Friday, April 22, 2011

The Great Three Days

Today is Good Friday. Not good because it is Friday; not good in the traditional sense of good by any means. We call it Good Friday (someone suggested that it may have origianally been God's Friday) because on this day, Jesus died on a cross. Certainly not something to be happy about.

And yet, for many, it is a good day. No school, many have the day off from work - either because the office is closed or because they took a day off to be with the kids. For many, it is the start of a three or four day weekend (depending on if you live in a state where they traditionally take Easter Monday off). Good Friday may signal either the beginning or the end of spring break. Many would look at the day as very good.

For those of us who still follow the traditional liturgical calendar of the church, today is the second day of three days in which we observe (maybe celebrate denotes more gaity than is called for) The Great Three Days - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. Three days at the end of our Lenten journey to ponder Christ last days.

Maundy Thursday - the day of Christ' mandate (maundy from the Latin word mandate - a command - a new commandment) where Jesus says to his disciples, "A new commandment I give to you - love one another (John 13:34)." In observing this day, we also remember the last supper, and Holy Communion is a major part of this observance. In some ways, it is a celebration, but we also know that after this meal, Jesus goes to the garden to pray (so we sing, " Go to Dark Gethsemane (ELW 347)") and we recall that in the garden, Jesus is betrayed by Judas. Not much call to celebrate.

Good Friday - after Jesus death and so-called trial, he is handed over to Pilate to be tortured and crucified. We, along with all of those in the couryard, call out, "Crucify Him!" For our sins, because of our broken relationship with God, Jesus has come to die on the cross - for us. For you; for me; he dies a painful, gruesome death and is laid in the tomb.

The Easter Vigil - probably the least observed of the three days, but still held by many and making a comeback in some traditions, such as among us Lutherans. The vigil is a very old tradition, where we gather to wait for the resurrection. There are many readings, and much singing - much of it very solemn as we wait in the darkness and shadows. Then, it is midnight - early on the first day of the week, and we shift into celebration mode. The altar is reset, clothes are changed - to white or gold paraments, baptisms occur, we celebrate Christ victory over death.

For many of us, this last observance has become Easter Sunrise service - for those of us who cannot stand the thought of being in church until 1:00 a.m. If we observe the vigil, we do so at a more "civilized" hour of about 7:00 p.m. rather than 10:00 p.m. and then return early on Easter morning.

The question becomes, how is it that the three most important days in the church year are becoming more and more ignored? Is it because so many non-liturgical churches ignore them (as maybe being too Catholic)? Or is it that we have so lost the meaning of Christ death that it no longer matters to us? We joke about "sweet baby Jesus" via the movie Talledega Nights, but Christmas Eve worship attendance is typically much higher than Maundy Thursday and Good Friday combined. Are we somehow ashamed of our role in the death of Jesus and so we don't show our face in church on those nights to be reminded of our sinful selves - the very reason that Christ died for us? Or is it just that inconvenient to our schedules (clubs, ball games, TV schedule, etc.) to come to an evening worship service?

Some of us pastor types have been having discussions about Maundy Thursday worship - do we do footwashing? Do we do a seder meal rather than Holy Communion? Or do we somehow combine the seder meal and communion into something that no one recognizes (see some other thoughts here)? The question really comes down to what does it take to get people into church for Maundy Thursday? The answer cannot be that it is no longer relevant, because if the Three Great Days are no longer relevant, then Christ is no longer relevant. We cannot worship a Jesus who was raised from the dead on Easter Sunday if we don't kill him and bury him first. Jesus is only relevant if we participate in the whole story (see a thought provoking article here). Without Good Friday (and Maundy Thursday), what meaning does or can Easter have? How can we worship an empty cross without taking notice of why it is empty?

Luther called this the theology of glory, and countered it with the theology of the cross. Without the cross, and Christ on it, Easter is empty. There is no reason to celebrate the resurrection if Jesus did not die. We need to be part of that death, we need to own our part in Jesus death. Only then is the resurrection relevant. Then can we come to Jesus in our suffering, knowing that he understands suffering. Only then can we come to Jesus in our dying, knowing that he understands death. Only then can we come to Jesus in our grief, and hear the promise of the resurreciton - that we too will be raised, by the same loving God who raised Jesus.

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