“Sometimes it causes me to tremble . . .”
Perhaps the best way to begin preparing for the Three Days is to notice what these stories and rituals actually do to us: our bodies, our emotions, our life together as a community of faith.
For pastors and worship leaders, there may be a kind of anticipatory trembling around the Three Days that occurs when the list of tasks to be completed sinks in: making decisions around writing sermons and planning worship services at the last minute. Beyond that nervousness, however, there is the trembling in awe that comes when this “one liturgy in three acts” is done well.
The readings on these days are central to our identity as Christian people. The events they commemorate are at the heart of the gospel narrative. And yet their role in these liturgies (and the preaching that accompanies them) is not to teach or explain but to proclaim the mystery the rituals enact: our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. It is the word with the water, with the bread and wine, with the light shining in the darkness that causes us to tremble.
The proclamation on these days should not give the impression that we are “standing in” for some characters from long ago, reenacting their drama and repeating their lines as in a pageant. It should help us see that we are the ones, here in this time and place, who are dying and rising again.
The readings this night set the tone for what is to come: we are celebrating Passover. We are not, however, celebrating a seder. We are gathered as the body of Christ who is our Passover, and whose meal has been “handed on” to us (1 Cor. 11:23-26). The washing of feet on this night is not about reenacting the last supper but is a present-day enacting of the “new commandment” (John 13:34) to love one another.
This kind of ritual remembering is harder than simply playing a role in a pageant, because it requires vulnerability. Worshipers in some communities will resist baring any part of themselves that reveals their imperfection in public. Yet our discomfort with uncovering our souls (and soles) should not be a reason to back away. Preaching on this night may simply be an invitation to enter the story with true selves.
The ancient title for this day—the Triumph of the Cross—is good to keep in mind as worship is planned. While it is indeed solemn, Good Friday is not the funeral Jesus never had. Even tonight, in a barren church where no candles burn, the cross is a sign of Christ’s victory over death. We gather not to mourn as those who have no hope, but to place ourselves at the foot of the cross together with all the needs of the world, trusting that the tree of shame has become the tree of life.
Having heard the story of Jesus’ passion from one of the synoptic gospels the previous Sunday, we are ready to hear a distinctly different narrative from the Gospel of John. Here the Crucified One is not a victim, but a victor. The entire religious and governmental enterprise that leads to his execution is exposed as a fraud. The scene is horrific, the injustice cruel, the system corrupt, but in John’s gospel the Savior dies with a psalm on his breath, having beaten death at its own game.
Rather than focus on the physical pain Jesus endured in his passion or how we might have behaved if “we were there,” the preacher’s job on this night is to echo the words sung at the procession of the cross: “Behold the life-giving cross, on which was hung the Savior of the whole world.”