Good Friday, 2021

One of the deep treasures of Christianity is the simple fact that we have four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John present the life of Christ from four different perspectives. Although what might seem to be disagreements and differences appear and sometimes confuse believers, the overall picture of Jesus’ life, ministry and meaning is far richer because we have multiple points of view. The importance of having multiple points of view became even more important to me after years of working with survivors of suicide. When there is a sudden and traumatic loss in a family, different people have different versions of what happened. Investigators and police officers are familiar with the differences in the stories of witnesses of trauma. One person will be certain that things unfolded in a particular fashion. Another will tell a different story. Eye witness accounts of traffic accidents, for example, are rarely accurate about details such as the color of the traffic light when the accident occurred. Having multiple perspectives helps to understand the big picture more accurately.

Good Friday reminds us of the differences in perspectives of the storytellers as we try to piece together the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. Serious students of scripture can discover nuances of difference in the way the gospel writers tell the story. There is no single, coherent, comprehensive set of “facts” about the crucifixion. What we have, instead, are the deeply held convictions of people of faith who bring their own experiences to the telling of the story.

One of the ways faithful Christians have remembered the event is through drama. Passion plays have told the story of Christ as interpreted by playwrights and actors. They are often based on the gospel stories, but take bits and pieces of those stories and string them together with material that is not taken directly from the bible. I spent many years of my life and ministry in the context of passion plays that were seen as sources of information about the events of Good Friday.

The Black Hills Passion Play traces its roots to 1932, when Josef Meier of Luenen Germany brought a small company of actors to the United States on tour with a passion play. The play was performed in German and designed for German theaters, churches and German-speaking communities. There were plenty of German-speaking people in South Dakota in those days of the Great Depression and the play found eager audiences. In May of 1939, Meier began a summer season with a different version of the passion play, translated into English at a natural amphitheater in Spearfish, South Dakota. The play attracts large audiences and over the next 70 years, it was performed every summer. Eventually the set became constructed of permanent buildings, a farm was developed to care for the animals year round, and the amphitheater was expanded to seat 6,000 people.

We used to say that Meier crucified Christ three times a week all summer long. Eventually they took the theatrical company to Florida in the winter, where the performances continued. For people who lived in and near the Black Hills, the performance of the passion play often was better known than the gospel accounts. People who didn’t read or study the bible thought they knew the story because of the play.

The wonderful thing about the play is that it brought the message of Christianity, or at least part of the message, to people who might not have otherwise know it. The challenge is that people believed that the play was an accurate depiction of the actual events of the crucifixion. There were significant differences but the play became a source of authority on religious matters. At times this was a challenge for me as a pastor as I sought to teach and preach the gospels from the Bible.

While the Black Hills Passion Play was still running, a different and perhaps even more widely viewed passion play was developed by Mel Gibson. His 2004 movie depicting the crucifixion in bloody detail had a big impact on the lives of many people. Once again I found myself needing to help people sort out the differences between the events as reported in the Gospels from the interpretations of the dramatic presentation.

None of us can tell the story with accuracy in every detail because we don’t have access to the original events. Even if we had been eyewitnesses, we would have each had our own perspective. I became freshly aware of the impact of perspective when I wrote a new liturgy for Good Friday in 2011. The previous year had been a challenging one for me. My brother had died the April before. My mother died in January of that year. My father-in-law died on Ash Wednesday that year. In the midst of those losses and the processing of that grief, our family was also celebrating the birth of our first grandchild and our daughter was planning her wedding. I poured my heart into the writing of the liturgy, which included readings of scripture and prayers. The prayers reflected my own grief as well as my experience as a pastor walking through grief with the people I served. Now, a decade later, I read those prayers and recognize my own perspective has shifted. The prayers are still meaningful and I would continue to use them if I were an active pastor, but I can see the difference that a decade makes in the experience of grief. I haven’t forgotten the loved ones who died, but the memories are a bit more gentle these days. I can read the prayers without crying now.

So once again we have come to Good Friday. It is a day of remembering grief. It is a day of being reminded that grief is a constant companion in this journey of life. None of us has the complete picture. All of our stories and plays and interpretations are colored by our experience. To deepen our faith requires all four gospels. It also requires gathering together with other faithful people to share our experiences and perspectives. The gift of many different perspectives is one of the treasures of our faith.

We do not face Good Friday alone.