My most memorable Good Friday occurred early in ministry. I served as pastor of Henrietta First Baptist Church from 1997-2001. So, this Good Friday service occurred sometime during those years. I decided to schedule the Good Friday experience at 9am, the time that Jesus was put on his cross according to Mark’s gospel. Most Good Friday services occur in the evening. By the time they begin, Jesus has already died. According to Mark (and Matthew and Luke), Jesus’ death occurred around 3pm Friday afternoon. He was on the cross approximately six hours. As crucifixion was designed to bring about a very slow and a very painful death, six hours is not considered that long. Perhaps, Jesus’ relatively short time on the cross is indicative of the severity of the beating he took before he was placed on the cross.
I anticipated the 9am time would exclude some people due to work schedules. Therefore, I expected a small gathering. Indeed! I remember the front pew occupied by seven people or so. The tools employed for the worship of God, on this occasion, were simple – scripture readings, a brief sermon, and someone sang the African-American spiritual “Were You There”. Do you know this hymn? The opening stanza: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord, Oh were you there when they crucified my Lord, Ooh sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble, tremble, tremble.”
All these years later, when I recall this time of Good Friday worship, I feel like I was there. As I reflect on this occasion, I think it was the combination of our attempt at historical accuracy (meeting at the time and on the day when Jesus was likely nailed to his cross), the simplicity of the worship tools, the small gathering (perhaps like the women at the cross), and one beautiful voice that transported me back 2000 years to a dark, dark Friday.
My experience this year, on Good Friday, in our sanctuary was similar. We did not meet in the morning. Rather, we met at 7pm. However, there was a tornado warning in our area. I thought about talking with our church leadership about canceling the service. However, my gut led me in the opposite direction. And I am glad it did.
Matthew’s gospel states that when Jesus was crucified, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom (indicating, perhaps, direct human access to God), the earth shook, and rocks split open. There appears to have been an earthquake of some magnitude.
As we carried out our Tenebrae service on Friday, April 19, a storm could be heard. We heard rain and thunder. We saw lightning. It was especially moving when the Christ candle was carried out of the sanctuary. After the Christ candle exited, the lights in the sanctuary were turned off – complete darkness and complete silence. Except that is for the sound of thunder, the sound of rain, and the sight of lightning. And, once again, due to the power of the Tenebrae service and the timing of the storm, yes, I was there.
Paul R. Gilliam III