My prayers are with all of you today on this observance of the Passion and Death of the Lord. The solemn commemoration of Good Friday in the Roman Missal can begin anytime from noon throughout the day and into the evening, depending on parish option. The rite includes personal veneration of the cross. Margaret and I will be attending our parish’s 3 PM observance. The collection today is for the churches in the Holy Land, a region of the world that is worthy of our prayers and attention.
The Good Friday Rite is not a Eucharistic celebration. There is no consecration; the Eucharistic bread distributed today was consecrated at last night’s Mass of Holy Thursday. In my youth, the Good Friday service (a morning event until Pius XII’s reforms of 1954) was often called “The Mass of the Presanctified [Hosts],” though no Mass was offered on Good Friday. In my household, and probably many others, the hours between noon and 3 PM were observed in silence, which meant specifically that the black and white TV and transistor radios were silenced.
Today’s Good Friday rite has very ancient roots. The veneration of the cross and “The Greater Intercessions,” [now called The General Intercessions] go back many centuries. These Good Friday Intercessions were the cause of some controversy; as late as the 1950’s the English translation of one intercessory prayer from the rite read thus: “Almighty and everlasting God, who drivest not away from Thy mercy even the perfidious Jews: hear our prayers, which we offer for the blindness of that people: that acknowledging the light of Thy truth, which is Christ, they may be rescued from their darkness.” Compare this text with the Intercession for the Jews in today’s reformed rite.
When Pope Pius XII reformed the Holy Week rites, he introduced the distribution of the Eucharist to all the faithful on Good Friday. Prior to 1954, only the priest received communion on Good Friday. I discovered this week that in many Catholic rites the faithful “fast” from the Eucharist on Good Friday, as do their priests, in celebrating their specific rituals. I also discovered that the reception of the Eucharist by all the faithful at the Good Friday Roman rite is a major issue for the “neo-trads,” those laboring away to “restore” the Roman rite to some distant baroque utopia in the past.
The point seems to be the appropriateness of receiving communion on the memorial day of Christ’s death. I can understand a kind of piety for which this might be an issue, and as I noted, other rites in communion with Rome do in fact observe a Good Friday Eucharistic fast. Pope Benedict, in an interview some years before his election, suggested “a Eucharistic fast.” However, there are a number of good reasons for receiving the Eucharist, too. Not least of which is the fact that Good Friday is the day when salvation was won for us, and the Eucharistic bread is the sharing of the life won on the cross. John’s Passion narrative seems to make this point, as I will note below.
The Scripture readings for Good Friday are of long precedent for this observance. The first reading is the famous Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah chapters 52 and 53. There are indications in the Gospels that Jesus was very familiar with Isaiah, to the point of identifying his ministry with texts from Isaiah. Logic would suggest that Jesus, a devout Jew, would have drawn from Isaiah the template of a redemptive death. The first reading is probably as close as we will ever come to knowing the prayer springing from the heart of Christ during his Passion.
The second reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews, one of the most important books of the New Testament that nobody reads. One of its neglected insights is its description of Christ’s death: In the days when Christ was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” The four Gospels do not relate a pattern of “loud cries and tears” to the Father; Hebrews may be the closest to an actual description of Jesus’ emotions during his torments.
John’s Gospel holds a place of eminence in the Triduum, and it is John’s Passion narrative that is proclaimed today. If the Letter to the Hebrews gives us a glimpse of Jesus in his humanity, John’s Gospel portrays the human Jesus in his divinity. In listening to or reading John’s Passion, note that the Jesus portrayed here is fully human and fully divine, a point John stresses throughout his Gospel. In the Good Friday reading Jesus is fully in command of events despite his dire predicament. His intervention with Pilate is a prime example. Unlike the other Gospels, which portray meteorological gloom and darkness, John records that on Good Friday the sun—the sign of divine revelation in John’s writing—is shining high in the sky throughout.
A great many things are rendered in the last moments of Jesus’ life as narrated by John. Jesus sees his mother and the unnamed “disciple whom he loved” at the foot of the cross, and in uniting them in family terms, he has in fact established a family or community of his believers. As he hung upon the cross, Jesus requests wine and drinks it, a sign that the time to drink wine has begun in his Father’s kingdom. Salvation has been won in perfect obedience. Look at this text closely: When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.
In John’s theology, the instant of Christ’s death coincides with the Pentecost event, the giving of his Holy Spirit. John elaborates “…but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth,
so that you also may come to believe.” The soldier’s lancing is not recorded anywhere else; the seeming mutilation of a corpse results in a torrent of water and blood that splashed upon his new family still standing at the foot of the cross. Church commentators from earliest times have understood the water and wine as symbols of Baptism and Eucharist, the initiation sacraments into God’s kingdom. In John 2 the evangelist records that the wedding feast miracle of water into wine is the first of Jesus’ signs; his death and outpouring of water and blood is his last.
It is noteworthy, too, that soon two clandestine followers of Jesus come in from the dark of disbelief to bask in sunlight. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus have seen the light. By the sunset of Good Friday, the Church is already growing by the grace won on the cross. There is no reason to refrain from stepping forward to receive the bread of salvation in today’s worship. The invitation has been given from the cross of the Savior.
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