What’s Good about “Good Friday?”
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When I was a kid growing up in a conservative evangelical church (moderately Pentecostal) we did not observe Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday. Nor did most conservative evangelical Protestant churches in the U.S. (There were exceptions, of course, especially among Presbyterians.) I attended a moderately evangelical Baptist seminary and I don’t remember any mention of Ash Wednesday, let alone any ashes on foreheads (!), or Maundy Thursday. There may have been a Good Friday service, but I don’t recall one. The semi-charismatic church where I served as assistant pastor definitely did not observe any of these “Holy Week” special days (or Ash Wednesday or Lent).
Historically speaking, “low church Protestants” reacted not only against Roman Catholicism but also against the “high church Protestants” (Episcopal, Lutheran, some Reformed churches) with their liturgical and sacramental beliefs and practices. That reaction included Anabaptists, Churches of Christ, Pentecostals, Wesleyan-Holiness churches, and most of the churches that called themselves “Brethren.” When I pressed for an explanation of this omission I was told (probably by my pastor father and seminary professors) that these observances and celebrations were inventions of the Orthodox and Catholic churches and not supported by scripture and that they were inextricably tied in with sacramentalism and clericalism.
However, we (low church Protestants) did observe and celebrate Easter. Many low church, evangelical Protestants in the U.S. held “Easter Sunrise services”—outdoors if the weather permitted (indoors if not). After that service we enjoyed a breakfast together in the “Fellowship Hall” (or a rented space near the church such as a “Settlement House”) and then held an extended and especially exuberant Easter Sunday morning worship service which always included singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” and “Up from the Grave He Arose!”
As a very low church Protestant (Anabaptist-Baptist-Pentecostal) I still do not get the point of Ash Wednesday or Lent and am confused by low church Protestants who are adopting those observances. They are not part of our tradition or heritage. I don’t criticize people or churches that have adopted them; I just don’t participate myself. I tell people I give up Lent for Lent.
However, I do now enjoy, if that is the right word, Good Friday and am glad to see low church Protestants, such as my own Mennonite congregation, holding a special “Stations of the Cross” Good Friday service. The point is to celebrate the atoning death of Jesus Christ which is why Good Friday is called “Good”—not because Jesus didn’t suffer; he did. But because his suffering is the (efficient) cause of our salvation. (Yes, yes, I know…also his resurrection, please don’t nit-pick here. I’m focusing on Good Friday and Jesus’s atoning death.)
Good Friday is our Christian celebration of Christ’s saving death on the cross which was and is unconditional good news!
Years ago evangelical writer and speaker Tony Campolo wrote a book entitled “It’s Friday, but Sunday Is Coming.” I guess the point was that on Good Friday we are traditionally dour, a bit depressed, grieving our Lord’s death. I would prefer to say “It’s Friday AND Sunday Is Coming.” There’s a reason it’s called “Good Friday” so let’s strip away from it the sad, sorrowful, dour atmosphere and celebrate this day with great joy and thanksgiving for what Jesus did for us even though, of course, it was horribly painful and sad for him. It was and is great good news for us!
Evangelical historian David Bebbington has claimed for years now that one of the four hallmarks of evangelical Christianity is “crucicentrism”—a special focus on the cross, the atoning death of Jesus Christ. Personally, I think that is the one of the four hallmarks (biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism) most neglected by today’s evangelical Christianity—at least among white American evangelicals. One reason I say this is the gradual disappearance of the symbolism of the cross and the singing of cross-centered songs. The Apostle Paul knew that the “message of the cross” was an offense to many unbelievers, but he preached it above all else anyway. (“I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified!”) Today, I fear, even many evangelicals are scandalized by the cross and are trying to empty it of its true significance—that on the cross the Son of God, God the Son, suffered our deserved punishment in order for God righteously to forgive us.
One recent and new hymnal changes the lyrics of “In Christ Alone” so that on the cross the wrath of God was not satisfied but God’s love was magnified. The truth is that both happened on the cross-the wrath of God against sin was satisfied and God’s love was magnified. If I were leading a worship service where we sing that wonderful contemporary hymn I would ask half the congregation to sing the original words and half to sing the new words—at the same time.