A Time to Weep -- On Good Friday

Planning worship for Good Friday is a challenging pastoral and theological task. How do we begin to acknowledge the power and the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ? How do we proclaim, even on Good Friday, that Christ is crucified and risen? What emotions are appropriate to express? Do we rejoice or do we weep?

Three Typical Approaches to Good Friday

A quick study of thirty or more printed orders of service in my files suggests that most Good Friday services feature one of three strategies.

The first typical strategy might be called "historical reconstruction": we dramatize the passion, rehearse the seven last words, journey with the stations of the cross, and plan three-hour services in darkness. One congregation even rigged a way to rip its chancel curtain at the ninth hour. This strategy follows a pattern at least as old as the fourth century, when a Spanish nun named Egeria visited Jerusalem and described in detail a pattern of worship that retraced Jesus' passion step by step, hour by hour.

The second typical approach resembles a funeral: we sing dirges, speak eulogies, and offer prayers that bemoan the death of Jesus of Nazareth. We do what it takes to leave church feeling sad.

This strategy fits with what J. Christian Beker has described as "passion mysticism, a meditation on the wounds of Christ, or ... a spiritual absorption into the sufferings of Christ" (The Triumph of God, Fortress Press, 1990, 88; see also his Suffering and Hope: The Biblical Vision and the Human Predicament, Eerdmans, 1994).

A third typical strategy concentrates on the importance of the cross for Christian doctrine. Services of this sort may feature extended sermons on the doctrine of the atonement or on the way Jesus' passion and death fulfills numerous Old Testament prophecies. This type of service is geared more to what people think than to what they feel.

Each of these three models has strengths. The historical-reconstruction pattern roots worship in historical events recorded in Scripture, allowing for remembrance in the deepest Hebraic sense of the term. The funeral pattern reminds us of the pathos of Jesus' suffering and death. It circumvents the temptation to skip superficially from the shouts of "Hosanna" to "He is Risen" without sensing the darkness and poignancy of Jesus' death. The doctrinal approach teaches us the profound significance of Jesus' death for reordering the whole economy of salvation. It reminds us that the cross is the pivot around which all of salvation history turns.

Ideally, worship on Good Friday should include a bit of all three of these elements. We should narrate Jesus' death. We should sense the profundity of his passion. We should acknowledge the world-changing ramifications of the cross for the salvation of the world. Many typical patterns for Good Friday worship)—such as tenebrae or the stations of the cross— feature some combination of these three elements.

Good Friday Lament

Even so, there may be one essential ingredient that is missing. That ingredient, I would suggest, is lament. Previous articles in this series have explored the importance of liturgical lament in times of crisis and during Advent worship (see RW 44 and 45). These articles suggest that lament is a key ingredient in worship that arises from honest, soul-searching faith. But lament finds its most natural liturgical home on Good Friday.

Here we can learn a lesson from some medieval liturgists. Fairly early in the medieval period, the Roman church was in a process of paring down the typical Sunday service. One of the places for trimming was the lengthy intercessory prayer (even then, the "long prayer" was perhaps too much for people's short attention spans). Yet several liturgists, probably quite conservative ones, stepped in to preserve that lengthy prayer for use on one day of the year—Good Friday. For centuries thereafter, Good Friday was the occasion for the longest and most intense prayer of the entire year.

The instincts of these liturgists have much to teach us. For part of what we celebrate on Good Friday (and the word "celebrate" is crucial) is that Christ has completely identified with us in suffering, even to death (Isa. 53:12; Heb. 4:14-16). On Good Friday we hear again Christ pray the lament of Psalm 22:1, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me"? On Good Friday, we remember how wondrous it is to have a savior-intercessor who is able to sympathize with our weakness (Heb. 4:14-16; 5:7-9).

What better time than this to practice a spiritual discipline of lament? What better time than this to express solidarity with those who suffer, including Jesus himself? On Good Friday, we lament not to Jesus, but with Jesus.

Good Friday and the Psalms of Lament

This approach fits perfectly with an ancient Christian tradition for understanding the psalms of lament. This tradition approaches the lament psalms as a way of sensing the poignancy of Christ's passion. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, "No individual can repeat the lamentation psalms out of his own experience; it is the distress of the entire Christian community at all times, as only Jesus Christ has experienced it entirely alone, which is here unfolded" (Psalms: Prayerbook of the Bible, 47). The psalms, of course, were written centuries before Jesus' life and death. But after we hear Jesus himself speaking the poignant opening words of Psalm 22, we can never approach these laments in the same way again. On Good Friday, the often-neglected lament psalms take on new meaning and significance. We hear them as words that express Jesus' fierce grief and sorrow for sin and brokenness in our world.

Good Friday lament also enriches Easter worship. In the psalms, passionate lament in times of crisis often has the effect of unleashing praise after the crisis has been resolved (see Psalm 30, for example; two versions are included on pp. 26 and 41). In the same way, serious and sturdy lament on Good Friday has the effect of immeasurably deepening Easter praise. Without death, there is no resurrection. Without honest lament, Easter praise can become suspiciously saccharine or glib. When we honestly acknowledge pain, suffering, and death in the world, then our wonder at the victory of the resurrection is that much greater. The best way to prepare for unbounded praise on Easter is to enter fully into the pathos of Good Friday.

Worship Planning Ideas

But how might Good Friday lament look in practice?

Psalm 22

First, consider using Psalm 22 prominently, the very psalm that Jesus quoted on the cross. When Jesus spoke the words of Psalm 22, he identified with the sufferings of all the people of Israel who had spoken or sung that psalm before him. When we speak the words of Psalm 22, we identify with our Lord and Savior.

Many churches read Psalm 22:1-18 as a Scripture reading for Good Friday. Others sing a version of Psalm 22 following the traditional Good Friday Old Testament reading from Isaiah 53. (For musical settings of Psalm 22, see Psalter Hymnal 22, Trinity Hymnal 79, Methodist Hymnal 752).

Alternatively, consider using Psalm 22 as part of an extended intercessory prayer. Begin Good Friday intercessions with Psalm 22:1-21, followed by extemporaneous prayers of intercession and lament. Then conclude the prayers with verses 22-31, a decisive song of hope that anticipates Easter praise (see also the example that follows on pp. 14-15).

Prayers of Intercession and Lament

In some congregations, an extended time of congregational prayer is the first thing to be cut in planning Good Friday worship. It actually should be one of the most important acts of Good Friday worship.

Prayers of intercession and lament on Good Friday should allow for two things: for those who suffer to express their honest lament and for all worshipers to identify and express solidarity with those who suffer, both in the congregation and in the world at large.

In part, Good Friday lament can be practiced through the use of the full traditional intercessory prayer for Good Friday, just like the one used by the medieval church. This is an example of a medieval liturgical practice that never should have been given up. If you look in most prayer books, you will find a long "solemn prayer" or "solemn intercessions" or "solemn prayer of the faithful" indicated for Good Friday (see, for example, Book of Common Worship [Presbyterian], 283-286 or The Book of Common Prayer [Episcopal], 277-280.) This is the modern-day version of this traditional medieval prayer. Some congregations may wish to use this same prayer in their Good Friday worship. Others may wish to use the comprehensive pattern of this prayer to structure more spontaneous prayers of lament and intercession.


Many Good Friday sermons are—appropriately— sermons about salvation, about the way that the cross achieves victory from sin and death. But it's also appropriate to preach about suffering, both Christ's and ours. Consider, for example, sermons on the words of Paul that confer mysterious significance on the suffering of those who are united with Christ in death (Col. 1:24; 2 Cor. 1:5, 4:10; Phil. 3:10; also 1 Peter 4:12-16). Some sermons are intended to help people think correctly. But on Good Friday, consider preaching sermons that help worshipers pray more profoundly.

Songs and Hymns

Finally, look for hymns and songs not only about Christ's passion, but also about the world's pain and suffering. Many hymn texts explore the link between Christ's suffering and ours in unforgettable ways. Consider this example:

No pain that we can share
but he has felt its smart.
All forms of human grief and care
have pierced that tender heart.

—O Perfect Lifee of Love, PsH 380, st. 3

This text, or others like it, might work well on the front of a printed order of worship for Good Friday. See also the hymn printed in the box on page 12, "Why Has God Forsaken Me?"

Good Friday Worship and Pastoral Care

This series of articles has suggested that liturgical lament has a crucial role to play in pastoral care. Lament in public worship allows hurting and suffering persons to express their disappointment and frustration with God in ways that have biblical and theological integrity. It also provides worshiping communities with occasions to articulate more clearly their only source for ultimate hope—the cross of Jesus Christ.

Still, many congregations may resist lament to God. It may seem to them disrespectful or even irreverent. It may seem too honest or emotive.

This instinct should be respected. Worship services should not set out to shock people or make people uncomfortable unnecessarily. Rather, over time, worship leaders should lead their congregations to more honest expressions of both lament and praise. Consider these two suggestions:

First, if you are introducing liturgical lament, begin on Good Friday. Begin by simply singing the ancient psalm of lament that Jesus spoke. Begin by sensing solidarity with the millions of worshipers throughout the centuries who have sung the psalms of lament on Good Friday.

Second, make Good Friday and Easter worship the foundation of congregational pastoral care. Prepare people to experience Good Friday lament and Easter praise in more profound ways than ever before.

The approach one congregation took may help you plan your own: it all began with a joint meeting of their pastoral care team and worship planning team. The committees decided to send their pastors, elders, and Stephen ministers to each hurting member of the community with a special invitation to be present at Good Friday and Easter worship. They explained that these two worship services express more poignantly than any others both lament and joy, both sorrow and hope. They encouraged their hurting friends to prepare for these services by jour-naling their experience of both pain and hope. They encouraged them to meditate on Psalm 22 and Psalm 118 (the Good Friday and Easter psalms) in their personal worship, and to prepare carefully the prayer requests that they would bring to their Good Friday and Easter services.

As a result, worshipers in this congregation circled Good Friday and Easter in red on their calendars. They invited friends and neighbors to come. They came to these services with high anticipation and an eagerness to participate actively. The singing was never better. There were never more prayer requests—and they were never as thoughtfully and sensitively spoken.

This congregation invested in making Good Friday and Easter the most intense and heartfelt worship of the entire year. After a year or two, some families even stayed home during spring vacation so they wouldn't miss it.

In one of his commentaries on Psalms, John Calvin testified to the "inestimable privilege" of participating in public worship with other believers. Worship, said Calvin, is a "necessary help to our infirmity" that "trains us up together in the hope of eternal life." May your congregation's lament and praise on Good Friday and Easter do just that.

Rev. Dr. John D. Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and professor of music and worship at Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also teaches in the religion department at Calvin University.

Reformed Worship 46 © December 1997, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.