How do you preach on this day? Maybe you don’t. Maybe you simply tell the story. Read the Passion story, extinguish the candles one by one, and leave the sanctuary in darkness. Maybe you set up a tableau in the chancel and let it speak for itself. Maybe you drive the nails and affix your own sinfulness or brokenness to the rough wood of the cross and let the sound of hammering be the proclamation that declares the weight of sin and the glory of redemption. Maybe there aren’t words to capture this event. Maybe there is no way to explain what has taken theologians centuries of time and gallons of ink to even scratch the surface of the layers of meaning that our human minds cannot grasp completely. Maybe we simply stand at the foot of the cross with awe and wonder, with tears and shame, with doubt and faith wrestling within.
Perhaps the compulsion is strong, however, and you feel a need to exhort or proclaim, to encourage and name something of this day. Then you could stand with Isaiah (52:13-53:12) and gaze at this servant so broken and bruised and somehow prospering. It requires a new understanding of what it means to prosper and a stomach strong enough to endure the suffering inflicted, borne with tight lips and resolute heart. You could sing with the psalmist (22) who calls for praise in the midst of abandonment and suffering, the song that Jesus sang as he hung on the cross that dark afternoon as the dogs encircled and his heart melted like wax. Or you could gather before the preacher of Hebrews (10:16-25) and take notes on the covenant and the curtain of blood for the examination of forgiveness as a way of working through the event. Or you can simply gather and see what the Spirit has in store for you and your congregation this day. You might be surprised by grace, as I was some years ago leading a Good Friday service in my church at the time.
A few years earlier, I found a Good Friday service based on the Stations of the Cross. It was part dramatic reading, written from the perspective of the Centurion who oversaw Jesus’ journey to the cross and death on that cross, and burial in the garden tomb. With a certain amount of dramatic license, the Centurion helps us reflect on the impact of this death on all of us. He struggled with this job because it was different this time, he discovers, though he isn’t quite sure why.
The reflections from the Centurion are wrapped up with a statement on each particular Station of the Cross and with a concluding prayer, and the Stations are interspersed with the congregation singing various verses from the Passion hymns. It was very well written, taking us deep into the emotion and the meaning of the Good Friday event.
I had used it previously with a more traditional, male voice reading the Centurion role consistently. But this time, I thought I would do something different. I wanted different voices reading that part, as though the Centurion was an Everyman or even Every-person as I had female voices reading those lines at times. And then I was struck with a novel idea for casting. I asked my associate pastor, Chris, if he thought his wife, Joy, would join my wife, La Donna, and me as the four readers of this script. Joy not only agreed; she also wanted to play the flute for the hymns and as a solo anthem piece in the middle. It all seemed to be set and ready for a powerful experience for all involved.
What I didn’t count on was Charlotte. Charlotte was Chris and Joy’s youngest daughter, a preschooler who decided that Good Friday evening that only mom would do. Though there were church members aplenty assigned to the task of watching Charlotte during the service, she would have none of it. Even her dad was no consolation for the poor girl, who cried her eyes out (not to mention exercised her lungs) in Chris’s office when Joy went to practice before the service. Though those assigned childminders tried valiantly, everyone could all see the arrangement just wasn’t going to work. So, at the last minute, as the prelude was playing, a change was made to the program, and Charlotte joined us in the chancel.
When Joy played her flute, Charlotte would sit on the floor near her mother’s feet or on a seat her mother had just vacated, partially hidden by the grand piano; and all was well. But when Joy would step up to the lectern to take her turn at reading from the wonderful script, dramatically presenting to us the impressions of the Stations of the Cross, Charlotte would wander. And by wander, I don’t mean to imply that she would walk demurely with her mother from her seat behind to the piano to the lectern in the front of the chancel where she would wait patiently until Joy was finished reading before walking calmly back to her seat. No. If you think that is what she did throughout the service, then you don’t know Charlotte. Charlotte took full opportunity of the freedom of that space to explore each corner. Keeping her mother in sight, she would stroll to the center of the open chancel and then back toward Joy. She discovered that she could wander outside of the chancel, walking on the kneeling step and holding onto the Communion rails like an office worker getting some air on a high ledge downtown. Once, she discovered the unique acoustics of the space and stomped her foot on the stone tile just to hear the echo. Only once. She wove around the chancel furniture, tracing a labyrinthine path that only she knew, circling the Christ candle on its tall brass pole and back to the lectern where her mother stood. It was a sight to behold.
The dramatist in me was squirming, I must confess. The carefully constructed experience was at risk here, the heaviness of the passion of the Christ and the depth of the Stations were being swallowed up by this cherub with a cloud of blond curls dancing around the chancel without a care in the world, except that mom was in sight. For the first time, I had a little sympathy for the disciples that day when they told the parents to keep their kids away from Jesus because they were doing serious stuff, only to be made to be the bad guys when Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them.”
“For to such as these belongs the Kingdom.” It was the theologian in me that came to the rescue. As I watched the little sprite dancing in the face of the darkness of Good Friday, I suddenly recognized her. It was hope. It was that little ribbon of sustenance that was how they made it through to Easter morning, fluttering here and there, outside and inside, tracing circles around the flame of Presence, even - and pay attention here - even when it was put out.
Holy Saturday has always puzzled me. How did those women have the wherewithal to prepare the spices? How did the broken and despairing disciples manage to not run screaming into the hillside, afraid for their own souls as well as their bodies now that the hammer had begun to fall? How did they follow him to the cross, even at a distance, and hover outside a tomb no matter how lovely the garden surrounding it was? How did they endure the darkness of that day?
Because of Charlotte. Well, maybe not Charlotte in the flesh, but the hope and the joy that she wove in and through the sadness and the pain. Maybe they couldn’t dance in their own darkness, but hope was there, hidden, almost smothered, but tenacious, determined, clinging, unwilling to leave us to wallow in our despair.
What I heard that Good Friday night in the wanderings of little Charlotte is that no matter how much we think it does, the story—God’s story and our story—never ends in darkness. The sun does rise again. She was preparing us for the next proclamation, the one that would take our breath away and bring us to our knees in awe and wonder. Without a word, our angel Charlotte proclaimed that death was not the final word and that if we persisted to live in the darkness, then we were simply in the wrong place. He is not here; he is Risen. Alleluia. Even here, even on this dark day, the light will shine.