Worship planning on Good Friday may seem like it takes care of itself. Between all four gospels, we have a rich account of the events leading up to and surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion. The United Methodist Book of Worship provides a robust liturgy for A Service of Tenebrae, an extended meditation on the Passion of Christ with origins in the twelfth century. In many ways, A Service of Tenebrae or a liturgy modeled after Tenebrae helps the congregation receive the weight and significance of this most holy and terrible day.
At the same time, how we tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion matters. The texts we choose, the prayers we pray, and the hymns we sing all inform how we encounter the Passion of Christ. Plus, if you’ve already gone to look at the Tenebrae liturgy in the Book of Worship, you’re probably already deciding which of the fourteen suggested readings you’re going to cut! Some years, you may choose to emphasize the seven last words of Jesus. Another year, you might choose to focus on the Passion from a particular gospel’s perspective. This year, what might it look like to center the readings around a specific question: “What does it mean for Jesus to be our king from the cross when he has willingly handed over his life?”
To be clear, the fact that Jesus as king accepted death on the cross makes him a different kind of ruler from any other human who has borne the title of king or queen. In fact, the irony in John 19:3 is that Jesus’ abusers spoke the truth about who Jesus is. The fact that Jesus did not use his power to harm them in return is a mark of the very kingship they mocked. The task before us, then, is to tell the story of Good Friday with the gravity and mourning it deserves while also honoring Jesus’ kingship on display in his commitment to the ways of divine love even when that means that the world crucifies him.
One way to approach this task is to resist the impulse to make Good Friday only about our personal sins by leaning into corporate and communal language. Jesus is not just king for us personally but for us as a community and for all creation. Honoring Jesus as king means coming to terms with how our corporate sin as a human community has created cycles of harm toward one another and the earth. So, let confession be about individual sin, yes, but also about how humanity has turned from God’s love. Bring forward the ways creation responded at Christ’s death and the way creation continues to respond when we choose our way instead of God’s. Select hymns and prayers that help the gathered body stay present to and honor Christ on the cross and the work done on the cross on our behalf and on behalf of all creation.
Visually, Good Friday calls for a simple and somewhat bare setup. The United Methodist Church does not recommend using any color parament on this day, though many churches use black cloth in some way, either to drape the cross at the end of the service or to cover the altar to symbolize death and mourning. Outside of placing a plain cross on the altar or chancel and using candles for ritual purposes, as in a Service of Tenebrae, nothing else is necessary on Good Friday. That said, if part of our work on Good Friday is to honor the communal and cosmological work of Christ’s Passion, consider how you might include visual reminders of the earth in the worship space. While we want to avoid flowers and other elements with bright colors, consider incorporating rocks, sticks, sand, or dirt in the space. Perhaps you could even bring back a few elements from Ash Wednesday to visually connect the first and the last worship service in the season of Lent.
Finally, as you go about planning Good Friday, remember that this service is not only about Jesus’ death. It is also about Jesus’ life. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NRSVUE). The cross is not the sole reason the Word became flesh and lived among us. The cross is a crucial part of the whole of the Incarnate Christ’s salvific work—and it is not the end. So, don’t be afraid to imbue a little hope into the service. Now, we certainly don’t want to use hope to shield us from the truth of this. Rather, we come to Good Friday and are able to remember it for what it was because we are Resurrection people who know Sunday is coming.
Dr. Lisa Hancock, Director of Worship Arts Ministries, served as an organist and music minister in United Methodist congregations in the Northwest Texas and North Texas Annual Conferences, as well as the New Day Amani/Upendo house churches in Dallas. After receiving her Master of Sacred Music and Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology, Lisa earned her PhD in Religious Studies from Southern Methodist University wherein she researched and wrote on the doctrine of Christ, disability, and atonement.