Sorting by

Skip to main content

Bargaining at the Cross

By March 29, 2013 No Comments

Good Friday when I was young was a day for bargaining. Not just between the pulpit and my ear, as I tried to do the mental math implicit in the inevitable substitutionary-atonement sentiments of the day, but even before that in respect to what sermon I’d have to hear. What set of mini-sermons, in fact.

The deal was, you could get out of going to your own church that night if you took in X percent of the three-hour service on the Seven Last Words from the Cross held at one of the neighborhood churches that afternoon. The attraction was not in hearing something new or exotic, since the dominies on the list were almost all Christian Reformed. (They let in one RCA pastor of sound theological repute.) Part of the lure was negative since the noon to 3:00 p.m. slot was too sacred anyway to permit shooting hoops in the neighbor’s driveway, much less trying out softball at the park. By contrast, you could get in some TV at night while your parents were at church, maximizing the utility of the reduced pleasurable hours that Good Friday afforded.

The tougher, more intriguing bargaining came with your parents—and then in comparing the deal you had wrangled with those struck by the other kids. My folks were of the moderate maximalist school: you had to take in four of the Words plus the hymns following each, which probably spelled a net elapsed time of an hour and a half. That was four 15-18 minute homilies, which made for much more sermon than you’d have at night, but four brief prayers instead of the long one, plus you could exit while the fourth hymn was being sung. Other parents seemed more liberal—three Words. But, if you took them at the start of the service, that entailed sitting through part of the organ prelude, plus the opening prayer (neither Long nor Short), plus an extra opening hymn. So your net time wasn’t that much less. No one I ever heard of had to stay for all seven Words, and only teenagers with cars would try getting away with going in to grab a bulletin and then taking off for the beach or a movie.

Once you had settled up, the debate turned to which Words to attend: the first, the last, or the middle block? Denny liked “I thirst” because it reminded him of “Jesus wept,” his favorite verse in the Bible, being the shortest. The mother and son exchange further down always struck me as a little creepy, and “It is finished” got to be very doleful, the minister in charge of that Word having to outdo all his predecessors at seriousness and woe. Personally, I liked the opener, on forgiveness, and its follow-up when Jesus assured the baddest guy on the hill that he, the thief, would be that day with Him in paradise. Did I like these because they came early and so promised quicker release into the free afternoon air? Or because all the bargaining, like the dicing at the foot of the cross, so missed–or made–the point as to make the Savior’s load heavier?

We had Bible teachers at our Christian school that could have helped with that question, but even then I was too uneasy to ask it. I probably didn’t even see it. I sensed it a bit, though, which helped give an authentic pang to the played-up ones the ministers were trying to conjure from the pulpit. Maybe we do make our own best sermons after all.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Leave a Reply