Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What's so "Good" about "Good Friday"?

We near Holy Week, and especially the Holy Triduum (three days: Thursday, Friday, and Saturdy) leading to Easter. And all the doubts, confusion, and what-not that have plagued me since I used to preach those days will return. Specifically, I will have to wrestle with Good Friday.

In theory, understand, I don't have a problem placing the crucifixion and death of Jesus within a complete theology and liturgy of the life, death, and resurrection from death of Jesus. But for any number of reasons, Good Friday will stick in my craw.

I was raised in a pietistic theological culture (including my four years at Concordia College, Moorhead, a Haugian-pietist institution if ever there was one). In that culture, everything centered on the crucifixion, the dying and death of Jesus. Good Friday was the lynchpin on which everything else depended.

I suppose a number of factors contributed: Such theology was informed by the Anselmian satisfaction theology (you know, to be unrefined: Following humanity's sin, God's honor had to be restored; the only thing that could restore it is the suffering of someone who hadn't earned the suffering/punishment; Jesus was sin-free, so his suffering "satisfied" God's need for "satisfaction" -- remember the old dueling language, "I demand satisfaction"? --; now we're off the hook again.) And that is a theological theme that pervades European theology written since medieval times. Part of it may be, as James Farwell posits in his book This is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week, that "[i]n a human life, suffering is not merely an episode, an event, or a passing psychological state -- it is a condition. ... The soteriological force -- the saving force of Christian faith depends upon its relevance to this fundamental human condition of suffering." (p. 1) Thus, Jesus' suffering touches us where we live. Perhaps there was also at work a kind of realistic instinctive sadness and horror at the events (which are certainly more easily imagined in the mind's eye than a "resurrection" which resulted in the bodily re-appearances of a man who could walk through walls, eat, but not be recognized on sight). Oh, and the hymns are certainly touching -- and full of pietistic "Jesus and me" stuff: "Alas, my treason, Jesus has undone thee."

Of course, Easter was a rip-snorter, even in my small North Dakota town -- new clothes, girls in hats, brass choir (we had a very good high school band in my town, and half of us were Lutheran), vocal choirs (ditto the high school choir -- and the young kids and the adults could really sing well, too), and lilies, and the promise of a special meal. (It was still a cassock-and-surplice age, however, so I can't say much for the vestments.) But still ... . There was always a sense of "Whew, we escaped another one." The pall of Friday hung over the festivities -- if at a distance.
I don't mean to sneer (sometimes it just comes out that way). But such theology and practice has always bothered me. After all, isn't it the resurrection that is the key for Christian faith? Didn't St. Paul write, not that our faith was nothing without the crucifixion, but that if Christ is not risen, then we believe in vain?

In seminary, finally, I was taught to understand "the cross" as that complex of events and experiences comprising the life, passion, death, and resurrection of the Incarnate One. There can be no cross in Christian theology without the resurrection, and vice versa. And that makes perfect sense, regardless of one's particular theological bent (even pietistic!). But the "gap" between pulpit and pew seemed unbridgeable. When I "laicized," I listened for that message, but to no avail.

Throughout the year, I didn't hear much, "Christ was raised for you." It was almost always, "Christ died for us/you/me" or "for your/our/my sins." Good Friday was always evoked -- not even the life of Christ, just his legal murder. Why? What am I missing?

Recently, through the encouragement and questions of a sister of my congregation here in Minneapolis, I have been set on understanding more clearly that I am not the only person with the kind of jitters I've suggested here. In Justo Gonzalez's book, Christian Thought Revisited, I have been confirmed that there are at least three main streams of Christian thinking in the Western Church. (I have long sensed less of the "Friday theology" in the Eastern Church, but it's not altogether absent there, either.)

There is a strong (I agree that it's the dominant) strain that centers on notions of order, law and justice, proper structures. Augustine (notably for Lutherans) and Anselm feed this and follow from it.

But there is a less prominent, but still ancient and orthodox, theme that some call the "Christus Victor" model (named for scholar-bishop Gustav Aulen's classic text of that name): The focus is more on the redemption of history for the fulfillment of God's will. It involves, with respect to the passion, less emphasis on the "sacrifice" of Jesus (in the basest terms, buying God off with innocent blood) and more on the victory of God-in-Jesus even to the point of and beyond death. "Christ is risen! Henceforth never/ Death or hell shall us enthrall ... ."
In that latter theological tradition (which is as old as the other), Easter is most certainly the focus of liturgical and theological life. All Sundays are little Easters, not little Good Fridays. One example: In recognition of this fact, the Council of Nicea -- original source of the so-called "Nicene" Creed -- decreed that, in honor of the festive nature of Sundays as "Little Easters," none of the faithful is to kneel for prayer, for kneeling implies something less than joy. (Oh, calm down, you radical theologians of the cross: This is not a theology of glory!)
(FYI: The third strain is much more wrapped up in Platonic-style philosphical concerns with "matter" and "souls" and "immortality." It's stuff we've all heard and even practiced, but it is not of much relevance to this post. I also judge it not a particularly healthy or valid theological perspective -- even if its roots run deep in the Christian tradition.)

So lately, I have been gearing up to filter the Good Friday (actually all of Holy Week) liturgies through my "Christus Victor" filter. But I was stunned today, all over again, to open Fleming Rutledge's book of sermons preached at an old-fashioned three-hour service, The Seven Last Words from the Cross, to read "For Christians, Good Friday is the crucial day, not only of the year but of world history." (p. 3)

And I'm set back in my once-happy confidence that I have it together.

I have never denied the significance of Good Friday, of course, but is Mother Rutledge (is that what one calls a female Episcopalian priest? Mother?) correct? Is it the crucial day? Is Easter effectively an add-on, resulting in the vindication of Good Friday?

If so, then, I read theology badly. (Yes, I know that I've opened myself on that one.) I cannot "read" Good Friday except through the lens of Easter. I categorically deny that one can look at Good Friday from the other side of Easter and see anything salvific there. Of course, I also think that the only way to read Easter is through the lens of the life, suffering, and death of Jesus. So the cross is vitally important, but I'm not sure that I elevate Golgotha above Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Galilea, to cite a few sites of significant acts of salvation in the life of Jesus.

I question that many Lutherans will add an "Amen" to these musings. But that's the chance I take, I suppose.

Now that I have that out of my system, I have one question: Whatever became of the "tre ore" (three-hour -- or "seven last word") preaching and singing services to mark the hours of Jesus on the cross. If Calvary is so central, why have the liturgical churches allowed this interesting (and usually ecumenical) event to fade into memory (for the most part)? Oh, we have stational liturgies -- with a variety of number of stations. And we have services to venerate the cross. But the three-hour services had a place and made an impact. I personally miss them (especially if there is a variety of preachers who can stick to time limits).

Over all, I do not think that our observance of Good Friday -- whatever it might be -- does enough to tie it to Easter. The transition from Friday to the Vigil of Easter and Easter is not well developed in most of the liturgical (or theological) traditions that I have experienced. There is something missing.

And don't get me going about the footwashing on Maundy Thursday!

1 comment:

Maurice Frontz said...

Oh, please, Dwight, get going about the footwashing on Maundy Thursday!

Now let me get this straight: you spend precious bandwidth, straining the mainframes at Google headquarters to the limit, in bemoaning the centrality of Good Friday to the exclusion of Easter; then you turn around and in your penultimate paragraph bemoan the loss of the torturous Good Friday preaching service, which must have been designed to allow Christians to go through their own vicarious suffering at the very hour when Christ bore our sins on the cross. (I have a very good reason for hating this service, as it means I have to come up with something new each year to say on at least three or four of the seven last words of Christ.) Does not the liturgical recovery of the Paschal Triduum, a singular liturgy, not three different ones, attempt to do just what you are saying it should: deemphasize the centrality of Friday and tie together passion, cross, and resurrection into a wholeness, with the culmination of baptismal rebirth, light from darkness, life from death?

Now I have no firsthand experience with Haugean pietism - it was all mediated through The Lutherans in North America. Anselm may have fallen on hard times, but I need "Ah, Holy Jesus" and other such hymns to remind me that I am no disinterested bystander; Jesus' suffering is pro me and pro nobis.

Perhaps the problem is not that we have overemphasized our involvement in the crucifixion, but that we have played down our involvement in the resurrection. Jesus dies for our sin, and lo, he is risen again, but it is only Jesus who rises again; we remain earthbound and out of the picture. Both our sin and our salvation are matters of faith, but one is a lot more easy to believe than the other, especially because we are called to believe without evidence in our righteousness in Christ.

But the baptismal vigil serves to highlight Christ's rising and our rising to new life: robing everyone in white, sprinkling everyone in water, illuminating everyone in light. I love the Exodus imagery in the baptismal liturgy. One interpreter of the ancient church puts it something like this: Your sins were chasing you like the Egyptian army, but in baptism you are brought through the waters of the Red Sea and your sins are drowned behind you. Like Jesus, we are really put to death, and we are really raised.