Everybody knows that "Good Friday" wasn't actually a good day, at least for Jesus. Growing up at Hopewell Presbyterian with my Daddy leading the tenebrae service, I would get swept away in the melancholy of that dark day in Jesus's story. The word "tenebrae" actually means "shadows" and by the time the service was through, we would have explored the dark natures of all the human beings involved in murdering Jesus. I would lie in my bed on Good Friday night, unsettled by how those same dark natures are such a part of me.
Entering the Sanctuary you could feel that this was going to be a different kind of night. There was a cross up front, leaning ominously against the communion table that just last night, had brought so many people together in love. The cross was made out of two ceder trees and was heavy and rugged. In years past, before the time of the plastic Christmon tree, Daddy would assemble a cross from the trunk of our Christmas tree. I loved how he wove the liturgical calendar together with little details like this.
Daddy would invite us forward, reminding us that there was a slip of paper in the bulletin that we could write on. That slip of paper was intended to carry the burden of our sins. The congregation would come forward with their sins in hand. Some folks took a long time to write their sins down, some only needed moments. I liked to write mine in a secret code just in case Daddy read them (which he said he never did). It didn't matter how quickly you could recall your wrongdoings, because everyone had to wait in line to nail them to the cross.
The cross would lie on the floor in front of the communion table and one by one, folks would come forward, kneel down and hammer that piece of paper to the ceder rood. I will never forget the sound of those sins being nailed down. The sanctuary was quiet except for the hallow pounding of nails into wood. One sin after another, pounding, pounding, pounding.
When the sins were nailed down, Daddy would lift up the cross so that we could see it. Every inch of it would be covered in folded pieces of paper that somehow managed to look just as gruesome as the blood I imagined dripping down the length of it. Seeing the cross like broke my heart; so many sins.
Daddy would invite the Deacons and the children forward. "When Jesus died, the light left our world and with it, all the symbols of God's loving presence." The congregation would sing "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" as slowly as a funeral march and we would remove all the symbols of our faith from the sanctuary. Baptismal font, candles, the gold cross, the Bible, anything that helped us to remember that God is among us, would be taken out to the hallway and placed quietly on a table. From outside of our old church, the giant antique shutters would creak closed as the deacons blocked out the last remaining light of day. The sanctuary would become bare and dark as the lights dimmed to almost nothing.
Then Daddy would help us to remember the story.
Standing behind the communion table now covered with a black cloth, Daddy stood before the only light in the room. Seven candles represented the steps Christ took toward the cross and the only sound we heard was Daddy's voice bellowing the story we all hate to remember.
After their meal, the Disciples argued over who Jesus loved the most. Peter thought that it was obviously him. Jesus told them all that the person who dips his bread in the cup next to him would betray him (poor Judas). Peter announced that he would never betray Jesus to which Jesus responded, "Peter, truly I tell you, you will deny me three time before the first cock crows."
Daddy snuffed out one of the candles.
Jesus was praying in the garden with the disciples and no one seemed to be able to stay awake. I always wondered what was wrong with all of them. Jesus prayed so hard that some translations say that he sweated blood and I don't blame him, he was asking God for mercy. "Take this cup from me if it be thy will." Jesus did not want to die, not like this.
Another light goes out.
As they were leaving the garden, Judas walked up to Jesus and kissed him. He was paid by the Jewish officials (30 pieces of silver) to lead their soldiers to Jesus so that they could arrest him. Judas said, "The man that I kiss is the one." When Jesus received that greeting, he looked at Judas and said, "You would betray me with a kiss?" Dad nearly spat the word kiss every year. I can still hear the way he pronounced it with such vehemence.
It gets darker.
Daddy recalled when Jesus was put on trial. He reminded us of how Pilot was not sure that any harm should come to Jesus. He wanted to let him go free but the people, Jesus's people who were singing his praises only a few days before, began to chant, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Daddy's voice rang so clearly that I thought those words must have come from my own mouth. Would I have crucified my Lord?
Pilot gave over Barabbas, a known murderer, to be freed and washed his hands of Jesus the Christ as his people whipped him and prepared him to be crucified.
Another candle is snuffed out.
While Jesus was on trail and was beaten, Peter was hiding among the crowds trying to figure out what was happening to his Lord. People began to recognize him as one of Jesus's followers and Peter was afraid. "I don't know him," he replied over and over and before he realized what he had done, a rooster crowed signaling a new day. Peter had denied Jesus three times. This was the point where I felt so much empathy for Peter. What deep heartbreak! What shame! I knew that feeling.
It grows darker still.
Jesus carried his own cross all the way to Golgotha (which means "skull hill") where he is nailed to it and hung up between two thieves. It takes hours to die when you are crucified and below him people watched and taunted him. Even one of the thieves used his last breaths to insult Jesus. "You said you could tear down the temple and build it up in three days! Why don't you save yourself if you are the King of the Jews? Where is your God now?" Soldiers caste lots for his clothes beneath him.
There are only two candles now.
At 3 o'clock Jesus cried out, "Adonai, Adonai, lama sabachthani!" Daddy would cry these words out, each syllable ringing in our ears and echoing around the dark shadows of the sanctuary. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" and then Jesus breathed his last breath. "It is finished."
There would be only one light at this point and we watched it move with Daddy as he walked quietly into the balcony. A bell would toll, over and over and everything felt so final, so hopeless.
From the balcony behind us Daddy would finish this part of the story.
Jesus's body was taken down and laid in a tomb. A huge stone was rolled in front of the entrance. Guards were stationed to make certain that no one could enter the tomb.
We followed Daddy out of the church and into the graveyard, the Christ candle beckoning us onward.
"We end tonight at the entrance of the tomb and this is where we will meet again on Sunday."
The Christ candle still burned and everyone returns home in silence.
Quietly, Daddy would turn the lights back on inside and my sister and I would crouch on the floor removing all the sins from the cross. Daddy would remind us that we were not to read a single one and after we would take them off, we would stick them in a purple Crown Royal bag and Dad would keep them a secure place until Sunday morning.
I was enamored by the depth of the nails. Some folks barely got their nails through the paper, let alone the wood, while others would drive their nails in so deeply that I could hardly removed them. It would take a lot of work to finally get those ol' sins off that cross but in the end, it was clean and ready for Easter.