The Lord's Supper on Good Friday: Yes and No

The Lord's Supper on Good Friday: YES

It had been nine months since I had arrived at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church, and I was still walking that fine line between “that’s how we’ve always done it” and “that sounds like a great idea.” This was to be the first time I would travel the Lenten journey with my new congregation, and I was looking forward to celebrating with them that capstone of our faith: Easter morning.

The worship committee and I planned the services of the six Sundays leading up to the cross, tracing the steps of Jesus as he walked the Via Dolorosa, the way of suffering. Our Good Friday service would remember the last supper Jesus had eaten with his disciples, and we would share the communion meal.

And then I received an email from a member of our church—a respected church historian, no less. It read, “I was distressed to see that Ancaster CRC will be having the Lord’s Supper on Good Friday.”

Distressed! What had I missed? Had I made a grave theological faux pas? Had I skipped out on the class at seminary where we were instructed, unequivocally, to never, ever, serve communion on Good Friday?

My first course of action was to access that repository of all clergy queries, our Facebook pastors’ group, to find out what other CRC churches were doing. There were 46 comments to my posting, and the responses were quite varied.

In Canada, Good Friday is a national holiday, so most of our churches gather for worship that morning. Many U.S. churches, and some of our Canadian churches, have Maundy Thursday worship services. About a dozen of the respondents said that they shared the sacrament on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Three said they did so on Easter, and a few said “both.”

During the season of Lent, much of our focus is on remembering, retracing the final weeks of Jesus’ life on earth. From the time that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:51) the focus of the gospel of Luke is oriented toward the cross. As pastors and worship committees plan their worship services leading up to Good Friday and Easter, they often follow the same journey. From Lenten liturgies (RW 34) to Holy Week dramas (RW 58) to walking with Matthew through the shadows (RW 114), we place ourselves within the drama of Christ’s suffering. The last supper that Jesus shared with his disciples is a focal point of that drama. When we share the communion meal on Maundy Thursday or on Good Friday, we are rehearsing the event, remembering with pathos Jesus’ final hours before his trial and his sentencing. We “take, eat, remember and believe that the body of our Lord Jesus Christ was given for the complete forgiveness of all our sins” (Form for the Lord’s Supper, Psalter Hymnal, 1987, p. 981).

Should we “celebrate” the sacrament on Good Friday? Should we “celebrate” at all? I have participated in tenebrae services where the sanctuary becomes increasingly dark as lights are extinguished, and the people leave the sanctuary in silence. These services are often very meaningful, as the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice is impressed upon worshipers.

But we live post-Easter. We know what happens three days later. We know that Jesus has conquered death. And so we can share the communion meal on Good Friday. Our commemoration is wrapped up in our forward-looking celebration. Paul quotes Jesus as he speaks of remembrance, and then adds, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). We look back; we look forward. On both Good Friday and on Easter, we worship our Savior—crucified and risen.

I celebrated my second Good Friday and Easter season at Ancaster CRC this spring. This time we had communion on Easter. I think that next year we may very well celebrate on Good Friday too.

The Lord's Supper on Good Friday: NO

I served on our congregation’s worship committee when we decided to celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Easter Sunday rather than Good Friday. As a church historian whose spiritual journey took me from indifference to the church year to a deep appreciation for it, I rejoiced at the decision. A few years later I was no longer on the committee, another pastor came, and as we journeyed through the Lenten season a bulletin announcement indicated that we would have the Lord’s Supper on Good Friday. I asked to meet with the pastor to talk with her about it, and our discussion led to this article.

For many years the Christian Reformed Church paid little attention to the church year, except for certain services specified in our Church Order (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost Sunday). Over the last few generations, though, that has changed as we have embraced a greater openness toward other Christian denominations and their practices, including following the church year.

I welcomed this as I grew in my appreciation for the spiritual watchfulness following the church year encourages: journeying through Advent toward the joyful celebration of the Savior’s birth; welcoming Epiphany and its worldwide implications; following the Lord and his disciples through the Lenten season to the horrors of Good Friday, through the emptiness of Silent Saturday, into the ecstatic joy of Easter; and celebrating the Ascension and then the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. But as my spiritual practice interfaced with my study of church history, I concluded that the Lord’s Supper should not be celebrated on Good Friday.

The church year is not laid out in Scripture. Although the Old Testament required an annual sequence of celebrations and feasts, the New Testament includes no such prescriptions. Even so, the narratives of the gospels and the constant watchfulness enjoined in the epistles opened the door for the early church to develop a pattern of hallowing special days to celebrate God’s acts for us.

Already by the early second century, intense discussions had taken place about how to set the date for Easter celebrations. Soon enough, the importance of hallowing Christ’s birth was recognized. Later it became common practice among Christians to spend weeks journeying through Advent and Lent.

During the Lenten season, Christians were called to follow the Lord as he moved toward and through his Passion. Some different patterns of practice arose, but on one matter there was absolute agreement—that the Lord’s Supper should not be celebrated on Good Friday or on Silent Saturday. When we remember that in the earliest church the Lord’s Supper could be celebrated any day of the week if there were prayer and proclamation (cf. Acts 2:42,46-47), this is striking. The entire church agreed that Good Friday and Silent Saturday were the only days in the whole year when the Lord’s Supper should not be celebrated. Why?

Following the Lord through Lent can involve a variety of spiritual practices. But at the heart of them all is identifying with the Savior who so identified himself with us that he took our place. With Good Friday, we come to his crucifixion, death, and burial; on Silent Saturday, he is still in the grave. As the hymn says, “We serve a risen Savior”—there is no other kind!

Until Jesus Christ rises from the grave, we have nothing to celebrate: without his resurrection, what happened on Good Friday means nothing (cf. 1 Cor. 15:14,17). Passing through Good Friday and Silent Saturday summons us to recognize the awful cost of our redemption and the emptiness of life without the Lord and thus prepares us to celebrate with profound joy his resurrection.

The Lord’s Supper “proclaims his death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23), but always from the vantage point of the resurrection. The church through the ages has recognized that there is nothing to celebrate on those two awful days. Until Jesus rises from the dead, there is neither hope nor eternal life.

But on Easter we rejoice that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” Then, and not before, it is legitimate to celebrate.

Rita Klein-Geltink is the senior pastor at Ancaster Christian Reformed Church in Ancaster, Ontario.

James R. Payton Jr. is professor emeritus of history at Redeemer University College and is the author of Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).