So much paradox, so many metaphors, so much goodness, so much hope, so much deep inside of us that starts to feel like we are at the front end of a dangerously large roller coaster, or a pregnancy's increasing labor pains—or maybe a Holy-Spirit led conversion right here in this place in this day.
Contrary to rumor, the church's observance of Good Friday, which is often accompanied by a decrescendo of light, is not primarily designed to induce a crescendo of guilt. You and I may have a lot of that to deal with—and dealing with it may be a very redemptive thing. But make no mistake: We gather on Good Friday not to wallow in guilt, but to announce that sin and guilt have been atoned for, conquered, healed, addressed, dealt with once and for all, in heaven and on earth through the blood of the cross.
Nor is this decrescendo of light designed to generate a crescendo of sadness. True enough, the story is filled with sorrow and shame and agony. Indispensably so. But this is no funeral for Jesus. We know how the story turns out. We live in Easter hope 365 days a year, and the story we tell today is worth telling because it is an act in the Easter drama.
But why then the darkness and the shadows and the solemnity?
In world that is starved for joyful solemnity, in a church that is definitely starved for joyful solemnity, in a frantically busy academic community that is parched for serene wonder, the darkness and shadows help us do some serious beholding—as in "Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." This decrescendo of light is an invitation to a crescendo of wonder.
Perhaps the subtitle for Good Friday worship should be "the liturgy of the Centurion," after that pagan military man for whom the shadows (by the Spirit's power) caused light and truth to break into his life. "Truly this was the Son of God," he said, astonished.
It is usually December when we most strongly focus our attention on that concept, when we most resonate with the astonishing words of the 17th century poet Richard Crashaw: "Welcome all wonders in one sight. Eternity shut in a span. Summer in winter. Day in night. Heaven in earth. And God in man." But that is not a song only for Christmas.
On this day, when the sky became dark at noon, when the temple curtain was torn in two, when time on this tired earth nearly stood still—on this day when "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross"—we whisper with great joy: "Welcome all wonders in one sight. Eternity shut in a span. Summer in winter. Day in night. Heaven in earth. And God in man."
Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
John Witvliet is director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship at Calvin College. This article is adapted from a sermon he gave at the college's 2009 Tenebrae service.
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