Good Friday: the most important day of the Church Year
In the Western Church, the Christian holiday that gets all the play is Christmas. That's the one day of the year everything is closed, and everybody takes the day off. Even non-Christians often celebrate what has become a secular, universal side of a specifically Christian holiday. Doubtless the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Incarnation as the center of the Faith plays a role here. Then, too, there's the rich secular tradition of Christmas in the West. It's a season famous for filling believer and non-believer alike with "the Christmas spirit." Even unbelieving homes are often visited by Santa Claus. And if one is a believer, the Christmas Eve candlelight service and the singing of Silent Night is a high point of one's spiritual year. The plentitude of sacred Christmas carols- known, at least to some extent, by nearly everyone, so completely do they permeate the culture- makes Christmas perhaps the one day of the year when it's hardest to ignore the Christian moorings of our culture.
In the Eastern Church, it's Easter that's the big holiday. That's understandable, too, since in Eastern theology it's death, more than sin, that is the enemy Christ came to conquer. And even in the West, Easter gets second place. Everybody has a family dinner, and if a person who is remotely Christian goes to church one Sunday in the year, it's apt to be Easter.
In the West, we rationalize our way into somehow seeing Easter as at least the high point of Holy Week. After all, the apostle assures us that were Christ not raised, our faith would be in vain. And it is on Easter that Christ's victory not only over death but also over sin was made manifest.
It's easy to get excited about cute, tiny babies in mangers, or Christ's victory over death- which is, for believers, our victory, too. Not so easy, though, to look at what I would argue is, in a Lutheran understanding, the real high point of the Church Year: Good Friday.
If justification is the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls, as Luther asserted, then how can Good Friday not be the center of Lutheran spirituality? Is the Incarnation important, and in fact central? Of course! But as Jesus Himself observed of His Passion, "It is for this cause that I came into the world." And the bottom line is that- as important as Easter is- it was made inevitable by Good Friday. When Christ cried out, "It is finished!," Easter, so to speak, was in the bag. It was when God died that death had bitten off more than it could chew, and became a defeated enemy. In the last analysis, Easter is only the playing out of the victory won on Good Friday. It's formal proclamation of victory over sin and death after the enemy has already been rendered helpless by the outcome of the Battle of Mt. Calvary.
But Good Friday doesn't get much respect. We're in a hurry to get to Easter- and no wonder. It's lots of fun to celebrate eternal life. It's not so much fun to contemplate how it was won.
It's not just that that bloody Man hanging on the cross offends our sensibilities- though better, if a cross is displayed, that it be a nice, clean sterile empty one. In fact, though, there's a growing tendency among congregations afflicted with the Church Growth Movement cancer is not to display a cross at all- not even an empty one- because it's a "downer" that turns people off! Seems to me that that says all that needs to be said about the Church Growth Movement, btw!
The real problem with contemplating that Man on the Cross is that we have to confront the reason why He's there. The story of Good Friday is, to be sure, Gospel; in fact, ultimately, it's all the Gospel there is. Whatatever other good news God has for us flows from it like the blood and water from Christ's wounded side. But it's also Law- and our Old Adams don't like Law much. Looking at a crucifix, though, it's hard to avoid.!
Every wound, every scar of the lash, every drop of blood and beat of sweat that fell from that Man was our own doing. As the hymn rightly says,
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee!
Twas I, Lord Jesus; I it was denied thee;
I crucified Thee.
To look upon a crucifix is to be confronted not only by our own sinfulness, but by its seriousness. We're fond of rationalizing our sin, and thinking of ourselves as relatively good. But the crucifix forces us to confront our moral worthiness- or rather, our lack of it- in absolute terms. Not only are we not "good" people- even the best of us- but people so bad that it took that to set our account right again. God Himself had to endure that, so deep is our guilt and so miserable our fall.
Not a popular message. No surprise that we're so anxious to get to Easter.
There's a modern American Protestant rationalization that the empty cross somehow symbolizes Easter and the Resurrection. Nonsense. The cross would be just as empty if Christ had rotted in His tomb. Reformed Protestantism, of course, traditionally frowns on the crucifix because of the problem it has with Christology; missing the point that the Man on the Cross is, in fact, the God the Jews not only might not, but could not, portray, they think it at least runs the danger of being a graven image. Pr. Paul McCain is sure that their motivation for removing the corpus had nothing to do with the fact that in the Middle Ages it symbolized the Real Presence of Christ in the Supper, but it's patent that it's for that very reason that Lutherans at least in Germany retained it.
As should we. I'm not talking, either, about "Touchdown Jesus-" the Roman Catholic motif of a crowned Christ in Eucharistic vestments holding aloft arms unattached to a cross which in effect is His throne. The crucifix ought to be something we shudder a little to look at. It should be something that proclaims, not just the Gospel, but the Law in its Second and most important use: to show us our need of Good Friday.
Nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas and Easter. But the focus of the Church Year really ought to be on Good Friday. It was then that the victory was won of which Easter was a mere playing out. It was then that the whole purpose of the Incarnation was accomplished.
The crucifix is both Law and Gospel, reduced to a single image. And Good Friday is also both Law and Gospel, reduced to a single day.