I grew up in the 1950s. This was before the “Sixties” and the democratization, informalization, and general cheapening of the church and her worship. Ministers were Father Donovan, Pastor Eckhart, Reverend MacPherson, Mister (Episcopal) Parker, and Brother Smith. Liturgical speech was high language, sounding kind of like the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, not the cozy and common parole speech that came in later on. Ministers dressed like adult men holding positions of trust, like doctors, lawyers, and accountants, not “just like you and me,” or like teenaged slobs.
It was a different time. The cultural presence of the Kingdom in the world was dying, but it was still real. What R. J. Rushdoony accurately called the Revolt Against Maturity (Thoburn Press, 1977) had not yet happened.
My ecclesiastical upbringing in those 1950s was quite a mixture. I was descended from a long line of Methodist and before that Anglican ministers, at least back to the mid-1600s. My parents had been drawn to the liturgy and traditions of the Moravian Church in South Carolina, and had joined that, before we moved to Athens, Georgia. (Moravians = Bohemian Brethren = Hussites.) There, the Methodist church was pretty liberal, so my brother and I went to Southern Baptist Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. We were also sent to the Roman Catholic grammar school, to get a better education. (They were right; when I transferred to public school in the 7th grade, I mostly repeated my 6th grade.)
A mission of the United Lutheran Church in America started down the street from us, with a good evangelical mission pastor, and my parents were quickly drawn there. The liturgy was very similar to the Moravian. My brother and I were baptized when I was seven.
In the Roman Catholic and also in the Lutheran world, Lent was a significant season. It began about 70 days before Easter with Septuagesima Sunday, followed by Sexagesima (about 60) and then Quinquagesima (about 50). (By the way, if you don’t know Latin, those words come from 70, 60, and 50, the “g” is hard, and the accent is on the “ge” syllable.) The Wednesday after Quinquagesima is the first day of Lent, or in most languages Quadragesima.
Lent consists of 40 days. Sundays are not counted, since Sunday is always the day of resurrection. Every Sunday is Easter, as any liturgist in any tradition will tell you. Strangely, in the Western churches this fact has been compromised. During Lent the Gloria in Excelsis is often not sung. The Alleluias around the Gospel reading are not sung. And I’ve even been in churches where the communion bread or wine is changed for Lent. In my settled opinion, such Lenten changes are not a good idea. (Using purple, preaching more often on sin, and such things are not a problem, in my opinion, since they do not adjust the centrality of the Easter Gospel.)
The night before the beginning of Lent was a festival time for my Catholic schoolmates. We had what the public schools called “Fun Night,” but in Catholic school it was “Mardi Gras,” which is French for “Fat Tuesday.” Since a fast started the next day, you’d stuff yourself the night before. Sadly, this would become a debauch in some Catholic societies — though not in our little school! This evening is also called “Carne-vale,” which means “Farewell to Meat” or “Farewell to the Flesh.”
The Lenten season was marked for Roman Catholics with Ash Wednesday. In the morning, Catholics would go to church and have ashes smeared on their foreheads or sprinkled on their heads. You would know a Catholic person on this day by the ashes on his head or forehead. Episcopalians and Lutherans still used the term “Ash Wednesday,” but without the ritual. Nowadays some other churches do similar things, such as putting ashes on the head in evening meetings.
What Lent meant to us Lutherans and often for Episcopalians was mid-week Lenten Vespers. Our church did not have mid-week services except during Advent (lesser Lent) and Quadragesima (big honking Lent), and it was in this time that I had the wonderful privilege of learning to sing Vespers. For us in the central European tradition, such Wednesdays meant weekly readings from the Passion History. This is a seven-part compilation of every phrase from all four gospels starting with Jesus’ anointing at Bethany and ending with His burial.
Good Friday was the big day at the end of Lent. We in our church would go to church in the evening, have a service of hymns interspersed with the seven words from the Cross, and then depart in silence and darkness after singing “O Darkest Woe! Ye tears forth flow! Hath earth so sad a wonder? God the Father’s only Son, now lies buried yonder.”
For years I believed that was the best way to remember Good Friday, until about six years ago I played the piano at a church where after the Good Friday service they had a fellowship dinner. What? No, no! They were supposed to turn the lights out and go home in the dark in silence! What were they thinking?
Well, I myself began to think. Where was Jesus after He gave out His Spirit on the cross? He was in paradise with the penitent thief. He was having a big party with Noah and Abraham and Nebuchadnezzar and all the other believers. So, if the point of the Good Friday service is to remember the events of the day, then should we not begin turning the lights back up as Jesus says, “It is accomplished!!” and gives Himself to His Father? Should we not celebrate along with Him, remembering the Paradise Party?
So, I changed my mind. In Luke 23:46-47, Jesus breathed out His last, sending forth His Spirit on the first little Pentecost, and immediately a gentile soldier praises God and announces that Jesus is Son of God. Why not end the service with a rip-snorting fire-breathing Pentecost hymn like “O Holy Spirit, Enter In”?
Truly, Good Friday vigils should be followed by Paradise Parties.
James Jordan is Scholar-in-Residence at Theopolis Institute