By Jeff Brumley
A group of teachers in Rhode Island, where Catholicism is the prevailing faith, sued their school system earlier this month, demanding they get the day off for Good Friday.
The Associated Press reported that the teachers’ union in Cranston asserted a civil right to observe the day commemorating Christ’s death. School officials said teachers can take the time off only when services occur during the school day.
Whatever the outcome, it’s a lawsuit and debate that would be very unlikely in states dominated by evangelical Christians.
But some Baptist ministers say Good Friday is a moment in Christianity that should be observed by more Protestants. Some even say Easter and the whole of the Christian calendar make little sense without it.
‘Reckon with ruin and death’
By no means is Good Friday an isolated event, said Winn Collier, the pastor of All Souls Charlottesville, a partner church with the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Following the church calendar is a congregation’s way of following the footsteps of Christ throughout the year. And for both churches and individuals it’s an attempt to follow the way of Jesus and embody his story in their own lives, Collier said.
“There’s no way you cannot do Good Friday because this is one of the pivotal turns in the story,” he said.
Good Friday commemorates the day of Jesus crucifixion, and historically has been observed primarily by Catholics, Episcopalians and other liturgical Christian traditions.
However, Good Friday — together with the rest of Holy Week, Lent and the church calendar concept — have been either ignored or condemned by conservative Protestant groups. Many have seen these practices as beholden to Catholicism and, according to them, therefore connected to more ancient pagan rituals.
But ignoring Good Friday robs Easter of its full meaning, Collier said.
“We have to reckon with ruin and death to fully celebrate the power and liberation of life that we encounter in Christ’s resurrection,” he said.
‘Community of believers’
There are other reasons Baptists should consider observing Good Friday, said Tony Lankford, the pastor at Park Avenue Baptist Church in Atlanta.
“We talk about participating in Lent and Good Friday because they allow us to participate in the greater global church,” said Lankford, whose congregation is part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
“That’s the reason we’re doing it with St. Paul [United Methodist Church],” he said.
The two congregations on Good Friday will share choirs, readings of the passion narratives and communion served by both pastors.
It’s a powerful time because participants know there are millions of Christians around the world holding similar observances, Lankford said.
“We gather with the community of believers to acknowledge in worship the death of Christ,” he said.
It’s an especially powerful holy day for Americans to consider, given the culture’s aversion to any talk of death, he added.
“Without Good Friday it allows you to have a journey to Easter that doesn’t include its darkest moments,” Lankford said.
‘Awful Friday for him’
But most Baptist churches aren’t anywhere near adopting Good Friday or Lenten services, said Rodney Kennedy, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio.
While now leading an American Baptist Churches USA congregation, Kennedy said he grew up Southern Baptist in northern Louisiana. There, Good Friday marked nothing more than the day his family planted their garden every year.
“I was a grown man before I knew that there were Good Friday services,” said Kennedy, co-editor of the 2013 book Gathering Together: Baptists at Work in Worship.
Nor did he understand what the day even meant until much later in life.
“It’s not Good Friday for Jesus — it’s awful Friday for him,” Kennedy said. “But God turns Good Friday into resurrection.”
Holding services is vital to communicating that reality to congregations, Kennedy said.
At First Baptist, the tradition is to present the Stations of the Cross throughout downtown Dayton.
“It’s a really big deal because it’s a cornerstone of Holy Week,” he said.
That evening, First Baptist holds a Tenebrae service in which 14 scriptural passages are read. As each reading is completed, a candle is extinguished and eventually the sanctuary ends up in complete darkness.
As each participant exits in silence, he or she will drop a nail into a large washtub.
“The echoing sound creates an awesome sense of what crucifixion must have been like,” Kennedy said.
It also reminds believers that crucifixion is a form of capital punishment, he said.
“Good Friday is serious business and we reenact it because we believe that drama is necessary for us to remember … that we belong to Jesus and we are his body,” Kennedy said.