Today is Good Friday (2015) and with tomorrow’s entry in this series I will have completed forty essays, one for each day in Lent. I’ve been writing reflections each day about my pastoral ministry, especially considering the confessions and celebrations that arose from my work in various churches. Today it seems appropriate to write of Good Friday and the way we shaped our commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion.

As I grew up in my home church, Union Presbyterian Church, Endicott, NY (which is, thanks be to God, the church in which I worship in my retirement), I think I recall a fairly traditional ecumenical Good Friday service. I’m hedging here because I’m not certain of it; after all, it’s been many, many years. But here’s what I seem to remember happening. It was that prototypical three-hour service that ran from noon to 3 p.m., with various local pastors responsible for one of the “seven last words of Jesus.”

I do know that due to the heavily Roman Catholic population of my hometown, there was no school on Good Friday, and, leaning toward the ministry as a vocational choice as early as ninth grade, I was likely to have gone to church that day, and stayed for most if not all of the “last words.” I mention this traditional service because the custom carried forward to my first call of any length in pastoral work.

It was the mid-1980s in Richmond, Va., and I was serving as part of the pastoral leadership at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church. During at least some of my tenure there, we did host area pastors for that “seven last words” format. If memory serves (that phrase again), the service must have rotated among the several churches in our neighborhood, but I do recall Bon Air’s hosting it, and my occasional participation. With two pastors on staff, the preaching usually fell to the “senior” pastor, but I would have assisted in leading worship, and did, at least twice, offer my commentary on one of the “words.”

It is, as I’ve noted, a well-worn model. But I liked it for a couple of reasons. First, with many local clergy involved, it recognized that Good Friday was a day of profound meaning that we all held in common, despite our differences in polity and theology. “Christ crucified” was the message at the heart of the day, and drawing neighbors together for worship in one place was a sign of our oneness in Christ. Second, I appreciated the idea that though I might have some responsibility during the service, there was still time for me to be a worshiper, a listener, a learner. Preachers don’t have many opportunities to hear the Word proclaimed, but during those long Good Friday services, we all could hear someone else’s viewpoint and value their insights. (Or, squirm…there was that now and then.)

When I moved to Vermont, that format didn’t go with me. The community was very rural and there weren’t enough pastors in the neighborhood to fill that three-hour period. Plus, farmers couldn’t exactly take Good Friday off. I’m not sure what, if anything, the East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church had done on Good Friday before I arrived there. But with Joan and me so inspired by ideas absorbed annually at Montreat Worship and Music Conferences, I was determined to mark the day somehow. Joan would be playing the organ at her church in Danville, and the East Craftsbury organist wouldn’t be available (she taught physics at a nearby college), so I was on my own. I came up with providing resources for one’s private silent meditation, whenever one could stop by the open, warm church on that Friday.

Because this was new, we had few participants the first year, and maybe a couple more in subsequent years. Sometimes I found myself alone in the sanctuary, but that was helpful for me personally as I meditated on the meaning of the day.

One year, the East Craftsbury Church did have a powerful Good Friday service that was well-attended by the whole community. Proprietors of a Bed and Breakfast just down the road from the church were members of a nearby Episcopal Church, and also had a drama group that was working on a portrayal of the dark events of Good Friday. They offered to do the play at our church and we quickly accepted. Someone had built a huge wooden cross for the drama, and a young actor portrayed Jesus being crucified, complete with theatrical bloodshed. It was far from hokey. The script, the actors, the live musical accompaniment — it was, pardon the expression, awesome —  far beyond what we had expected that night in our small rural church. We left that service in utter silence.

By the next year, the B&B folks had moved away, the drama group had disbanded, and we went back to a day of silent reflection and meditation. Frankly, that one profoundly moving night of drama couldn’t have been repeated. There was no need to make it an annual event. But the big cross was left to our church and was used during Holy Week and Easter Sundays from that year on. And a curious thing…that “blood” from the play’s crucifixion scene had made a small, permanent mark on the carpet. When we put the pulpit back in place for the Easter service, it didn’t cover the stain as we had hoped. Being behind the pulpit, it was visible only to the preacher, and if I were a more pious man, I’d say that from that day on, every time I approached the pulpit of that church, I had a stark reminder of the blood of the Lamb. That’s if I were more pious.

I mentioned Joan’s playing the organ on Good Fridays at the Congregational Church in Danville. Many years there, the “service” consisted of three hours of music, with some printed devotional materials provided for those who answered the invitation: Come when you can; leave when you must. Joan played through much of that time, but other musicians played or sang, and I enjoyed being in the pews there with no responsibility except encountering “Christ crucified” through Joan’s music, and my own prayer and mediation.

My last church was in Trumansburg, NY. There, we did have enough local ministers and priests to hold a “seven last words” service. But customs were already in place in that community, and those traditions served the community well. The village had a small town atmosphere and the churches were only blocks apart. There was no need to offer “competitive” offerings. Thus on Good Friday, the Episcopal Church always offered an hour-long noontime service in which local pastors joined together to provide leadership. The good news was that, though there was little planning, four or five of us (the Epsicopal host, along with Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian pastors) shared in the readings and prayers, and I think the sermon rotated among us year by year.

Sadly, for many good Christian folk, if the service isn’t held in their own church, they don’t attend elsewhere. Each year at the Episcopal church’s Good Friday service, I’d look out in the congregation and see only four or five people from my church in the pews. (I admit to being chagrined when at least one member of my church said Good Friday services are so depressing…so sad…that she wouldn’t be going, ever.)

In Trumansburg, Joan and I also attended the Roman Catholic “Stations of the Cross” service on Good Friday evening. The priest there invited us Protestant ministers to join in the readings as we processed to each station, and with time for silent mediation, that was a helpful addition to our Good Friday devotional life.

Now, in retirement, we continue “walking the stations of the cross” at a nearby Catholic church where the young people there enact tableaus while the congregation sings music from Taize. With those kids taking it so seriously, with voices singing in lovely harmony, we add our Presbyterian presence to “ecumenize” the service, making it a Good Friday custom for us.

Tomorrow, the last entry in this series: I think I’ll write of light, a gentle, flickering, but persistent light, something that shines hope into a dark day of waiting.