By Bryan Owen

In many parts of the Episcopal Church there’s a tradition of highlighting the mournful character of Good Friday and the agonies of our Lord’s suffering. This is sometimes underscored by veiling crosses in black and by using black for vestments and hangings as a liturgical color for the day. I’ve even heard of clergy sharing a detailed medical description of Jesus’ Passion as the sermon for the day.

Such practices are at odds with the Good Friday liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer. Yes, it is a solemn liturgy. Yes, it acknowledges the reality of Jesus’ suffering and death. But it is also a liturgy that highlights, anticipates, and celebrates Jesus’ victory over sin, suffering, and death.

Liturgical scholar Leonel Mitchell puts it well:


The Good Friday liturgy is a solemn commemoration of and participation in the great events of this day, the salvation of the human race through the victory of Christ, who by dying destroyed death, not a funeral for Jesus. The older custom of wearing black vestments, and the Anglican custom in some places of vesting choir and acolyte in black cassocks without surplices on this day, tends to reinforce the funeral theme. This latter custom apparently stems from the recognition that the Three Hours was not a liturgical service, hence the “vestments” were not worn, but only the cassock, the “street dress” of the clergy. The liturgical color of today is Holy Week red, for Christ the King of martyrs, and albs or surplices are appropriately worn.

The theme of Christ’s victory surfaces in several places in the prayer book’s Good Friday liturgy. For example, in the prayer that concludes the Solemn Collects, we read this:

Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (BCP, p. 280)

This anticipation of the victory of Christ’s resurrection becomes even clearer in the Good Friday anthems recited or sung as a devotional response to bringing a wooden cross into the church. Consider this part of Anthem 1:

We glory in your cross, O Lord,
and praise and glorify your holy resurrection;
for by virtue of your cross
joy has come to the whole world. (BCP, p. 281)

The theme of victory sounds again in Anthem 2:

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.

If we have died with him, we shall also live with him;
if we endure, we shall also reign with him.

We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.
(BCP, pp. 281-282)

One of the rubrics after the anthems again highlights the theme of victory in the liturgy: “The hymn ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,’ or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross, is then sung” (BCP, p. 282).

And then there’s the fact that the assigned Passion gospel for every Good Friday comes from the Gospel according to John. In John’s Gospel, the moment when Jesus is lifted high upon the cross is paradoxically both his moment of greatest humiliation and his moment of greatest exaltation. For John, Jesus’ death by crucifixion is also Jesus’ victory over the powers of sin, evil, and death. Note, for instance, the tone of triumph in Jesus’ words about his impending death by crucifixion:

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:31-32)

Fixating on the violence and gore of Jesus’ suffering misses the central point. For while the Good Friday liturgy acknowledges the reality of death and sorrow, it also strongly anticipates Jesus’ resurrection and victory over death and sorrow.

Good Friday is not a funeral for Jesus. It’s a Christus Victor liturgy. How our churches enact that liturgy should reflect this reality.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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Steve Schlossberg
1 year ago

I think you’re exactly right about the Solemn Collects, which for many years puzzled me, and actually disappointed me. I thought a return to Ash Wednesday’s Litany of Penitence would make much better set of prayers for Good Friday. But the Solemn Collects do just what you say: recognize the victorious and redemptive character of Christ’s action on the Cross. But because the Solemn Collects do that so well, I think the liturgical and homiletical corrections you suggest are unnecessary, and for some worshippers probably unhelpful. Just as you say, John’s gospel collapses the crucifixion and resurrection into one saving… Read more »

Steve Schlossberg
1 year ago

You’re exactly right about the Solemn Collects, which for many years I found disappointing, because they were so non-penitential. I always thought that a recitation of the litany of Ash Wednesday would make a better set of prayers for Good Friday. But just as you say, the Solemn Collects appropriately, helpfully remind us of the victorious, redemptive character of Christ’s action on the Cross. But it’s because the Solemn Collects do this so well that I think all the morbidly of our black cassocks, hooded crosses and funeral sermons not only do us no harm, but actually provide the counterbalance… Read more »

Paul Zahl
1 year ago

I couldn’t disagree with this more.

Clay Calhoun
1 year ago

Yes! Thank you for this. Christ is alive–even on Good Friday.