Christ Crucified with the Virgin, Saint John, and Mary Magdalene
by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641)
GOOD FRIDAY is a peculiar day. Not only do we call one of the most solemn days in our liturgical calendar “Good” (a fact whose origin still eludes scholars), but the actual celebration on this holy day differs from the familiar weekday Mass at our local parishes. The liturgy of this day, like Holy Saturday, does not allow for the celebration of a Mass. Instead, we are led through several readings, an adoration of the Cross, and a Holy Communion. The whole ceremony, the whole day even, is shrouded in the gravity of the Passion.
So how do we commemorate this day? Well, the liturgy offers us a beautiful way to experience this somber day. Indeed, blessed are we that our liturgical calendar offers us a whole day devoted to reflection on and commemoration of the Cross of Calvary. The readings and rituals on this day allow us to enter into the solemnity of the day.
Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, a four week long retreat, invites his retreatants to recall our Lord’s Passion during the entire third week. In introducing the week, he encourages us to “ask for what I desire” and advises that “[h]ere it will be to ask for heartfelt sorrow and confusion, because the Lord is going to his Passion for my sins.” He further advises, “Consider what Christ our Lord suffers in his human nature, or desires to suffer… begin here with much effort to bring oneself to grief, sorrow, and tears… Consider how his divinity hides itself; that is, how he could destroy his enemies but does not, and how he allows his most holy humanity to suffer so cruelly” (See §§193, 195, 196).
I offer Ignatius’ words not to agonize a Christian in his or her meditation of the cross, but to invite a Christian to sincere reflection on Christ’s suffering this day. Indeed, like Ignatius, I invite us to use this day’s ceremony—its liturgy and adoration of the cross—to meditate deeply on Christ’s Passion. As I’ve said, this whole day has been given over to this glorious act of divine love—of love for the world such that God reconciles the whole world to himself! (2 Cor 5:19; Col 1:20). And so I suggest we attempt to step back two millennia and walk the Via Dolorosa of the Jerusalem of our imaginations. I invite us to experience this day… that is, to be arrested with Christ in the garden (Jn 18:1–12) and to stand with him before Pilate (18:28–38; 19:8–12); to watch him be scourged and to hear the infernal mocking of the Roman soldiers (19:1–3); to hear the people call for his death (19:6) and to walk with him to Golgatha (19:17); to watch Pilate’s men inscribe his crime on his cross (19:19–22) and to hear their gambling away his clothes (19:23–24); to see the last breath pour forth from his lungs (19:30) and to watch as his pierced side lets forth the blood and the water (19:34); to see him taken down from the cross and to watch as he is laid in his tomb (19:38–42).
As we venerate the cross in church, or meditate on the Passion at home, we are invited… to smell the olives of the garden where Christ is arrested; to feel the heat of the burner outside the High Priest’s house where Peter denies the Lord; to hear the shuffling of Pilate’s Roman sandals as he moves back and forth between the crowd and Jesus, vacillating on his decision to handle the Christ; to smell the blood of Jesus’ shattered body as he is nailed to the cross; to feel the dirt beneath our knees as we kneel with Mary and John before our crucified Lord; to feel the afternoon wind blow over Golgatha before the Passover; to hear the lurching of carts in the market and the bustling of people on the day of Preparation; to taste the drops of sour wine falling from the sponge offered to a dying Jesus; to see the bloody, naked cross from which our Lord is removed; to smell the oils and spices the Pharisee Nicodemus has brought; and to see the body of the Christ be laid to rest in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb.
Good Friday truly is a peculiar day. It is a solemn, grave, and weighty day… indeed, it is a sad day. My charge for the day is meditation. Don’t be afraid to embrace the grief of this day—tears and all—because a beautiful sun will rise after the darkness which looms over this day. For, just as our Lord said to his disciples, “Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (Jn 16:22), so he says to us… after all, Easter is just around the corner.