Collect for Good Friday
Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
On Good Friday in the year 1991, I was a Baptist seminarian in Louisville, Kentucky. I had not grown up with any practice of observing Good Friday. I do not know if anyone would have said it out loud to me, but Good Friday was for Catholics, I thought.
For me and the people I knew, Fridays were not days for church. Our Spring and Fall Revival meetings, with visiting evangelists, ended on Thursdays. Fridays were for school pep rallies and high school football. If we prayed on a Friday, it was for a victory over the neighboring town rival.
So, in 1991, I was not troubled to discover my Baptist seminary planned to hold classes on Good Friday. I liked my classes. I looked forward to going.
My favorite class was Church History, taught by Bill J. Leonard. The class met in Norton Hall 195, a large amphitheater-style space. It had to meet there because Dr. Leonard was a popular and engaging lecturer. He was smart and funny. He lectured without notes.
On Good Friday, 1991, Dr. Leonard entered our class. There were probably close to 100 students present. Unlike most days, he did not enter with a humorous quip. Instead, in a somber tone, he told us we were not going to have class that day.
In the place of a lecture, he read a poem. It was a poem by a monk named Thomas Merton, who had lived in Kentucky many years ago. Merton had written the poem upon learning that his younger brother had died at sea in 1943, fighting for the Royal Canadian Air Force. His brother died at the beginning of Holy Week, 1943. The news did not reach Merton until Easter Tuesday.
It was a poem about a brother losing a brother in war. But it was also a poem about everything. April and flowers and beds and even Jesus Christ himself all show up in the poem. It was a poem about a brother losing a brother. It was a poem about everything.
After reading the poem, Dr. Leonard turned and walked out of the lecture hall. Listening to that poem, many of us in that room observed our first Good Friday. A big Catholic revival meeting had broken out.
Hearing that poem for the first time, I did not know how much you could miss a place you had never been to before—not in this life, at least. I did not know how much someone else’s grief could find a place in my heart. I did not know, before that day and that poem, that Good Friday was for everyone.
Here is Thomas Merton’s poem—
For My Brother:
Reported Missing In Action, 1943
Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.
Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?
Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed—
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.
When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.
For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.