Monday, March 21, 2011

The Solemn Reproaches on Good Friday

In the Good Friday rite of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, one of the options during the Procession of the Cross is to sing the Solemn Reproaches. This ancient text, known also as the Improperia, first appeared in Good Friday or Holy Saturday rites of the ninth century. The text then slowly spread in use through the middle ages and then was finally added to the Roman rite in the fourteenth century. One of the great controversies with the ancient text is its anti-semitic stance. This known history makes the use of the text today very difficult. But, thankfully, the Evangelical Lutheran Worship text of the Reproaches has been revised for contemporary usage.

The structure of the text is simple: each reproach begins with an expansion on Micah 6:3: "O my people, [O my church,] what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!" Then, each reproach continues with a new biblical claim, not unlike that of Micah 6:4; "I brought you up from the land of Egypt..." Finally, each reproach concludes "...but you have prepared a cross for your savior." The assembly responds to each reproach with a petition for mercy; in the ELW text the response is the Trisagion (the "thrice holy") of the eastern church: "Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal, have mercy on us."

The biblical claims are a tour de force of scriptural allusions, from both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament:
  • I led you out of slavery into freedom;
  • I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud and fire;
  • I made you branches of the vine and never left your side;
  • I gave you the kingdom and crowned you with eternal life;
  • I washed your feet as a sign of my love;
  • I raised you from death and prepared for you a tree of life;
The next to last reproach of the ELW text merits the most attention.

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?
Answer me.
I grafted you into my people Israel,
but you made them scapegoats for your own guilt,
and you have prepared a cross for your Savior.
        Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,
        have mercy on us.
This additional reproach in the classically anti-semitic text calls the church to repentance of all earlier versions. Further, when sung in the Good Friday liturgy in which the John Passion could be heard as an indictment of the Jewish nation, this reproach aids the liturgy considerably. This reproach, along with the newly reworked Bidding Prayer in the ELW Good Friday rite will help us considerably.

Various musical settings of the Solemn Reproaches exist that allow for the reproach to be sung by a cantor and the response by the assembly. Several settings, including one that I composed, are included in the "Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days" from Augsburg Fortress:

Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days

One last word: these Reproaches find themselves in a rite that is widely unknown among ELCA congregations. Having spent the last three years doing workshops across the church on Lent and the Three Days, we found that overwhelming numbers of churches do lots of different things on Good Friday -- tenebre, three hours with the "seven last words," cantatas, even requiems (very, very bad idea) -- and not this Good Friday rite. I cannot recommend the Good Friday rite as it is in ELW to you and your congregations enough. Do it.


  1. Good post. It might be helpful if you talked a bit more about why Tenebrae is not appropriate on Good Friday. Among my colleagues, that seems to be the main battle.

  2. Tenebre, in its earliest form, is a way of keeping the hours. It is an appropriate devotion, particularly on the last days of Holy Week. I think it is fine to do a tenebre service as an additional devotion on Good Friday, but I would not do it as the only Good Friday liturgy. Further, many protestant tenebre services today use a conflation of the New Testament Gospels to create a "seven last words" of Jesus from the cross, extinguishing a candle for each of the words. I think such a conflation of the four gospels is not where biblical scholars are leading us these days. Instead, we have four gospel stories that each have their own point of view. Each year we read two of those stories: one, from the synoptics, on Sunday of the Passion, and the second always from John on Good Friday. We need both stories each year to save us from any kind of Mel Gibson literalism that might suggest "this is the way it happened."

  3. Mark, the neighboring UMC congregation and our congregation share Good Friday. Their pastor and I were thinking of alternatives to variations on the Stations we've done over the past several years. I was looking through reproaches and am yearning to do them. Thanks for the article.

    Could you also tell me whether the Music Sourcebook you link to above has a setting for the Exsultet? I was disappointed to not find notes to chant it in the Minister's Desk Edition, but if the Sourcebook has it, then I'm definitely ordering. (We're doing our first conference-wide Vigil this year. Exciting!)

  4. Kevin: the Music Sourcebook indeed has several settings of the ELW Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) and a host of other very useful things.....especially for the Vigil.

  5. Thanks, Mark. This is very, very helpful. Now if I can just figure out how to slam a book in the new Good Friday liturgy to fulfill my childhood memories... :)

  6. Mark, do you know why the text of the Solemn Reproaches is printed in the Minister's Edition of ELW but not in the Pew Edition (if it is printed there, where is it?)?

    Also, do you know why no musical setting made it into ELW (as far as I can figure)?

    1. John: We were limited with space in the pew edition. Various musical settings of the reproaches are in the volume "Music Sourcebook for Lent and the Three Days" from Augsburg Fortress, many of them using the Trisagions that are in ELW at Hymns #160-161. All that the assembly sings in the reproaches is the refrain, so you have all that you might need for the assembly in the pew edition. With regard to why some portions of the Triduum rites are not in the pew edition, consider this: these rites were not in LBW pew edition at all, so it is a huge improvement that the most important parts, and certainly the full outlines of the services, are in the pew edition.

  7. You are like, my liturgical boyfriend.