One of the highlights of the year at Valparaiso University is the Institute for Liturgical Studies, offered from Monday through Wednesday during the week following the Second Sunday of Easter. Three years ago, in April 2009, the theme was “The Three Days.” The reference was, at least in the first place, not to the duration of the conference, but to the “Triduum” that lies at the heart of Christian faith and worship: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil. For three days we gathered in worship and workshop. In song and sacrament, we were “really present” at the events of our salvation, centered on the crucifixion of Jesus, once memorably called by Dorothy Sayers “the only thing that has ever really happened” (The Man Born to be King [NY: Harper, 1943] 289).
Since both the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod had published hymnals only a couple of years earlier (in 2006), the Institute’s leaders (not a few of whom had had a hand in one hymnal or the other) took a perspective on the celebration of The Three Days that largely reflected that of the still-new works. This was most clear to me in a panel discussion about worship on Good Friday.
Ever since the adoption of the three-year lectionary in the 1970s, the recommended emphasis for Good Friday has been on Jesus’ triumph on the cross, as seen above all in the Holy Gospel for the day, the passion narrative from John. Unlike the portrait in the other three canonical gospels, the “Synoptics,” John’s Jesus is in command of the situation throughout. His crucifixion is portrayed as a coronation, complete with a formal presentation of the new king (Pilate’s famous “Ecce homo” in 19:5), his being “lifted up” (cf. 12:32), and a victorious, albeit brief, inaugural address, “Tetelestai” (“It is finished”; 19:30). John’s Jesus dies—that’s for certain—but it’s no “Passion of the Christ” (contra Mel Gibson’s 2004 effort to tell the story on film, ostensibly based chiefly on John’s Gospel).
As the panel members reiterated repeatedly, an emphasis on a Johannine Good Friday is a healthy corrective to the traditional emphasis among both Roman Catholics and Protestants on Jesus’ suffering and death per se. Just as John’s Gospel is obsessed with explaining what Jesus and his story mean, so we do well to take care not to get buried (so to speak) in the horrific means of our salvation to the neglect of its significance.
Well and good. But it was clear that many in the audience of the panel discussion hadn’t gotten the memo. Question after question asked the panel members in one way or another why their churches couldn’t continue their beloved tradition of a Tenebre (or “shadows”) service on Good Friday, in which a succession of candles are extinguished one-by-one following solemn hymns, readings, and prayers, all focused on our part in necessitating Jesus’ suffering and death and the extraordinary lengths to which God went to bring humanity back to himself. The panel’s responses said, in essence, that it was time to move beyond such medieval, maudlin displays to a proper focus on what makes Good Friday good.
I confess that the expressed concerns of the audience members struck a chord with me. As a youth who early on discerned a call to pastoral ministry, the Tenebre services of my home church had made a profound impression on me, particularly when I served as an acolyte. It was a multisensory worship-learning experience nearly on the order of a Jewish Passover Seder. On no other day of the year was the atmosphere of the worship space so palpable, particularly as the darkness overcame all but one last candle, which was taken out of the sanctuary briefly and then, following the slamming shut of a book that communicated to our bones the full sense of how finished it was, returned still alight to foreshadow the Ressurrection. “Oh, sorrow dread, our God is dead” (to quote an old German hymn)—but not for long.
Of course, current liturgical practice (as reflected in the three-year lectionary and the “new” hymnals of the ELCA and LCMS) has by no means eliminated overt acknowledgement of Jesus’ suffering and of our part in it. Ash Wednesday has risen in prominence as a day of repentance—in many ways taking on the role of the Good Friday of my youth—complete with black as a liturgical option (at least until the ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship regrettably returned to purple as the sole choice). Passion Sunday has subsumed within itself the traditional Palm Sunday as the “kickoff” to Holy Week, providing a natural segue from “Hosanna” to “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” The Holy Gospel for that Sunday is the passion narrative from the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke in Years A, B, and C, respectively. In these accounts, the triumph is real, but hidden. In them, there is no lack of darkness. But this dark side is not much in evidence during the modern Great Three Days. (To be sure, the Altar Book of the LCMS’s Lutheran Service Book contains “Tenebre Vespers” as an option, but only by contrast with the “Chief Service” prescribed for Good Friday and with John’s passion as the default reading even for Tenebre.)
What has kept this panel discussion about Good Friday worship alive in my mind is that one of the hottest topics in Christian theology today is the doctrine of the atonement. The gauntlet was cast down in 1931 by Gustaf Aulén, a Swedish Lutheran bishop, who argued that the church fathers (and later Luther) had uniformly emphasized an understanding of Jesus’ saving work that Aulén summed up as Christus victor. Only in medieval Europe, he argued, did two additional models arise: Anselm of Canterbury’s “objective” understanding, stressing the death of Jesus as a sacrifice by the God-man needed to restore the sin-besmirched honor of God; and his younger contemporary Abélard’s “subjective” understanding, in which the life and death of Jesus are the ultimate expression of God’s love and the ultimate model for “love one another, as I have loved you.” Aulén worried especially that Anselm’s model had come to dominate Western Christian theological thinking and practice. Since then, but especially in the last ten years, a veritable multitude of scholars have entered the fray to debate Aulén and to take the discussion in new directions.
Contemporary Lutheran liturgics (both ELCA and LCMS) have essentially accepted and applied Aulén’s argument: the Great Three Days now center on the affirmation of Christus victor, as powerfully expressed in John’s Gospel. But a more nuanced practice is both possible and preferable (see my article: “Atonement and the Gospels,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 2/2  259–273). Each of the four gospels emphasizes a different model of the atonement, yielding a complex, rich depth perception comparable to the optical parallax produced by our two eyes. Thus in Matthew we can see the first hints of what would become Anselm’s objective model, in Luke we can see in nuce Abélard’s subjective model, and in Mark (the odd man out, so far as Aulén’s taxonomy is concerned) we see Paul’s baptism-as-death-and-resurrection in the very life of Jesus. The New Testament itself understands the events of Good Friday in different and, to my mind, ultimately complementary ways. Thus, with all due respect to Aulén, there is no “classic” model of the atonement that predates the rest. Indeed, as a colleague recently reminded me, even John’s Gospel is an appeal to faith, not sight (20:29, 31): the triumph is through the suffering and dying, not despite it (or else, as Ernst Käsemann worried, John’s Jesus dissolves into a docetic Christ). Perhaps we would do well to allow and even encourage a corresponding breadth in our worship practices. Because by them we teach.
While the contributions of recent scholars of liturgy to the restoration of the Christus victor model to our Good Friday observance must be acknowledged, I have been around long enough to know that there are fashions also in liturgy. It would neither surprise nor disappoint me, if at some future gathering of the Liturgical Institute around the subject of the Great Three Days, a learned panelist were to call for a renewed appreciation of our Western Christian heritage as it appropriates the meaning of Good Friday. An appreciation of the Eastern emphasis on John’s Gospel and the triumph of the cross is good and proper, this future scholar might opine. But let’s not ignore the historically Western emphasis on the cost at which that victory was won, as explicated in the Synoptics: the agony and bloody sweat; the betrayals, denials, and desertions; the public shaming; the darkness; and, above all, the literally God-forsaken loneliness that is the only word from the cross in Matthew and Mark. And, for that matter, let us not be so works-phobic that we race past the call of Luke’s Jesus to take up our cross daily and follow him (9:23), nor miss his example of ultimate love and concern toward the women on the via dolorosa (23:28–31), his executioners, direct and indirect (23:34), and the repentant thief (23:43). All of these things are an integral part of what makes Good Friday good.
My final, gentle words of counsel to those who miss Tenebre are these: put away those candle stands, but remember where you put them. Their time will come again.
George C. Heider is Department Chair and Associate Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University.