What darkness brings to light

A service for Good Friday

Opening notes

On Easter Sunday we focus on coming to life, in and through the power of the risen Christ. But in order for us to come to life, we must first sit with the darkness of death. This service is a solemn space in which people can grieve the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our sin and remember their own losses. It has many elements that would be found in a funeral/memorial service.

Despite having a number of children in my children in the congregation for whom I have written this service, I decided not to have our usual time of conversation. I want them to experience the silence and the ritual of this moment. At their table in the front of the sanctuary, however, I have prepared a space for them in which they can discover the theme of the service in their own way: black cardboard, metallic sharpies (markers), a box of different crosses from a Godly Play lesson, and my own messy example in which I have drawn freehand nine different imitations of those crosses that spoke to me – some overlapping. After the service, these will be put in the sanctuary windows. The gold and silvers literally shine on the black background!

Metallic markers on black cardboard.

I have also incorporated a silent “pilgrimage” to the large metal cross on the church grounds. I have pre-cut lengths of red ribbon which congregants will be able to tie to it as a symbol of their confession. It will also be visible to members of the community from the shopping centre across the road.

The lament

This is the night
where violence is the victor
as ambitious men measure a man’s worth in silver
and fearful men turn their backs on a friend,
and powerful men trade what is right for whatever keeps them popular.

This is the day
when the sun refuses to shine 
on the tear-stained cheeks of those who bear witness to such cruelty
or the bewildered faces of those who can’t take back their wrongs
or the hardened hearts already moving on to their next bit of entertainment.

This is the time
in which God goes ahead
into the nightmare landscape of pain and suffering,
into the breach between divine love and human sinfulness,
into the dark,
into the deep,
into death.

Out of the depths we cry to you:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

TiS 350 There is a green hill far away (verses 1-4)

Old Testament reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

As it was prophesied in the book of Isaiah, so has it come to pass:

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

TiS 356 Here hangs a man discarded

(sung to the tune of O sacred head most wounded – 339 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oza5iOPtQkA)

Pilgrimage of confession/pain

The prayers of confession are done as part of a silent pilgrimage to the cross (located in my instance on the outside of the building). Everyone is given a red ribbon as they walk out of the sanctuary to tie to the cross as a symbol of laying their sins on the Intercessor. 

After some silence, a prayer in the face of tragic death is offered (based on some of the language and imagery of Psalm 22). This will connect with people on two levels: the first, as a lament of the injustice of the cross and expression of the questions may have about whether it was really necessary; the second – of which we need to be aware – is at the more personal level of recent or unresolved grief for those whose loved ones have died.

Sovereign Lord,
our great God of compassion,
as we gather around the cross of Christ
we can hardly believe what happened.
Our hearts are shaken with sorrow,
our certainty with disbelief,
for a life so full of promise has been taken
and we do not understand.

Cradle us in our confusion,
meet us in our anger,
contain our shock and sadness,
bear the questions that have no answers,
ease our regret and shame.

We must believe that you do not despise our cries of deep despair –
that You do not look the other way when we are in pain.
You are the first responder to our sufferings:
let us remember that “it is finished”
that we might overflow with life again.
In Jesus’ name.

Chorus: Amazing love (what love is this)  

Gospel reading: John 19:38-42

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

Prayer of invocation

O God for whom the darkness is as dazzling as light,
You are our very present help in times of trouble.
With You we have nothing to fear
and in Your hope we place our trust.
In the mystery of life and death before us,
speak to us now Your eternal words of life.
Amen.

Guided meditation:
what darkness brings to light  

I am amazed how in the worst of times, we sometimes get a glimpse of the best in people. My meditation will focus on how Jospeh and Nicodemus, secret disciples who were afraid to be seen of him in the light of day for what it might cost them, in this moment step up, out of the shadows, and claim his body. While it is true that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, sometimes the darkness is necessary for us to work out what we really believe and where we’re headed and to see sources of light that escaped our attention before. 

This is a wonderful place to lead people in an imaginative prayer exercise beginning with our common experience of having our eyes adjust in a dark room when something unsettles us in the middle of the night and finding all sorts of unexpected light sources that orient us, and leading to a prayerful consideration of what our current worries, struggles, or pain might be revealing to us.  

Prayer of petition

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

TiS 349 In the cross of Christ I glory 

Benediction (and moment of remembering)

This is a memorial prayer (available in Tess Ward’s “Alternative Pastoral Prayers” which sends people away to experience the wait for a new day. Afterwards, opportunity is given to those who would like to light a candle in memory of a loved one for whom the words are equally true.

Long the journey we must now make
for one of our kind has left us and we cannot be the same.
Slow the feet tread moment by moment,
a wonder that morning and evening keep coming round.
But weaving the old story into the new cannot be hurried 
for there are no landmarks and no maps.
We must weep over their bones until we carry them within us.
And when the winter of our grief is past
and the rains are over and gone
we will arise and come away,
put our hand in the hand of life,
see the world afresh with newborn eyes
as the flowers appear on the earth again
and the time of singing is come.

Go gently with God.

Paying attention: a prayer of confession

In response to Isaiah 40:21-31

O True Light,
our Constant Companion,
we confess that we have not always paid attention to the signs of Your presence with us;
that, often, we have failed to grasp the immense gift of Your eternal love.
We spend our days scurrying after the insignificant and insubstantial –
worrying about how to get by,
how to compete
how to get ahead,
how to move on,
how to afford what we have,
how to get more,
how to find balance,
how to juggle it all
until we are burnt out, exhausted,
wondering where You are
and why You’ve lost track of us.

Great God who marches out an army of stars each night,
counts them off, and calls them by name,
forgive us for our foolishness
and set us in the firm foundation of Your faithfulness.
Remind us that You have not overlooked a single one of us,
nor a single moment of our circumstances.
As we wait upon You now, give us fresh strength
to persevere,
to hope,
to flourish
in Your presence
and through the power of Your love.
Amen.

A Lenten Confession

Lenten Prayer
inspired by Isaiah 58:1-12 and the featured image which was sourced from : www.sourcanvas.blogspot.co.za

Holy God,
Lover of righteousness and truth,
We have come into this place and time
declaring that we are eager to know You;
almost excited to enter into this season of prayer and penitence
for what we might get out of it –
what we might gain –
from the Lord of lords and God of gods
as (s)he gazes down on us from highest heaven
and finds us as expected
~ in the proper place,
~ at the proper time,
~ singing proper songs,
~ raising proper hands,
~ using the proper symbols,
~ making the proper promises ….

Who do we deceive, O Sinless Saviour, besides ourselves?
For You dwell not only in the highest heavens
but also in the hidden depths of our hearts.

What greeting have we given Your Spirit within us?
What does Love see in our secret places
deep beneath the proper postures and props?

We are unapologetic liars,
shameless frauds:
a people who pray for Your Love to live with and within us
even while we point judgmental fingers
and gossip behind each others’ backs.

We put on the right clothes
and bow our heads in apparent submission and humility,
even as the weight of our boots press down heavily
on the necks of those less powerful, less important,
than ourselves.

We give up meat or bread or booze
and declare that truly we have shared in Your suffering,
made an acceptable sacrifice,
when we will not spend a cent
on food for the hungry
or shelter for the refugee.

We even turn away our own flesh and blood,
declaring them unworthy of our help and our compassion.

Violence and hatred smolder throughout our land;
racism and bigotry are birthed daily though our words –
yet we stand with pious faces
and prayerful hands
and accuse You of not intervening.

Forgive us, O God, for our selfishness and sin.
Let Your light break through – into our darkness.
Illuminate the truths from which we long to hide.
Strip away our pretty masks of self-deceit
to touch marred and scarred faces long unseen.
Show us the actual meaning of sacrifice and surrender.
Hold onto us when we cannot bear the discomfort
of this season of wrestling with who we really are.

Bear our shame and give us the courage
to meet You face to face –
in the fullness of Your glory –
that we may come away changed:
~ bone deep, soul deep;
~ not just skin-deep.

Amen.

Ash Wednesday: a liturgy of stones

Based on Psalm 51 and John 8:1-11

Call to worship (based on Psalm 51)
Have mercy on us O God,
according to Your faithful love!
Wipe away my wrongdoings according to Your great compassion!
Wash us completely clean of our guilt.
Purify us from our sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
my guilt weighs heavily within my hands.
We’ve sinned against You – You alone,
committed evil in Your sight.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin;
from the moment my mother conceived me I’ve wanted to go my own way.
That’s why You are justified when You render Your verdict,
completely correct when You issue Your judgment.
Purify me with hyssop
and I will be clean.
Wash me and I will be
whiter than snow.
Create a clean heart for me, O God;
and put a new and faithful spirit
deep inside me!

Prayer
O Lord, Your love for us is too vast for us to comprehend;
its height and width and length and breadth
beyond our shallow imaginings.
Your glory is indescribable,
Your mercy incomparable,
Your faithfulness like nothing
we have ever known.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Holy presence –
so full of sin and selfish ambition.
Instead, we spend our days trying to
build our own kingdoms,
elevating ourselves above all others,
isolating ourselves in a tower of Babel
built stone by stone with selfish hands.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Loving Presence –
so full of judgement and hatred and envy.
Instead, we spend our days casting stones at others:
Words designed to hurt and harm,
Slurs and slander to tear down what we have not earned and do not have,
Judgements and criticisms that cover our own fears and inadequacies.

When we consider who You are
and what You have done for our sake,
we should fall to our knees
in awe and trembling,
knowing how unworthy we are
to enter into Your Perfect Presence –
so full of half-hearted commitment and excuses for not following in Your way.

Instead, we harden our hearts against You and tell You to take us just as we are.
We deafen our ears through the noise of our lives
that Your still, small voice may not disturb us in our guilty pleasure.
We justify our failures, our bad choices, our addictions
though they keep us from wholeness and newness and real life.

Here, at the start of this season of Lent, we sit with the weight of our choices,
our sinfulness, our selfishness in the palm of our hand.
And we know that we are unworthy –
unholy, unloving, imperfect.

Silence is kept

But we remember how on the night that You were betrayed,
You took bread and broke it and gave it
to those who would follow, to those who would fail,
to those who would deny and betray.
This is Your body – broken for me.
I will eat in remembrance of You.

In the same way You took the cup, gave thanks and gave it
to those who would falter, to those who would fall,
to those who would doubt and hide away.
This is Your blood – poured out for me, for the forgiveness of my sin.
I will drink in remembrance of You.

Here, at the start of this season of Lent,
we come to Your table, Lord, knowing that we are unworthy, unholy, unloving and imperfect,
and we fall on our knees in awe and in trembling at who You are
and at what You have done for our sake …
… for my sake.
Amen.