Through the wood of the Cross joy has come into the whole world
Good Friday is Christendom's great day of mourning. In ancient times this day was aliturgical; as a sign of mourning no services at all were held. The modern liturgy is in part borrowed from the Eastern Church, e.g., the veneration of the Cross. There are four easily recognizable divisions: a) the Scripture Reading service; b) the Solemn Prayers ; c) the veneration of the Cross (from the liturgy of Jerusalem, where it was observed already in the fourth century ; originally this preceded the Readings, but was transferred to its present position in the late Middle Ages); d) the Communion Service.
The two key antiphons of the Office place us on Calvary: "They put above His head an inscription with the reason for the death sentence: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" (Benedictus Ant.). "When He had taken the vinegar, He said, 'It is consummated!' And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit" (Magnificat Ant.)
The station church for today's observance is the very ancient "Holy Cross in Jerusalem"; for us it takes the place of Mt. Calvary. In this basilica the great relic of the true Cross is preserved. We enter, the church is empty, bare of every adornment, the tabernacle is open and empty; a cross veiled in black stands on the altar—all this is an expression of silent, interior grief.
No Introit—simply deep silence. No candles are lit on the altar (today, if ever, the Church speaks loudly the language of sign and symbol). Priests appear in black and lie prostrate at the altar steps; this powerless prostration on the floor expresses the desolate state of man before redemption. The service that follows is composed of four well defined units clearly indicated in the text.
a) The Readings. The Good Friday evening service begins with a very ancient Fore-Mass, an example of the ordinary Fore-Mass during the first four centuries. No Introit; the priests lie silently at the foot of the altar; three Lessons; between the Lessons whole psalms are sung as responsories; then the sermon, followed by a series of prayers embodying the needs of Christians.
The first part of the Good Friday liturgy has preserved this ancient order. We should pray these prayers with deepest awe, for we are using the very words early Christians used as they prayed in the catacombs. The first Lesson, from the prophet Osee, was selected for the purpose of arousing contrition over sin.
The second Lesson tells about the Redeemer's meek prototype, the paschal lamb. Today this figure becomes reality as the true paschal Lamb, Christ, is slain! It was no accident that Jesus offered Himself in sacrifice at the very time of the Jewish Passover (Easter). At three o'clock, when the paschal lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, He expired on the Cross.
(b) The Solemn Prayers. Three representatives of God have now spoken to us, the prophet, the law and the evangelist, and it is time to respond in prayer. The eight ancient orations for various classes of people are particularly appropriate for today, for Jesus, our King, is "exalted" and seeks to "draw all things to Himself." The second Adam, Christ, is sleeping the sleep of death, and from His side comes the second Eve, the Church. In the petitions we pray for the Church, the bride of Christ, for various groups within the Church, and even for schismatics and heretics.
(c) The Veneration of the Cross. The drama of the Good Friday liturgy continues to unfold with the veneration of the holy Cross, the sign of man's redemption. This rite is likewise very ancient; it originated in Jerusalem, where the authentic wood of the Cross was honored and kissed. The priest takes off his cope, stands at the Epistle side and begins the solemn unveiling of the Cross. For this reason, the crosses in the church have been veiled since Passion Sunday; now in solemn drama the Church unveils the Cross and focuses the attention of all Christendom on the awesome moment of Jesus' Crucifixion.
During the veneration of the Cross the choir sings a number of heart-rending antiphons, the so-called Improperia. Jesus is reproaching His faithless people; with the gentle force of tearful complaints He reminds them of the benefits He conferred during the old dispensation and chides them for their ingratitude. His accusations are pointed toward us and should be accepted as exhortations to true conversion. Again, and again we hear: "My people, My people, what have I done against you, or in what have I offended you? Answer Me!" Hardly anything reaches the heart as easily and cuts as deeply as do these words!
d) Holy Communion. The final part of the Good Friday liturgy is a Eucharistic service. Since the earliest times the Sacrifice of Mass has been omitted on Good Friday, but Christians remained unwilling to forego the reception of Holy Communion. Therefore, at yesterday's Mass, sufficient Hosts were consecrated and reserved for use today. It is "a suitable conclusion to our Good Friday liturgy. Throughout the whole of it we have tried to enter as fully as possible into the saving passion and death of our Lord; first of all with our minds in our attentive listening to the account of His sufferings ; then with our wills in exercising the universal charity taught us by Christ, in that we prayed for 'all sorts and conditions of men'; next, in our emotions, by our grateful adoration of His Cross; and finally by sacramental union with the very Victim of the Cross given to us in Communion. And by thus entering in fourfold manner, into His passion and death we find ourselves carried along towards the glory of His resurrection" (from Preparing for Easter by Fr. Howell, S.J.).
- Pius Parsch, The Year of Grace