Friday, April 10, 2020

Reimagining Holy Week (4) - Good Friday

One Good Friday afternoon, sometime in the late 1950s, after an afternoon hanging out in the park (unsupervised as we all were in those unenlightened days), a friend and I went to church for the 3:00 Good Friday service. When it was over, my friend said something like, "That was the strangest Mass I'v ever attended." He was, of course, both right and wrong. He was wrong in that it was not a Mass, but right in that it was the most unique service either of us had ever attended.

The pre-conciliar Good Friday rite - the first part of it in particular - preserved a unique link to Christian antiquity, to the ancient Wednesday and Friday Lenten "synaxes." It dated from a time when Good Friday was seen less as a separate commemoration of the crucifixion and more part of a unitive celebration of the paschal mystery. Hence the powerful traditional readings, Hosea 6:1-6 and Exodus 12:1-11, which regrettably are no longer read, having been replaced by modern choices that highlight the contemporary popular understanding of Good Friday (long fed by non-liturgical popular devotions like the Stations of the Cross and the Seven last Words) as exclusively about the crucifixion. Of the readings, the only traditional text still is John's Passion account (which Exodus 12:1-11 used to complement perfectly).  But the rite still can begin with the traditional prostration, which in our symbolically impoverished world, will still make an impression.

Unique to Good Friday were the Solemn Prayers - formerly nine - which had disappeared from the other ancient Lenten "synaxes" as they had evolved into Lenten Masses. As the only non-eucharistic service left, Good Friday retained those prayers in their ancient form.  After 1600 years, those prayers were deemed in need of improvement and rewritten for Paul VI's Missal. The prayers presently impress attendees primarily by their length and the repeated change of posture. In the modern rite there are now 10 of them, and this year a special additional one composed explicitly for the current crisis. It is quote appropriate:

IX b.   For the afflicted in time of pandemic.

Let  us  pray  also  for  all  those  who  suffer  the  consequences  of  the  current  pandemic,  that  God  the Father  may  grant  health  to  the  sick,  strength  to  those  who  care  for  them,  comfort  to  families  and salvation to all the victims who have died.

Almighty ever-living God, only support of our human weakness, look with compassion upon the sorrowful condition of your children who suffer because of this pandemic; relieve the pain of the sick, give strength to those who care for them, welcome into your peace those who have died and, throughout this time of tribulation, grant that we may all find comfort in your merciful love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Undoubtedly the most dramatic - and, to contemporary congregations, the most unique - part of the service is the Veneration of the Cross, clearly an importation from the Jerusalem liturgy, added on to the ancient Roman "synaxis." The venerated crucifix is clearly a substitute for the relic of the True Cross, but the ritual is so powerful that the fact that it is not an actual relic hardly matters. Back when I attended with my friend, only the clergy and servers got to venerate the Cross. Then, afterwards, multiple priests came to the altar rails with small crucifixes for us to kiss. Nowadays, on this one occasion at least, our addiction to brevity and minimalism has been overcome, and the entire congregation typically gets to come forward to venerate the Cross, regardless of the time it takes.

But, again, not this year. Not only will most people not be present physically to venerate the Cross, but it has been decreed that only the Celebrant is to do so. Dictated perhaps by concerns about contagion, this nonetheless has a symbolic value. It means that, other than the celebrant, whose role it is to officiate on behalf of all watching from afar, there are no privileged elites who get special access. 

Some of us have long wished the service ended with the Veneration of the Cross, which (because of its uniqueness and emotive power) I suspect will be even more missed this year than Communion. It is, however, thought that the ancient non-eucharistic "synaxes" routinely concluded with Communion from the Reserved Sacrament, and that the addition of Communion at the end is therefore traditional. Over the centuries, the Communion rite had become quite elaborate, even as reception came to be reserved only to the celebrant. The 1955 reform reversed that, giving us a stripped-down Communion service with Communion for all. That certainly spoke to the emerging liturgical sensibility of the time.  I wonder whether this year's absence of congregational Communion could reopen that question. 

Certainly the Veneration if the Cross is already for many the most powerful and popular part of the service, and it would be even more so were the service to conclude with it.

If Pope Francis uses the "Plague Crucifix" for the Veneration at Saint Peter's, it is hard to imagine what his personal reception of Communion would actually add to the rite as experienced by those watching from afar.

(Photo: Good Friday "Tenebrae," Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, 2019.)

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