Who could explain the mystery of Good Friday? How many books would it take to finish explaining it? It would be impossible. But to talk about the mystery is not today’s duty: the entire goal of Good Friday is to relive the events of that day in all their concreteness. This morning, Jesus was brought to trial before Pilate, and by the afternoon we will witness his final hours on the cross.
The liturgy today has three parts: the liturgy of the word, the veneration of the cross, and Holy Communion. Each part has something unique about it to make this day different from all others.
The Liturgy of the Word
The gospel today is the entire passion story from John’s Gospel, which is the gospel for Good Friday in the earliest Roman lectionary we have, from the seventh century. This long reading puts the passion before us not as a reflection on the event, not as a statement about the event, but as the event itself deeply understood: Jesus is crucified before our very eyes. Today’s emphasis on living in the sacred events leads to an emphasis on the story. We are like the faithful women or the beloved disciple, who follow Jesus all the way to the cross, and we experience their emotions.
The liturgy of the word concludes with a striking series of petitions for every class of people in the world; we stand to hear each petition and then kneel in silence after each one to unite our hearts to its intention. Our first witness for these petitions in the Roman rite goes all the way back to Pope Celestine I, whose pontificate covered the decade from 422 to 432, although the first time we have a complete text is in the Gelasian Sacramentary from the 600s. The wording has changed somewhat over the years, but the petitions remain substantially the same.
Here we are more like Jesus himself, or perhaps Mary his mother, because we understand the intentions in Jesus’ heart, we know that he died thinking of everyone in the world who needs salvation, and we unite our intentions to his. The body prays with its head.
The Veneration of the Cross
The gospel story took us all the way to the burial of Jesus. Now we go back in spirit to gaze again on Christ crucified, to “look on him whom” we “have pierced” (John 19:37).
The veneration of the cross began in the 4th century in Jerusalem, where the local church had a relic of the true cross. On Good Friday this relic was exposed to the faithful, who would kneel down and touch it to their forehead and eyes and kiss it. St. Jerome, a contemporary witness in Bethlehem, testifies that while venerating the cross they would imagine Jesus hanging on it in his passion.
Over the next several hundred years, portions of the true cross were sent out to churches around Europe, including Rome. Everywhere it went, the practice of veneration on Good Friday followed. But soon the devout in other churches that did not have such a relic wanted to take part in the veneration, so replicas of the cross were made for the Good Friday service. Contemporary witnesses show that the intent here was the same as in the original Jerusalem ceremony, namely to imagine Jesus hanging in his passion and to reverence him by venerating his cross. By the turn of the millennium, the natural step had been taken to using a crucifix, that is, a cross with a representation of Christ’s body on it.
The ceremony of the unveiling of the cross, dating back to the ninth century, indicates that everything veiled in the Old Testament is revealed (literally, “unveiled”) at the crucifixion of Jesus. Moses put a veil over his face when he came down from the mount of revelation, but Christ the new Moses gazes on us with face unveiled from the cross. At the same moment, the veil of the Temple sanctuary is rent, showing that the shadows of the Old Testament are at an end and the path to the true sanctuary in heaven opened.
By the end of the 4th century, it was an established rule in the Western Church that no sacraments were celebrated on Good Friday or Holy Saturday. Our witness is pope Innocent I, whose pontificate covered the years 400 through 417. In one of his letters (Letter 25, chapter 4–warning: big .pdf), he argues that Christians should fast not only on Fridays through the year but also on Saturdays, and to shore up his claim he appeals to Holy Week:
A most evident reason shows that we should fast on Saturday. For if we celebrate the Lord’s day on account of the venerable resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ not only at the Pasch but at every cycle of the weeks, [if] we return again and again to the image of that day, and we fast on Friday on account of the passion, then we should not omit Saturday, which seems to be situated in between the joy and the sorrow of that time. For it is certainly agreed that the apostles were sorrowful those two days [Friday and Saturday], and that they hid themselves for fear of the Jews. This is certainly beyond doubt, inasmuch as in memory of their fasting, as the Church’s tradition has it, on those two days the sacraments are altogether not celebrated.
The movement in the 300s toward reliving the events of the passion during Holy Week had led by Innocent’s time to a substitution of one presence for another: instead of making the passion sacramentally present by the consecration of the Eucharist, the faithful made the passion present by mentally and emotionally entering into its story. The faithful walk in the disciples’ footprints, so to speak, and experience their desolation.
In the 600s, we find a new development. The second-oldest surviving Roman sacramentary, the Gelasian Sacramentary, explains that a portion of the Eucharist consecrated on Thursday is reserved so that the faithful can receive communion on Friday without breaking the prohibition on celebrating Mass. This custom had developed in the east perhaps a century earlier, and in the Eastern Churches this “Mass of the Presanctified” continues to be celebrated on Wednesdays throughout Lent, but in the west we see it only on Good Friday.
The earliest documents do not explain why the absolute prohibition on sacraments was, so to speak, stretched by the addition of a communion service. But by the 12th century the custom was explained in terms of a devout desire to touch the true body of the Lord with reverence, like Joseph of Arimethea or Nicodemus. Jesus having been crucified and died in the gospel, his heart expressed in the petitions, and his body reverenced in the veneration of the cross, the faithful wanted, so to speak, to have a part in his burial. Bury yourself in me, my Jesus. I envy the very earth that received you that day.