A Time to Weep: Lamenting on Good Friday

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By Dr. John Witvliet, adapted for our current circumstance from an article written for Reformed Worship. [See also: A Time to Weep: Voicing Lament Through the Psalms and At the Cross: A Service of Lament]

Planning worship for Good Friday is a challenging pastoral and theological task under the best of circumstances. How do we begin to acknowledge the power and the mystery of the cross of Jesus Christ in the midst of COVID-19? How do we proclaim, even on Good Friday, that Christ is crucified and risen? How might the approach we take to our Good Friday worship, whether it is individual worship, with a household, or online, help us give voice to the grief we feel?

Three Typical Approaches to Good Friday

Good Friday services typically include some combination of the following three elements: a patient walk-through of the timeline of Jesus passion and death, a solemn commemoration of Jesus' death that can feel a bit like a funeral for Jesus, and a doctrinal explication of the significance of the cross. Sometimes, Protestant services consist almost entirely of one of these three themes. Sometimes churches in the same denomination choose very different approaches. 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.  Lament is a key ingredient in worship that arises from honest, soul-searching faith, and it finds its most natural liturgical home on Good Friday.

Here we can learn a lesson from some medieval liturgists who fought to preserve longer intercessory prayers 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 you help individuals and households worshiping in their homes or through online technology give expression to their lament during the COVID-19 epidemic? 

First, consider encouraging reflection on or incorporating Psalm 22 in your worship, 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 Lift Up Your Hearts 164,165, 511, 594, 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. For a version of this prayer written with COVID-19 in mind see: A Solemn Prayer During the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Some 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.

Preaching

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. Encourage your congregants to sing even if they are alone or gathered as a household. If they don’t feel comfortable singing, invite them to read the texts aloud. 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 Life of Love, PsH 380, st. 3

Or Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s text “The Power of the Cross/Oh, to See the Dawn” (LUYH 177)

Good Friday Worship and Pastoral Care

Liturgical lament has a crucial role to play in pastoral care. While this Good Friday may be a place to begin, our days and weeks ahead may be a growing crescendo of grief as COVID-19 spreads. It is imperative then that those planning and leading worship continue to find ways for their congregants to lament, to express their grief  and frustration with God in ways that have biblical and theological integrity. But equally important is to provide worshipers with occasions to articulate more clearly their only source for ultimate hope—the cross of Jesus Christ.

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