When I was a kid, my favorite kind of church service to attend was the Good Friday service (which the church I grew up in called Tenebrae). I wasn’t particularly liturgically minded, nor did I have any real grasp of the organized Christian calendar, but I knew that—at our church, at least—the days leading up to Easter required extra services during the week, and the one that happened on Friday was the one that never bored me, so I always looked forward to it.
My church did it up right, with a dimly lit sanctuary at the start of the service and darkly clad liturgists who took turns slowly and somberly reading the crucifixion story as the sanctuary lights dimmed further and further with the conclusion of each narrated passage.
I was overly familiar with the Gospel passages typically read during this service each year because—for some macabre reason that I try not to dissect too deeply—the crucifixion story was my favorite in the Bible for many years. It was the one I’d periodically flip to and read when I got bored during regular Sunday services. Where I started tended to vary depending on how much time I guessed to be left of the sermon, but I’d generally start somewhere around the preparations for Passover and the Last Supper and read all the way up through Jesus taking his final breath on the cross while shouting, “IT IS FINISHED!” (Because that’s how actor-Jesus always expired in the drama production we went to see every spring. Now that I think about it, Jesus probably was too exhausted and parched to be doing any shouting at that terrible moment, but dramatic license is a heckuva drug.)
Strangely, I don’t remember often reading very far past the crucifixion. For me, the intriguing parts of the story were all over by the time Jesus breathed his last: the betrayal by Judas, the disciples falling asleep during their prayers in the garden (relatable much?), Jesus begging his Father to take the cup from him, the arrest in Gethsemane where someone cut off someone else’s ear, the tense court scenes carrying the slight hope that Jesus might be pardoned by Pontius Pilate, Peter’s denial of Christ, the bloody flogging, the long walk to the hill, and the agonizing, torturous hours of the crucifixion itself. It would be a few years yet before I realized the scandal of the empty tomb and the gobsmacked joy of the resurrection, so I usually just quit reading once Jesus died.
So the reason I liked the Good Friday service was that its entire reason for being was to walk through my favorite passage of Scripture in detail, line by excruciating line. Our church, in addition to the light-dimming, also used some particularly chilling sound effects. I will never forget the visceral and involuntary reaction of my gut as I sat in a sanctuary so dark I could hardly see the person in front of me and listened to a re-creation of the sound of the enormous nails being driven through Jesus’s body into the cross.
One loud, metallic clang echoed throughout the sanctuary and reverberated into silence around us, followed by a long, uncomfortable pause. The first nail.
Another loud, metallic clang rang through the sanctuary and eventually softened into another long, uncomfortable silence. The second nail.
Finally a third clang echoed throughout the sanctuary and lapsed into silence, almost seeming to whisper as it died away, itisfinished. The third nail.
By then the sanctuary was engulfed in complete darkness, and the service was over. Nobody told us to leave that I can recall. We just knew it was time. We got up quietly and, without talking to anyone at all, made our slow and silent way out of the dark sanctuary, out of the church building, and into the car to go home. There’s something especially powerful about leaving a church service and not being “allowed” to engage in the joyful fellowship and conversation with friends that we’ve grown accustomed to. That practice alone told even children such as myself that something was different about the Good Friday service, even if I couldn’t exactly articulate all the theological underpinnings therein.
I once asked one of my teachers about our Good Friday service and why we left in complete silence. Even though I thought it was a cool way to end my favorite service, I didn’t really get why we did it. At first, she gave me the Sunday school answer I already knew: “Because we are mourning the death of Jesus.”
Unsatisfied with that, I pushed back: “Okay, sure, but we know how the story ends. Easter’s only two days away.”
“The joy of Easter is a lot more meaningful if you first observe the sorrow of Good Friday.”
Then she offered a reasoning that seems obvious now but which I hadn’t considered before: “The joy of Easter is a lot more meaningful if you first observe the sorrow of Good Friday.”
After I grew up and moved away from home, I struggled to find a church that observed the Christian calendar as—for lack of a better word and no pun intended—religiously as my home church had. It was many, many years before I found a church that even held Good Friday services, and I’m sorry to say that I’ve never found one as powerful as the one I remember from my childhood.
It seems like some churches would rather skip Holy Week services altogether and use Holy Saturday for Easter egg hunts instead. And it’s not that I condemn these churches or necessarily blame anyone who has difficulty earnestly grieving a death that happened thousands of years ago, especially when—as childhood me pointed out—we know what’s just around the corner. But—just like I was missing a huge chunk of the story when I stopped reading at the crucifixion without moving on to burial, resurrection, reappearance, and ascension—I think we the church rob ourselves of a potentially impactful experience when we skip the depressing events of Holy Week and rush into Easter celebrations too early.
If you’ve never been to a Good Friday service before, I humbly encourage you to find a congregation in your community that is hosting one and attend it with an intentional acknowledgment of just how long and awful that span of three days must have felt. Maybe it’ll turn your gut a little bit like it used to do to mine, or maybe it’ll make you uncomfortable or sad—or maybe it won’t. But maybe it’s worth finding out.