Thursday, March 21, 2013

A New Plan for Good Friday

by John Shelby Spong

Reclaiming Good Friday as a major focus of both Lent and the Christian story will be at the center of my life this year, when I spend that day in Richmond, Virginia, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. This is the church I served as Rector from 1969-1976 and it is a church to which I am still deeply and emotionally connected, even some thirty four years after leaving that position. St. Paul’s is a downtown, business center church located literally in the heart of Richmond, the capitol of the state of Virginia. It is surrounded by financial institutions, utility companies, insurance companies, hotels and a sports and convention center. It is literally across the street from the state capitol building, the Governor’s mansion and a statue of America’s first president, a Virginian named George Washington. Underneath St. Paul’s Greek revival building is a three-level parking garage that serves the city commercially from Monday to Friday, while serving the needs and convenience of St. Paul’s members on evenings and weekends.

Richmond’s history includes the time when this city served as the capitol of the Confederate States of America and along Richmond’s Monument Avenue are statues of Confederate heroes. St. Paul’s also played a major role in that moment of American history and was deeply identified with the Confederacy. It preserves that part of its history today by noting with appropriate markers the pews in which Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis once sat as worshipers. After the Civil War and the imprisonment of Jefferson Davis, the Rector of St. Paul’s, Dr. Charles Minnigerode, was one of the few people allowed to visit the former president. Dr. Minnigerode thus became “the voice of Jefferson Davis” to the wider public during Davis’ years of incarceration and was thrust into being a figure of significant importance in the city and throughout the South. The rector of St. Paul’s became, thereby, a voice to which people listened in the city by dint of his office alone. Of the thirteen rectors that have served St. Paul’s since its birth, five have been elected bishops in such varied places as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arkansas, New Jersey and Arizona.

On an average day in the work week, within a six block radius of St. Paul’s an estimated 100,000 people will be at work in their offices. So through the years, St. Paul’s has offered noonday services, concerts and forums, to which many in this working population have been drawn. This ministry is uniquely focused during the season of Lent, when a noontime half-hour preaching service is held during the forty days of that season. A luncheon is served in St. Paul’s before and after the service, which requires more than 300 volunteers a week, to enable people to attend worship and have lunch within the span of an hour. People from a wide range of Christian traditions come to these services and the daily attendance will range from 100 to 700 people. This noontime pattern is still replicated in a few other downtown churches in cities across America, but it is a shrinking number.

Despite this midday Lenten preaching tradition, however, the observance of Good Friday, the climax of the Lenten season, has recently fallen into general neglect, even at St. Paul’s. The traditional pattern of the past was a three hour service scheduled from noon to 3:00 p.m., designed to mark the time when Jesus was believed to be dying on the cross. In recent years, this service has declined to the place where it has almost disappeared, being replaced by a much less demanding and shorter liturgy. With the fading of Good Friday, the climax of the season of Lent has disappeared, leaving most American Christians with a much more shallow celebration of Easter as one of the inevitable results.

This year, St. Paul’s in Richmond decided to try to reverse that trend. A church in the heart of a vibrant downtown filled with people at work might be able to revive this tradition and thus serve all of the suburban churches, where fewer and fewer people are present during the hours of the working day. If successful, a church in the heart of every city in America might follow suit. So these are St. Paul’s plans.

First, the three-hour service is planned as a series of six thirty minute self-contained units, making it possible and convenient for people to come and go from work on the hour or half hour. While some will attend the entire three hours, most will fit their Good Friday observance into their workday schedules.

Second, each of the thirty minute services will include concert level Passiontide music. The magnificent adult choir of St. Paul’s and its gifted organist and choir master, David Sinden, will present a series of chorales or motets from the St. John Passion by J. S. Bach, as well as the work of other composers like Thomas Tallis and Felix Mendelssohn. Soloists will be featured in these musical presentations. To attend a significant Good Friday concert in the heart of the city will be one of this service’s primary attractions.

Third, the Bishop of Virginia, the Rt. Rev. Shannon Johnston, will preside over the entire service, assisted by the Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, the current rector of St. Paul’s. The presence of the Bishop gives the service a larger appeal beyond the boundaries of St. Paul’s congregation.

Fourth, the people reading the lessons in each of the six segments will be drawn from the public life of both Richmond and Virginia. The first reader will be a former governor of Virginia, who guided the state away from “massive resistance to the law of the land,” which was Virginia’s original response to the desegregation order by the Supreme Court in the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954. He led this state beyond the attitudes that had produced slavery, segregation and the racism of the Old South into a new day of social harmony and racial cooperation. He and his family made their witness in a deeply personal and public way. Interestingly enough, in the light of today’s politics, he was and is a Republican.

The second reader will be an African-American woman who served on the City Council in those difficult days of transition and whose leadership locally was instrumental in enabling the new and modern city of Richmond to be born. The third reader will be the wife of the last governor (a Democrat) and thus was the First Lady of Virginia from 2005-2009. In her own life, she embodies the transitions through which both Richmond and Virginia went and she helped to develop a new consciousness.

The fourth and fifth readers will be two women who represent careers which were not open to women in previous generations. One is a priest and spiritual director. The other is a Senior Vice President at Wells Fargo Bank, working in the area of philanthropic services.

The final reader will be the current Senior Warden of St. Paul’s. He is the CEO of a major hospital in Richmond. He is also an African-American, the first African-American to be the lay head of this church, once known as the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.” Each of these readers will be an expression of hope and a symbol of the new America that is being born.

My role in this service will be to deliver six meditations, one in each of the six thirty minute services. As we live through these three hours, I will seek to invite people into the meaning of the Passion story as it was told by the author of the Fourth Gospel that we call John. Specifically, I will try to move the Christian Church away from that threadbare Good Friday format of the past that focused on what was called “The Seven Last Words from the Cross.” Those “Words” were never anything more than an attempt to force the gospels into a blended narrative, which makes a mockery out of current biblical scholarship. The overwhelming probability is that the dying Jesus never uttered any one of these “seven last words.” The absolute certainty is that he never uttered all of them.

Mark, the first gospel to be written (70-72), has Jesus speak only one “word” from the cross, that is: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew, the second gospel (82-85), followed Mark’s lead and recorded only that same “word” from the cross, nothing more. We know that this “word” is the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm which the early Christians used to narrate the story of the cross. Even the earliest story of the crucifixion we now know was not an eye witness account, but was rather an interpretive piecing together of a series of Old Testament texts of which Psalm 22 was a major contributor. By the time Luke wrote the third gospel (88-93), the idea that Jesus felt forsaken by God was offensive and so Luke replaced it with a much more positive and confident final saying: “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit.” That is a far cry from “My God, why have you forsaken me.” Luke also added two other sayings, one supposedly spoken to the soldiers: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” and one supposedly addressed to the penitent thief: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

When John, the final gospel, was written (95-100), he dismissed all of the previous “words” recorded in the earlier gospels and added three new ones never heard of before: “Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother;” “I thirst,” and “It is finished.”

“The Seven Last Words” thus represent a forced unity that the gospels never had and they are, we now know, quite inauthentic. My hope will be that in future Good Friday services the Passion story will be developed according to Mark one year, Matthew the next year, Luke the third year, John the fourth year and then continue the rotation. The authenticity of the individual gospel accounts will thus be restored to Good Friday.

I hope this service sets an example that brings a new biblical understanding of the Passion of Jesus and that it restores Good Friday to a central place in the Church’s life. Above all, I hope it will drive us away from Easter bunnies and Easter Parades down 5th Avenue as the meaning of Easter and into the experience of the resurrected life itself.

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