High Holy Days – The Sacred Triduum (Part II)
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.