Any visitor to a Roman Catholic church today will undoubtedly notice the starkness of the place. After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, the church was stripped of various “signs of life” so as to prepare for the continuation of the Sacred Triduum. All the usual pomp found in Catholic churches – candles, statues, icons, and various other adornments – have been either removed or veiled. On this day, Good Friday, the Latin Church prepares to celebrate her second liturgy of this single Triduum: the Liturgy of the Presanctified. In these holy rites, we will mystically share in and bear witness to a love that destroyed death.
This liturgy of Good Friday begins with one of the most ancient practices of the Roman tradition: the prostration. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the time Christ died, the priests, deacons and ministers approach the altar in absolute silence. St. Ignatius of Antioch, a saint from whom we have already heard in the meditation for Holy Thursday, tells us that the mysteries of God were wrought in silence. In our age, silence is almost impossible to find as we are constantly bombarded by noise. Yet, it is in the silence of God that we hear His still, small voice (1 Kings 19:12). Thus upon reaching the altar, the clergy lay prostrate for several moments while the faithful kneel. All pray. In silence they arise and ascend into the sanctuary, their red vestments flowing as they move. Red is the norm for today’s liturgical color because it evokes the Precious Blood shed today for our redemption.
The first reading of today’s liturgy comes from Isaiah, in which the Prophet proclaims that the Messiah must suffer and even die (Isa. 52:13-53:12). What a mystery! – the great savior of God’s people would bear our sins and, by His stripes, we will be healed. In the Responsorial Psalm, we ourselves cry out the last words of our Lord: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Ps. 31). The Letter to the Hebrews then teaches us why He cried this with His last breaths (Heb. 4:14-16; 5:7-9): He was our High Priest, whose sacrifice was acceptable in the eyes of God the Father. Finally, the Holy Gospel is opened and we, along with the priest and the readers, proclaim the account of the Passion of the Christ according to St. John. Many wonder why we, the people, read the words of the crowd saying, “Crucify Him!” Mother Church teaches us that we are all responsible for Christ’s Passion, and, with each mortal sin we commit, we crucify Him again in our hearts. As the Prophet Nathan rebuked King David, so too does the Word of God cry out to us: “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7). Still, we must not submit to despair, for God provides for both sinners and saints (Mt. 5:45).
Therefore we begin the General Intercessions, which since Christian antiquity are special for this day. The Church of Rome spreads forth her hands to Heaven and prays for all souls throughout the world. According the rhythms of kneeling and standing, we beseech God’s grace to fall like the summer rains over the Church, the Pope, all the faithful, catechumens, non-Catholic Christians, Jews, those who do not believe in Christ, those who do not believe in God, those in public office, and finally those in special need. With the fasting and abstinence we observe today, our supplications arise beyond the stars as sweet incense. As we unite our mortifications and petitions with Christ’s Sacrifice, the sacred ministers disappear into the sacristy and emerge with a large, veiled image. Our eyes are drawn up to this Divine secret as one arm of a cross is revealed, and we hear the celebrant proclaim: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world.” The third part of the Liturgy of the Presanctified has begun: the Veneration of the Holy Cross.
In our love, we cry out in response to the priest: “Come, let us adore.” This ritual is repeated two more times until a grand crucifix is completely unveiled. There before us is the likeness of our Savior nailed to a tree, His arms outstretched in welcome to the sinner. He beckons us to come as we are to Him and receive from the infinite abyss of grace that the Cross has wrought. And so we come in procession to kneel before Him and kiss the sign of our deliverance. As we come forward, the Improperia are sung – ancient reproaches by which God asks us, “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” With these questions, our Lord pierces our hearts with contrition; we chant in response,“Holy God! Holy Mighty One! Holy Immortal One! Have mercy on us.” Our Lord hears this cry, and when our veneration has finished, the crucifix is set aside and He Himself comes to us in the Holy Eucharist.
The Hosts we receive today were “presanctified” (consecrated) on Holy Thursday, and we adored them the night before in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now they are given to us as food for nourishment. In the Garden of Eden, our first parents disobeyed God by eating forbidden fruit which brought the curse of death and sin on the whole human race. On this day, however, and at every Mass, we are called to eat the fruit of the Tree of Life: Christ’s Body and Blood shed on the Cross. After the post-communion prayer, the priests and ministers leave the sanctuary in the mystical silence observed earlier. There is no blessing or sending forth because the Mass has not yet ended. Nevertheless, the Tabernacle is laid totally bare, and, like the disciples, it appears as though that the Lord Jesus has left us. In three days however, we – like those same disciples – will cry out: “It is the Lord!” (Jn. 21:7). Until then, however, we wait and keep vigil at love’s grave.
In our chaotic and selfish world, it is all too easy to wonder what love really is. What does true love look like? Is there an example of love that is perfect? Can love even be perfect? Does love have a face? As human beings, we were created to love and for love. God Himself declares that He loves us and desires us to share in His own life. Yet, many religions claim similar things to their followers. What is it about our Faith that makes the difference? It is one thing to say, “I love you,” and another thing to prove it by action. Christ Crucified, therefore, is the true image of love – only one God became man so as to suffer and die as we do; only one King descended from His Throne to become an object of mockery; only one Father gave up His only Son to ransom slaves. Good Friday reminds us that love does have a face: Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. This journey is not over yet, however, for love has more riches to pour on us! Beyond the darkness, greater things are still to come.
O Vos Omnes (Pablo Casals, 1876-1973)
O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte:
Si est dolor similis sicut dolor meus.
O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention and see:
if there be any sorrow like my sorrow.