The Good Friday liturgy is, without a doubt, the most solemn liturgy of the year. At the appointed hour the congregation assembles and the clergy enter the church in silence, dressed only in their black cassocks. The altar and chancel, having been stripped of all adornments the previous evening, appear stark and barren. The service begins with a solemn confession, without absolution. The absence of the absolution is striking and we might wonder where that particular liturgical event has gone, but as the liturgy unfolds, we come to understand that the entire liturgical enactment of our Lord’s passion is the absolution so desperately sought after by our wounded souls. Readings from Scripture then follow. First we hear of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53; next is chanted the words of the twenty-second psalm, the very cry of Jesus’ dereliction on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Next, come words from Hebrews, and finally, the long reading of St. John’s Passion. Following the homily, we pray the Solemn Intercession punctuated by moments of silence.
The drama of the liturgy heightens when a large wooden cross is carried in procession around the church while a hymn is sung. This procession often takes place to the singing of that well-beloved hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” The cross is then placed before the people and all kneel in devotion as the meditation on the cross is sung. Our Book of Alternative Services, provides several anthems that may be sung, but the most powerful of these contains a series of solemn reproaches, literally a dialogue between God and God’s people reproaching us for the evil that we do, in which we in turn respond with the ancient words of the Trisagion, “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal one, have mercy upon us.” The reproaches are harsh and elicit profound emotional and spiritual reflection on our own failings as a people, and as a species in spite of the infinite majesty, goodness, and love of God. The words of the confession at the opening of the service are most fully experienced and understood at this point. Few are not moved to tears. Nails may be driven into the wooden cross at this point in the service.
For many, this may be the most powerful liturgy of the Church Year as it draws us deep into the reality of our human brokenness and need of divine healing. It is in this liturgy that we face the demons of our existence. It is in this liturgy that we realize that it is we who have crucified our Saviour. All we like sheep have gone astray.
A strange thing happens just before the liturgy ends, though. The rubric in the liturgy then states, most assertively, that “the hymn ‘Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,’ or some other hymn extolling the glory of the cross” is to be sung. To my knowledge, this I the only place in the entire Book of Alternative Services in which a particular hymn is instructed to be sung. The ancient hymn, written in the sixth century by Venantius Fortunatus, translated by the incomparable Percy Dearmer (1867-1936), and preferably sung to the triumphant tune “Oriel”, begins:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle;
sing the ending of the fray;
now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
as a victim, won the day.
The participant in the liturgy will then experience a striking dissonance with the rest of the liturgy. It may feel as if this solemn liturgy has been “wrecked” by this triumphant hymn. This dissonance is intended, for we are then drawn out of the darkness and hopelessness of our human condition by the proclamation that in the cross of Christ we are redeemed from al l that ails us. The instrument of death and shame has been transformed for us by God, into a sign of hope and new life. Thus, the cross is no longer seen as an insidious instrument of torture, but instead as the new tree of life. The third verse underscores this with these words,
Faithful cross, thou sign of triumph,
now for us the noblest tree,
none in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be;
symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!
The tree of life can carry all the weight that we cannot carry, our personal failings, the failings of our systems and governments, and incomprehensible evil that men and women do. The tree of life takes it all and in spite of it all blossoms forth with the fruit of redemption, reconciliation and new life. This gives us reason to rejoice, even during the enactment of our most solemn liturgy. It does not wreck the mood of the day; rather, it transforms it, and proclaims the mystery of our faith. It pronounces the absolution that is missing at the opening of the liturgy. This is why this day “good” Friday and not “bad” Friday: The cross which should appear to be bad news is in fact Good News. We stay not under the condemnation of our brokenness but taste of the fruit of the tree of life.
Then, in faith we pray together the prayer that Jesus taught us, and depart in silence, meditating on this joyous truth, and awaiting the promise of Easter.
c. 2010, The Rev. Daniel F. Graves