Good Friday”Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
The Gospel account of the passion of our Lord Jesus, and indeed the entire Liturgy of Good Friday might be said to bring to life the wisdom of this saying, in that they remind us that what happened on that first Good Friday some twenty centuries ago was an actual historical event. The Gospel and these sacred rites further admonish us that we are not mere observers of history, looking on in a detached way, but are part of it: we live in it, and move in its stream. It is in fact possible that we doom ourselves to repeat its follies and tragedies, or that we learn from the past. The inspired words we have just heard, and that which we do here today—God willing—will help us to choose the latter possibility, and to realize in our own lives the gravity of what took place on that spring day in Jerusalem so many years ago. Three elements of the ritual which we follow on Good Friday are especially striking: they help us to recover an important lesson from the Gospel, and allow us to make use of this lesson, in order to fashion our own place in history, both as individuals and as a community. These three movements are the silence which marked the beginning of this service, the veneration of the cross which is a sort of hinge on which the ceremony turns, and our participation in Holy Communion, which brings the service to its conclusion. Each of these is worthy of our attention…first comes silence.
As the rite of Good Friday begins, we kneel instead of standing, as usual at the beginning of mass, and the celebrant lies prostrate on the floor, in absolute silence—a very powerful gesture. On but a very few occasions does such prostration take place in church. During the ordination of a priest or the profession of a person in the religious life, this gesture symbolizes complete disposition toward the will of God—total self-offering to God, without reserve. On Good Friday, the silence and the prostration that accompanies it initiate us into the solemnity of what we are celebrating: we kneel and lie prostrate as a community united by our faith in Christ, remembering that we are the ones—along with every human being who has ever lived—who brought about that awful day two-thousand years ago by our sin, and by our rejection of God’s gracious will. Only when we have accepted this as part of our history—and the silence allows us no escape—only then can we begin to perceive the true reshaping and redemption of history accomplished by Christ on the cross. Following this period of silence and the opening prayer, our process of remembering and learning continues as we hear about the prophecies, the words and the deeds which anticipated and led to Christ’s passion. These culminate in the Gospel, which on this Good Friday ends not with the resurrection, but with the stark specter of the cross on Golgotha. At this point we proceed to the second movement of the liturgy…the adoration of the cross.
THE ADORATION OF THE CROSS
Here all of us together first proclaim our wonderment over the mystery of the cross, responding to the invocation “This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world”. We sing in reply, “Come, let us worship”. Then, one by one, we approach the image of the cross and make a gesture of respect, kissing the wood which Christ’s self-giving death has changed from a symbol of violence and shame into a victory banner for everyone who professes him, and indeed for those who did not know him but who looked to his coming
in the times before his birth, and even for those of future generations who have yet to hear of him. It is vital that we reflect upon our actions at this point: we remember and acknowledge what Christ did for us through his incarnation and life, his death and resurrection. He opened to us the possibility of sharing in his divine life by humbling himself to take on our human life, and human history. It is then up to us to seize this possibility—to turn Christ’s historical act into a present reality—and to do this we arrive at the final movement of today’s commemoration—our reception of Holy Communion.
THE RECEPTION OF COMMUNION
Having venerated the image of the cross, we turn toward the altar for the first time this afternoon, and ratify our act of reverence toward the symbol of Christ’s victory over death, by participating in Holy Communion. By doing this in faith, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and become part of that Body—each of us, as members of the Church. We thus take possession of that history which we have remembered, and show by our gestures that we willingly share in the Body of Christ: we endure all that it endures, and we stand to inherit all that it inherited. Above all, we have the firm hope that we will share in the resurrection of Christ just as we share in his passion in so many ways in this present life.
Memory is a beautiful thing, and it can be very painful as well. In any case, memory is a fundamental part of human life and relationships. On Good Friday the Church remembers—it stands before the mystery of Christ in honest repentance and in hope. We remember who Christ is, and what he did for us. Sisters and brothers, through our sharing in this sacred liturgy, may we come to appropriate his self-giving life and death into our lives. Then the incarnate wisdom of God which entered into human history centuries ago will truly weave itself into the fabric of our own history today—and we can joyfully, confidently, sing the words of that ancient hymn for Good Friday:”[Upon the cross] life did death endure, and yet by death did life procure.”