By Derek Weber
Consider a service built around the words from the cross. Whether this is a Tenebrae or Stations of the Cross service, the guiding word is the scripture itself. If a sermon or a meditation is needed and there isn’t time to divide up the service among seven different preachers spread out over three hours, the preacher and worship team could select one or two texts, or words, to be the focus, and the others are read throughout the service. The words are usually done in this order: First Word: “Father, forgive them . . .” (Luke 23:34); Second Word: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43); Third Word: “Woman, here is your son” (John 19:26-27); Fourth Word: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 or Mark 15:34); Fifth Word: “I am thirsty” (John 19:28); Sixth Word: “It is finished” (John 19:30); Seventh Word: “Father into your hands . . .” (Luke 23:46).
Bishop William Willimon’s book Thank God It’s Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Abingdon, 2006) provides a unique slant on interpreting these words to modern congregations. Should the preacher choose to focus on one or more of these words, a brief homily and reflection on the word would be appropriate.
A more traditional approach would be to turn to the lectionary readings assigned to this Holy Week service. The Hebrew Scripture text assigned for Good Friday is Isaiah 52:13-53:12, the suffering servant passage. This is the fourth Servant Song in the prophet’s writing. It comes from what many scholars call Second Isaiah. There is general agreement that the book should be divided up into two, or even three, distinct parts that reference different historical periods. Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66) references the exile and even the early post-exilic period of Israel’s history.
Who the servant in the passage referred to at the time of writing is often debated. It is clearly messianic language, but some believe that the prophet had in mind the whole people of Israel living in to the images described. Surely there was hope that their humiliation would be redeemed, that the injustice against them will be made right, and that their suffering would be the means of bringing holiness to the whole world.
For us Christians, however, the reference is clear. The Redeemer who fits the images in this passage is the crucified one. He is the one who has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases. He is the one wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole. Here again, what might be needed on this day is not an interpretation, or explanation, but simply a proclamation. Read this text, slowly and clearly, perhaps with images of the cross projected or printed on the bulletin. Consider having meditative music playing in the background. Let the word be a call to stand at the foot of the cross as the Lord of life dies as first fruits of Resurrection.
Similarly, the Passion story from John speaks for itself. Rather than offering an interpretation or exegesis of these words, John 18:1-19:42, simply presenting them to the congregation accompanied by art or music might be the most effective proclamation for Good Friday.
If you desire an interpretation, then turn to the epistle text. Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9 boils down the sacrifice to its barest element. It was the priestly aspect of the crucifixion that saves us. Christ stands in the gap between us and God and brings us back into relationship. As high priest, Jesus grants us access to the presence of God. Through him, through his sacrifice, we are able to approach the Creator of all things and find mercy and grace in time of need. This is the good in Good Friday, the redemption in this suffering.
It is also possible to quote the verses that Jesus quoted as he died that first Good Friday. The lectionary gives us Psalm 22 as our text, and it is hard to imagine a more experiential passage that would bring us right in to the heart of the crucifixion. Even the gospel account seems objective and dispassionate beside this word. Attributed to David and titled “The Deer of the Dawn,” Psalm 22 carries the text of the fourth word from the cross. The first consideration is whether these are simply the best words to capture Jesus’ felt experience in that moment, or whether in his last breath he turned to this hymn as a memory exercise or a personal devotion. The gospel writers only put the first sentence in his mouth that dark and terrible day. But to read this psalm is to dive down into the depth of Jesus’ pain and loneliness. “All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads” (v.7). “They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v.18). It is a first-person retelling more horrifying than the third-person accounts in the gospels. But at the end, as is true of most of the psalms, there is confidence in resolution; there is hope, even in this horrible reality. Good Friday has to carry a seed of Easter; death has to point toward Resurrection to keep us putting one foot in front of another.