As a pastor I know that we can sometimes become too familiar with a passage of Scripture or the observance of a Holy Day. We can fall into the error of over analyzing or the converse error of assuming the congregation already knows this stuff and they require no analysis. It is helpful to hear how others have treated a subject. I make this offering of meditations on the seven last words of Christ not with expectation that others will duplicate it, but that others will build on it and make it better.
I include a complete text of every word and action and a copy of a bulletin (order of worship) for congregational use. I have presented variations of this service for some thirty years. There is nothing original, and I am proud of that. It is likely that even the basic format is based on something I found in some long-forgotten text.
Below you will find some helps, rubrics, and some for-what-its-worth advice on the order of worship for Good Friday.
About the Service
The gathering is a time when we share concerns and offer a prayer. That is as appropriate tonight as any other night. If some trouble has followed someone into the sanctuary, then let us begin releasing them from that now. Then follows a time of silence.
The introduction to the service ought to be brief and focused on one word: atonement.
The cross is the central event of salvation history. All roads lead to the cross. The cross speaks to every condition of man. Every good gift of God proceeds from the cross. Because of this, it is possible for the service to proceed in any number of directions. On this night, let us not forget to address the central meaning of the cross: We are saved by the blood of Jesus. Whatever pastoral concerns we address from the cross, the introduction to the service ought rightly to remind us that this is God’s saving act.
Below are some brief thoughts that may help the celebrant develop an introduction.
- I have found only two things which Jesus said he “must” do. He must preach the Gospel, and at noon on a Friday in Jerusalem he “must” be on that cross. We do not know exactly when Jesus became aware of this Great Imperative, but perhaps the child in Bethlehem saw in the star over his house a cruciform shape. What we observe tonight (and in a strange way…celebrate) is an act of God. The one great “I must” of Jesus.
- Little baby Jesus grew up. He got crucified. This is not an accident of fate. It is not an example of what the world does to people who seek justice. This is not a plan gone wrong. The cross is the plan. The cross is an act of God.
- Jesus could have come to us differently. He could have appeared full grown descending from the clouds with a list in each hand. “Here is a list of good things. Here is a list of bad things. Do the good. Do not do the bad. See ya later.” As important as Christ’s teachings are and as much as we would do well in this world and the next if we take them to heart, we could not be “taught” into heaven. He must bleed us into heaven. We are saved by the blood of Jesus.
- God does not ordinarily take us from captivity to the promised land in a whirlwind. Between the two there is a wilderness. We cannot pass from the children’s hosannahs of Palm Sunday to the shouts of alleluia on Easter morning unless we hear our voice say, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
The readings contain nothing original. The responsive reading is from a poem found in Days of the Lord Vol 3, Easter Triduum; The Liturgical Press, 1990. If the pastor holds as absolute the omission of alleluias during Lent, then they may be omitted.
The devotional readings following all Scripture but one are from a public domain file I have of At Noon on Friday, by Dr Richard Carl Hoefler, and is available in print from C.S.S. Publications. The devotional for the first reading is a quote from Dorothy Sayers.
The prayers draw liberally from the Book of Common Prayer. They are adapted to address ongoing missions and pastoral concerns of the Church, world, parish, and community. As examples, I have left in place some items that appeared on one particular occasion.
All Scripture is the King James version. Others will choose differently, but the sound of the KJV has the advantage of reminding us that this is an old story. We have received it from others and hold it in trust until we pass it down.
The number of readers is variable. It is most appropriate for the pastor to present all elements other than the seven readings. The seven readings may be presented by seven different people or as many as four people per reading (One participant each for the Scripture, devotional, prayer, and extinguishing the candle.) It could be done by as few as two readers alternating parts. Unless you have an exceptional narrator, you do not want to hear one voice all the way through the service. It is effective if each reading is presented by representatives of the various missions, program ministries, and classes of the church.
The music is austere and sung with as little accompaniment as possible. The two selections presented here are the ones that elicited the greatest response from congregations over the thirty years that I used this service. My personal preference is O Sacred Head Now Wounded but try as I might I could not get it to work well in the service. While it appears in this order, I usually omit the first hymn. On the other hand, I have had soloists volunteer to sing El Shaddai or Via Dolorosa, and even though I am not a particular fan of either I must admit they work well. Trust your judgment, but I encourage you to avoid elaborate arrangements.
I also encourage you to retain the Kyrie Eleison (Christ Have Mercy) at the end of the service even if you are not accustomed to it. It is best presented acapella by a soloist at the back of the church or other unseen location. It is a disembodied voice floating over the assembly.
The flow of the service begins in the sanctuary as customarily prepared for Lent. The difference being that black paraments may be substituted or black draping may be placed over such items as the pulpit, lectern, altar table, and font. Seven candles are placed in the chancel. This may include the existing altar candles, but if they are not part of the seven then they should be removed. At least one of the seven candles must be of a type that can be processed out at the end of the service during the Kyrie. It does not have to be a processional torch, nor anything elaborate. A simple glass container type that is available in discount stores will suffice.
The pastor leads the congregation from the introduction to the meditations. The first hymn is optional. The service may proceed from the introduction directly to the responsive reading.
The order does not allow for an independent sermon. The meditations with their Scripture, devotions, and prayers, serve as a powerful proclamation of the word. However, should one sense a special pastoral need for an independent sermon, then it may be offered immediately after the anthem or in its place.
The readers should move about the chancel with sacred alacrity — waiting for one meditation to complete before moving promptly into position. You may want to designate one path for approach and one for departure. At the end of each meditation a candle is extinguished except on the last reading. The seventh candle is processed out during the Kyrie.The last words are spoken by the pastor from the back of the church. This is not a benediction but a remembrance of the words of Christ, and like the Kyrie it comes as a disembodied voice floating over the congregation. I most frequently use the John 14 passage, but occasionally return to an abbreviated version of the Luke 23 passage concluding with, “…if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry.”