#49 – Niagara Falls and Good Friday

A friend says that every year on Good Friday she feels like she’s standing as close as she can get to Niagara Falls.

Niagara-FallsSomething terribly powerful is happening. The water thunders down right beside her.  The roar is deafening. She knows she’s in the presence of an enormous mystery. She’s standing so close that the water sprays her.  She’s getting wet.

But she feels frustrated, because she can’t catch much of the water.  She has only a little thimble, or at most a small cup. So all she can do is stand at the edge of this giant waterfall  –  as close as she dare –  and catch a trickle in her little cup….

When I led Good Friday services as a pastor, I hoped we knew ourselves to be in the presence of an enormous mystery.  I hoped we stood as close as we dared, holding out our little cups to receive the wonder. I hoped we ended up very wet.

I found, somewhat to my surprise, that the simplest way of approaching this mystery was likely the best….

It probably started for me in Souderton. There in the 1950’s, the merchants of Souderton closed their stores from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday.  They deliberately kept commerce out of the hours when Jesus hung on the cross.

So instead of shopping, my Mom and I went to church. Each year, we attended part of the come-and-go community service which rotated between several of the town churches. At the Lutheran church the dim light and the stained glass windows mesmerized me. And each year, wherever we met, I entered the story of Jesus’ passion read section by section from one of the Gospels.The Bible story itself held such power. More power than the brief mediation by a pastor after each reading.

Kneeling-at-the-crossMuch later, when I became a pastor,  I entered the Good Friday morning service completely.  The solemnity of it washed over me. The power of the story gripped me. Jesus struggling in the garden. Peter denying Jesus three times. The crowd shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross. Then Jesus crying out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And the centurion proclaiming, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Each year, at the various churches I served, we simply heard the story via Reader’s Theatre, sometimes with a bit of acting. We interspersed a song after each section. Sometimes we had opportunity to pick up a nail and contemplate it, or to kneel before the cross.  My mediation was extremely brief, if I offered one at all. The communion which followed always felt like one of the holiest moments of the church year to me….

At Rockway, the church Sam and I now attend, Good Friday morning also focuses on entering the story.  The chairs are arranged in a circle around a cross laid out on the floor. We hear the power of the passion story read from one of the Gospels, interspersed with songs. Then follows a time of meditation, when all who wish come to kneel at the cross as we sing songs from the Taize community, accompanied by piano, violin and recorder. We each place a stone on the cross to represent a personal burden we are leaving there, or our concern for someone else’s pain or for the pain of our world.

I wouldn’t miss that service for anything.  But Good Friday isn’t over yet!

St-John-PassionFor in the evening, Sam and I hear the story once more – this time sung by the Evangelist in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion or St. John Passion with the Grand Philharmonic Choir. What a day of entering into Jesus’ passion!

…But I also need to name what happened at breakfast one Good Friday during my pastoring years. I was famished after church, so we headed to our  favorite breakfast place. I was still wearing my Good Friday black, with a cross around my neck.

As we sat down, I noticed the lads at the next table enjoying their beer and eggs. One of them glanced over at us, then said loudly to his friends: “So…it’s Good Friday.  Jesus just died for our sins.” Another replied, “But it didn’t take, eh?”

I wished I could transport these guys, beer and eggs and all, to Niagara Falls, set them down so close they’d be bound to get wet, and give them each a little cup….

Question for Reflection:

When, if at all, has the story of Jesus’ passion and death especially gripped you? When have you felt the mystery and the wonder of it all?

Next week: Easter with my Childhood Chorister

2 thoughts on “#49 – Niagara Falls and Good Friday

  1. Dear Sue, Thank you for your powerful writing on Good Friday and the mystery and power of Good Friday services. I found it very powerful. I have felt the mystery and wonder of the Easter experience most powerfully when singing or listening to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. The longest section of the Mass is the Credo — it’s also the middle section. In reciting beliefs the second one is in Jesus Christ who was made incarnate and also made man. Chorus #16 tells of Christ’s crucifixion and death. The music for that chorus is very dark and solemn and slowly progresses downward until at the end all voices are on a low note — even the sopranos are a note below middle C. There is generally a slight pause at this very low, dark point and then chorus 17 erupts with barely contained joy as all voices have musical runs reaching skyward — “et resurrexit” or And the third day he rose… It’s a wonderful moment in which music and words are masterfully combined. As I am generally in public when I hear this and always when I sing it, I can not give way to the emotions it arouses in me. My most natural inclination is to sob unrestrainedly. How can such a wonderful thing be??! He died that I might live! A mystery, indeed!



  2. Thanks so much, Ellen, for sharing with us how Bach’s Mass in B Minor combines music and words in such a profound and powerful way, leading you deep into mystery and wonder!


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