Excerpted from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC
Many wise traditions know the importance of naming one’s loss or sorrow, since suppressing it only makes it worse. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests cradling our broken hearts as tenderly as we would a sick and crying child. In a particularly Catholic way, abstraction such as “suffering” is translated to tangible, visible word and gesture in the liturgy. Furthermore, it links our individual stories and struggles concretely, not just verbally, to the over-arching Story of Christ’s redemptive suffering.
My rule of thumb for Good Friday liturgy is “when we do something only once a year, pay attention.” So I focus on three parts of the service that move me especially.
The Presider’s Prostration
Catholic liturgy at its best speaks through symbol or gesture, not needing many words to convey meaning. For instance, submersion in the waters of Baptism, lighting the Easter candle, or offering a cup of wine all speak eloquently without verbiage.
The Good Friday service begins with a silent procession (robust singing would be completely out of place), and the presider prostrating himself before the altar. We see this action only once a year: what does it say?
Different people probably have different interpretations at different times of their lives. To me, it said starkly, “We killed God.” Not to become morbid, but to some extent, we are all guilty. We have killed that divine spark in each other, through a callous word, a harsh condemnation, a heavy hand.
The presider speaks for all of us as he lies face down on the floor. “This, my friends, is what we’ve done to the finest human/divine being who ever lived.” Words can’t touch the tragedy: symbolically, we all lie flat on our faces.
Veneration of the Cross
People seemed drawn to the crucifix: to touch it lightly, cling to a hand, or kiss the feet. What is the compelling power of this instrument of death, used by Romans over 2000 years ago? As our pastor pointed out, it’s not the cross; it’s the corpus. To simply revere the cross would be like honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. by hanging up a gun.
Father Richard Rohr describes the corpus in Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, “Jesus’ body is a standing icon of what humanity is doing and what God suffers ‘with,’ ‘in,’ and ‘through’ us. It is an icon of utter divine solidarity with our pain and our problems.”
Each person who approached it that evening bore some kind of sorrow. And they were only a few, representing millions more outside our church. Scratch the surface of any group; you’ll find the tragedies. In a family, a staff, or a work site, the stories of suffering run deep. Add in the veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, the physical and mental aftermaths of war and the ripple effect on their families—an immense tide of suffering crashed at the foot of the crucifix.
Those who venerated the cross came close to the crucified Jesus to find meaning in their own burdens. Connecting their pain to his meant that they didn’t suffer alone. Wave after wave of people in vast variety approached: the lovely couple whose daughter died last year in a freak accident, the vulnerable elderly who could barely bend to touch it, a woman battling cancer, the wife of an Iraq veteran addicted to painkillers, an obese woman whose childhood hungers still drove her to eat, jeopardizing her health. The children were especially touching, quietly extending their thin arms, and perhaps whispering, “I’m sorry, Jesus, that you had to die like this.” Knowing his magnificent courtesy, Jesus would somehow touch those who touched his cross.