It seems to be the most common assignment for seminarian interns: to preach on Good Friday. I don’t know if that’s because supervising priests are tired of doing it and want someone else to do it, or if it’s because supervising priests think it will be a wonderful educational opportunity for us.
In my case, I told my supervising rector way back in September that I wasn’t crazy about Lent, and he said, “Oh, then we’ll have you preach on Good Friday.” Sigh. I had forgotten the cardinal rule of seminarians: never disclose what you are uncomfortable with or unwilling to do, for you will surely end up doing it.
So now, here I am, working on a sermon about Good Friday, perhaps the most problematic liturgical day of the year for me. What’s good about it? Why do we commemorate an act of torture and execution 2,011 years ago? Why do we try to create a feeling of grief, mourning, regret, and so on in a world that already has plenty of that happening in the present time? (Here is the actual sermon I preached.)
These questions have hung with me for quite a while. Long, long ago in a state far away, when I was 13 years old, I had a huge argument with my father about Good Friday. Our traditional Italian Catholic family always observed Good Friday by going to services in the evening, by fasting from meat, and by remaining quiet from the hours of 12-3. When we were older schoolchildren, my parents started giving us the choice: we could go to school or stay home on Good Friday, but if we stayed home, we had to do something devotional from 12-3–no TV, no playing outside, etc.
But then, when I was in 7th grade, Marriott’s Great America opened in an adjoining city, and my friend’s mother offered to treat a group of us to a trip to Marriott’s Great America on Good Friday–as long as we had our parents’ permission. Marriott’s! Roller coasters! Water rides! Corn dogs! Musical shows!
I was ecstatic. I had watched the roller coasters being built, and I couldn’t wait to try out the park. But then, out of haste, I made a tactical mistake: while my mother was at work one evening, I asked my father if I could go to the amusement park on Good Friday.
My normally placid dad said no pretty adamantly.
I asked why.
He said something like, “You are not going to play at an amusement park while our savior Jesus Christ is nailed to a cross.”
I said something like, “That was 2,000 years ago. He’s not on the cross anymore.”
My dad said it was an important commemoration.
I said I could commemorate it on Thursday or Saturday–it really didn’t matter 2,000 years later. And besides, why make us sad? What’s good about Good Friday? Who needs to remember torture? (Do these questions sound familiar?)
My dad was appalled. I yelled. He yelled back. It is the only major argument that I remember having with my father in my childhood. I stamped my feet and yelled louder. He shook his finger and yelled even louder. I thought he was being very stubborn.
I ran into my room and plotted my next move. I could:
- Call my friend and say that I had parental permission and hope the mother didn’t check. That was unlikely. Also, the thought of lying on and about Good Friday was too much, even for my crooked little 13-year-old heart.
- Wait until my mother got home and appeal to her better sense of judgment. However, experience told me that my parents always backed each other up. Sometimes, there’s nothing worse for teenagers than good parenting.
- Calm down and present a reasoned, detailed, better argument to my dad, who just needed some time to see why a free day at an amusement park was a way, way better use of a Friday afternoon than a church service was.
As I sat there, pondering and plotting, my dad walked in and said, “I don’t care what you’re pondering and plotting. You’re not going anywhere except school or home on Good Friday.”
I considered an all-out revolt against parent and heaven. I just didn’t know how to make that happen.
His speech turned out to be prophetic. I didn’t go anywhere on Good Friday. Or anywhere good, anyway.
But it has occurred to me, as I have started working on this sermon, that I also haven’t gone very far on Good Friday spiritually either; I am still asking the questions: “Why do we remember an act of torture and execution 2,000 years later? Why call up grief when there’s plenty of grief in the present day? What’s good about it?” All these years, despite some beautiful Good Friday services, I have sort of wondered what we’re doing.
I think I have some more answers now than the 13-year-old version of me had. At least, I hope I have some more answers, because I am preaching on this topic on Good Friday.
Somewhere, perhaps in the Italian Catholic section of heaven, my father is laughing so hard at this ironic turn of events that he is crying.