805; possible tunes: ANGELUS, QUEBEC, WAEEHAM]

THE SECOND WORD FROM THE CROSS

Truly, truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.

Evangelist: Luke 23:34-43

Reader: I doubt that there is a character in all the pages of the New Testament who has been the subject of more speculation and more romancing than this penitent thief who hung in death with our Lord. Actually, all that we know about him is contained in this single incident, recorded only in Luke's gospel.

I do not pretend to know what suddenly prompted a change of heart on the part of this man whose entire life had been one of violence and murder—who, very likely, had never so much as seen Jesus Christ until they were led out together to die. I suspect that it may have been that he, too, heard that first word from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" and that such an unusual cry in this place of cursing and pain had started him wondering and thinking.

His is the next voice that we hear in an unforgettable request. "Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

Our Lord's reply is usually interpreted to mean that it is never too late to turn to him in faith and repentance. Here is a man whose entire career, we may safely assume, has been godless and wicked. And in the last hours of his life, by a single change of heart, he leaves the hell in which he has been bound and enters the paradise of which, up to that point, he had never even heard. Down to the end of the end, down to life's last breath, the possibility of paradise is there for all who will repent and believe, no matter what their previous record.

... The first thing I would notice is that here is a magnificent illustration of the way in which God's greatness exceeds our expectations. The request of the penitent thief had been, after all, a rather indefinite one. Remember me. He had not asked for anything in particular. He had not, like two of our Lord's own disciples, asked for some special place of honor in this kingdom which was to come. He had not even asked to be let off from the penalty he might have to pay for the kind of life he lived.

Nor was he, as is so often suggested, trying to evade whatever destiny justice would assign him in another world. His simple request was that he might not be forgotten in that other world, that this man next to him in death, who, events had convinced him, would be lord of that other world, would not forget these hours of pain when his crucified companion had recognized even in his dying something of his glory. Sir, remember me.

It was a very modest request. But look at the response! "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise." Not, "I'll remember you," which is all that anyone could have expected under the circumstances, but an answer that in every possible way was far more than anyone could have imagined. Not, "I'll remember you when I come into my kingdom," but today. You will not have to wait for your request to be answered; it will not be postponed to some distant future, but today.

... While I would be the last in the world to minimize those good things which God has prepared for them that love him, none of us needs to sit mooning and pining for their coming when the most heavenly possibilities are available to us right here and now.

"Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" is no idle promise for an indefinite future, but a simple statement of what Christ can and will do here and now if we put our trust in him and open our lives to his presence and power.

Hymn: "Lord, When Thy Kingdom Comes, Remember Me!"
Lord, when thy kingdom comes, remember me!
Thus spoke the dying lips to dying ears:
O faith, which in that darkest hour could see
the promised glory of the far-off years!

No kingly sign declares that glory now,
no ray of hope lights up that awful hour;
a thorny crown surrounds the bleeding brow,
the hands are stretched in weakness, not in power.

Hark! Through the gloom the dying Savior saith,
"Thou too shalt rest in Paradise today."
Oh, words of love to answer words of faith!
Oh, words of hope for those who live to pray!

Lord, when with dying lips my prayer is said,
grant that in faith thy kingdom I may see;
and, thinking on thy cross and bleeding head,
may breathe my parting words, "Remember me."

Remember me; and, ere I pass away,
speak thou the assuring word that sets us free,
and make thy promise to my heart, "Today
thou too shalt rest in Paradise with me."
[Text: William Dalrymple Maclagen (1826-1910); tune: LANGRAN]

THE THIRD WORD FROM THE CROSS

Woman, behold your son.
Behold your mother.

Evangelist: John 19:25-26

Reader: There is something very human and appealing about this third word from the cross. Perhaps it does not blind us with the brilliance of its glory like the word which came before it. Perhaps it does not shake us to the depths of our being like that searching cry which will follow it. But in its human tenderness it has a quality all its own.

Sometime after his conversation with the penitent thief, our Lord looked down from his cross and saw his mother standing at his feet in the company of several other women and the disciple whom he loved. I must underscore the fact that the evangelist says deliberately that Mary was standing at the foot of the cross. She was not swooning or carrying on, indulging herself in some emotional display, but was standing in all the pride of motherhood, with a sorrow that was too deep for tears.

What was going through her mind we can only guess. Was this the time when she remembered that word spoken to her long ago in the temple when the aged Simeon had predicted that the day would come when the sword would pierce her heart also? Was this the time when she felt that stabbing pain in her soul, yet knew a peace beyond the pain, because she believed that even this awful hour had its place in God's purpose?

We can only surmise what she felt as she saw her son hanging in death. But we know what he felt when he saw his mother standing loyally by his cross. Obviously by this time she was a widow, for there is no mention of Joseph anywhere in the story. And when the father of the family was gone, it became the duty of the eldest son to provide for his mother or, if he was unable to do so, to see that she was provided for.

It was this filial duty that our Lord now performed, commending his mother to the care and responsibility of John, the disciple whom he loved above all others. You may well ask why he did not give the responsibility of his mother to those to whom it belonged, his younger brothers and sisters. But the fact that they were not there at the end should answer that question. Whether it was fear of shame or their old dislike of him that kept them away, they had absented themselves from Calvary and so had forfeited their right and responsibility to another.

... Being the mother of Jesus had not been easy. And now here on the cross the worst that she had feared had finally come to pass. And yet, there she is by the side of her dying son. She might have said, "He made his own bed; let him lie in it." She might have said, "He didn't need me then; let him get on without me now." She might have done as apparently her other children did, and gone home to hide herself for shame at having a criminal in the family She might have, but she didn't.

The evangelist records no word from Mary on this occasion. She stands before the cross a silent figure only to discover that even in death Christ was more concerned with what he could give to her than what she could bring to him. And beyond that insight into the heart of God we cannot go.

God's concern for us always outruns and outreaches our concern for him. Here is the abiding meaning of this third word from the cross.

For he who on the cross could not forget his mother can and will never forget us, his brothers and sisters.

Hymn: "At the Cross, Her Station Keeping"
At the cross, her station keeping,
stood the mournful mother weeping,
close to Jesus to the last.
Through her heart, his sorrow sharing,
all his bitter anguish bearing,
now at length the sword has passed.

Oh, how sad and sore distressed
was that mother highly blessed
of the sole begotten one!
Oh, the depth of her affliction
as she saw the crucifixion
of her dying, glorious Son!

Who, on Christ's dear mother gazing,
pierced by anguish so amazing,
born of woman, would not weep?
Who, on Christ's dear mother thinking,
such a cup of sorrow drinking,
would not share her sorrow deep?

For his people's sin chastised,
she beheld her Son despised,
scourged, and crowned with thorns entwined;
saw him then from judgment taken,
and in death by all forsaken,
till his spirit he resigned.

Jesus, may her deep devotion
stir in me the same emotion,
source of love, redeemer true.
Let me thus, fresh ardor gaining
and a purer love attaining,
consecrate my life to you.
[Text: Thirteenth century, tr. composite; tune: STABAT MATER (Luthemn Book of Worship 110)]

THE FOURTH WORD FROM THE CROSS

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Evangelist: Matthew 27:39-46

Reader: Can you stand on Calvary, listen to this fourth word from the cross, and not feel that it marks the end of humankind's one last slender hope? The man who for three years has preached trust in God, the burden of whose message for three years has been faith in the loving heart of a Father in heaven, is dying. And in his last moments on earth he is apparently unable to practice what he has been preaching.

For all the world it looks as though, at the decisive moment, Jesus Christ's faith failed. And if that be true, then our last hope has vanished with these words. For if at the point of agony and suffering our blessed Lord himself was not able to keep his faith and his trust unbroken, what hope can there be for ours? If climbing Calvary was more than his faith could take, what must become of ours when we climb our lesser Calvaries?

"My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" is a very different question from "Why has God forsaken me?" Even there in that place of despair and anguish, our Lord did not speak about a God of whom he had heard and in whom he had been led to believe. Even on Calvary, he spoke with a God whom he personally knew and personally trusted ... not God, but my God... not, "Why has he?" but "Why have you?" Even though he questioned his ways, failed to grasp his purpose, was unable to fathom his activity, of this one thing he was certain, of this one thing he would not let go—this darkly mysterious God was still his Father. My God. Never once did he permit even the direst circumstances to make God a stranger or an enemy. Even in loneliness, lostness, and forsakenness, my God.

I cannot question fate. It is completely arbitrary and knows no law. Today it does one thing, tomorrow another. What can I say? I cannot question the God of the universe, that vast and unknowable being who spins the stars like tops and spreads out galaxies like blankets. He is too vast for my tiny mind to comprehend. How could I possibly think that such limitless intelligence heeded my queries?

But I can question my God, not because I have the right to answers, not because he owes me anything whatsoever, but because he is my God whom I know, whom I trust, whom I love. Whenever I question him I know I shall always receive an answer which, though it may not at the time solve the superficial riddles posed by my intelligence, will always meet those deeper needs posed by my heart. Here is the only satisfying answer to life's intricate and troubling questions—to have the faith to bring them to a God who is personally known, personally trusted, personally loved. He will make his own way plain.

Hymn: "Throned Upon the Awful Tree"
Throned upon the awful tree,
King of grief, I watch with thee;
darkness veils thine anguished face,
none its lines of woe can trace,
none can tell what pangs unknown
hold thee silent and alone.

Silent through those three dread hours,
wrestling with the evil powers,
left alone with human sin,
gloom around thee and within,
till the appointed time is nigh,
till the Lamb of God may die.

Hark that cry that peals aloud
upward through the whelming cloud!
Thou, the Father's only Son,
thou, his own Anointed One,
thou dost ask him—can it be?
"Why hast thou forsaken me?"

Lord, should fear and anguish roll
darkly o'er my sinful soul,
thou, who once wast thus bereft
that thine own might ne'er be left,
teach me by that bitter cry
in the gloom to know thee nigh.
[Text: John Ellerton, 1875; tune: ARFON (The Hymnbook 197)]

Continued in part 2

The Rev. Dr. Howard Hageman is past president and Distinguished Professor of Liturgies of New Brunswick Theological Seminary.