In the Catholic Church we regard Good Friday as a day of mourning. In our liturgy we recall Christ’s arrest, his trial, the scourging and his journey to Golgotha. Then we wait by the Cross identifying with Christ’s last agony and experiencing his death. As we do these things we also think about our own sorrows, especially those that may await us at the end of our life and in a salutary way we consider our own death.
In the Catholic Church we regard Good Friday as a day of mourning. In our liturgy we
Not all Christian denominations do this. In many Protestant Churches the Cross above the altar will be empty on the basis that Christ is risen and is no longer on the Cross. But in the Catholic Church we nearly always show Christ at the very moment of his death as he hangs on the Cross. Sometimes these images are very realistic and can be even gruesome.
But there is a reason for this. We know that it was Christ’s giving of his life in sacrifice for our sins that brought about our salvation. We recognise that we benefit in the deepest way possible from Christ’s last agony. And it is for this reason that we linger at the Cross meditating on the suffering that Jesus bore for our sake.
Very often when the priest goes to the bedside of a dying person he brings a Crucifix with him and after anointing them, as a last act, he offers the Cross to the dying person so that they can kiss it. This is a concrete sign by the one who is dying of uniting their own sufferings to those of Jesus. It can be an extraordinarily intimate and moving moment.
Today in our liturgy we do the very same thing. In a few minutes we will be invited to come forward to venerate the Cross of Christ. We will kiss the body of Jesus as a profound act of devotion. This kiss will represent our recognition of the depth of the sufferings he bore and will acknowledge the debt he paid for our sins. We will do this reverently and in a profound spirit of sorrow.
We will likely leave the Church today, not depressed, but certainly with a sense of loss and melancholy. Of course, we know that Christ won the victory and rose triumphantly from the dead; but we consider our joy in the resurrection not to be something for today. We choose to leave that until Easter Sunday.
Ours is an emotional faith. Catholicism is an experiential religion. In its liturgy the Church engages with all our emotions and feelings and senses. This is why art and music are so important, this is why gesture is used so much; yes, words such as I am speaking to you now are important, but more important is what we do and feel and experience.
This is the reason why we go on pilgrimage, it is the reason we walk around the Church for the Stations of the Cross, it is the reason why we eat and drink in Holy Communion. It is the reason we wear religious badges and scapulars sometimes or have holy pictures and Crucifixes in our houses. It is why we sing hymns and why we put flowers on our altars. It is why we light candles and why we bless ourselves.
Sometimes it is even in the things that we do not do that further levels of meaning are conveyed. For example, in this liturgy the priest omits the customary introduction and welcome and instead falls prostrate on the floor lying there for several minutes in prayer. The abruptness and unexpected nature of this helps us to realise the seriousness and the sorrowfulness of what is about to happen. Neither does this liturgy have a formal conclusion. The priest and the servers simply leave the altar in silence. Leaving without saying goodbye conveys something that mere words cannot provide.
So, on this most holy day we mourn the loss of our Divine Saviour, we pity him in his sufferings and we regret our role in his passion. We honour him in his death and we thank him for the sacrifice he has made for us. We resolve to live better lives so that we might be worthy of all that he achieved on our behalf. But we are quite unafraid of our emotions and our feelings because in them we realise that in a unique way they allow us to come as close as it is possible to get to our Blessed Saviour.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket