A DAY DIFFERENT FROM ANY OTHER DAY
“There is surely no other moment in the year when the Church succeeds in producing the right impression so perfectly as she does in the service of Good Friday. The very strangeness of the rites, utterly unlike any others, gives us at once the feeling that this is a day different from any other day.
A SENSE OF DESOLATION, OF MOURNING
That little procession coming to the altar in dead silence, the prostration before the altar, then the lessons, the series of collects with their strange chant, all this produces a sense of desolation, of mourning, such as no other service in the year approaches. Today the most ignorant observer who enters a Catholic church can see that the Church mourns because her Lord is dead.
THE ASSOCIATION OF LONG CENTURIES
Then comes the worship of the cross, so full of meaning today, and the one gleam of light in the dark service, as we bring the Sanctissimum back to the altar, singing that superb hymn of the triumph of the cross. The gleam of light fades again; there follows the strange little Communion service that we call Mass of the Presanctified, then Vespers; again the altar is stripped, and now all the church is indeed desolate, waiting in gloom for the first light of the Easter sun next day. The wonderful thing about this service, expressing so perfectly the feeling of the day, is that it has all come together quite naturally. There was hardly any conscious symbolism in it at the beginning. Each element can be explained as the obvious thing to do under the circumstances. It is the association of long centuries that has filled it all with mystic meaning.
FILLED WITH MYSTIC MEANING
The service of Good Friday is made up of three separate functions – first, the lessons and collects; secondly, the worship of the cross; thirdly, the Mass of the Presanctified. Vespers and stripping of the altar follow, as on the day before.
EVERYTHING IN THE GOOD FRIDAY RITES IS EXCEEDINGLY OLD
The first function is the lessons and the collects. Everything in the Good Friday rites (except the worship of the cross) is exceedingly old. Here we have what has otherwise almost always disappeared from our rite – namely, three lessons, a prophecy from the Old Testament, an epistle and a gospel. Between them tracts are sung, as during the whole of Lent. The Gospel is the Passion according to St John, sung by three deacons, as on Palm Sunday.
THE OLDER FORM OF THE COLLECTS
Then come the collects. Here, again, Good Friday has preserved what was once an element of every Mass, a series of petitions for all kinds of people. Maybe, something like this was once said before the offertory act at every Mass, at that place where the priest still says: ‘Oremus,’ though no prayer now follows. [Adjustments have since been decreed so as to accord with the traditions of apostolic times and of the early Church.] Moreover, in the Good Friday prayers we see the older form of all collects. Now, on other days, the celebrant says: ‘Oremus,’ and then goes on at once to the collect. Once the form was longer, as we see it today. The priest not only says: ‘Let us pray,’ he tells the people what to pray for: ‘Let us pray, dearly beloved, for the holy Church of God, that God our Lord may give her peace, union, and may keep her throughout the whole world,’ and so on. Then the deacon, whose office it is always to control the people, tells them to kneel. they kneel in silent prayer for that object (once they certainly spent some moments in this silent prayer); then the subdeacon tells them to stand up again, and the priest gathers up all the petitions in a final prayer aloud, the collect. That is why the typical Roman collect is so short, and often so general in its petition. It is not so much the prayer itself, as a final clause asking God to receive the prayers already said silently. Here, again, we have a case where the ceremonies of Holy Week are invaluable, as showing the older form once common to all days. There is nothing that belongs specially to Good Friday in this chain of prayers for men of all sorts and conditions. We could say them equally well any day. But this relic of older times, with its petitions redolent of the circumstances of the early Church, bringing us memories almost from the catacombs, this too, by long association, has become part of the feeling of Good Friday.
THE COVERING OF THE STATUES AND PICTURES
Then follows the one element that is not very old, what our fathers called the ‘Creeping to the cross.’ In the East we know of a cerempny of reverence to the relic of the true cross, on Good Friday, from the time of Aetheria’s pilgrimage (Peregr. Silviae, xxxvii, 1-3.) No doubt this had some influence on the West too. But we can find a very simple explanation of the ceremony as we have it. Since the beginning of Lent originally, now since Passion Sunday, all pictures and statues in the church are covered. This is easily understood. These pictures and statues are a conspicuous ornament of the church. During the time of penance we deprive ourselves of them, for the same reason that we go without the music and the organ. (For the connection between covering the images and the old Lenten veil, see Thurston, pp. 99-105).
‘CREEPING TO THE CROSS’
But a crucifix is a statue. So crucifixes too are covered from Passion Sunday. It must, eventually, have seemed strange that, on the very day of the Crucifixion, people should not see the crucifix. Hence, on Good Friday they made this one exception and uncovered the crucifix. We can imagine the origin of the ceremony as the simplest thing possible. Someone went and uncovered the crosses in the church. Then, especially with the associations of this day, a ceremony, such as we have now, grew out of this. The cross is uncovered with honour, the people take this opportunity of paying to it symbolic reverence, reverence directed, of course, really to him who hung upon it. We know of a rite, very like the one we still have, since about the eighth century, first north of the Alps, then adopted at Rome (see Thurston, pp. 345-362).
In the Reproaches, [Impropreria, incl. verses fr. ‘Pange lingua’] sung at the same time, we have one of the few cases of Greek in our Roman rite. The verses ‘Agios o Theos,’ etc., are sung alternately in Greek and Latin. This is the famous Trisagion, a feature of the holy Liturgy in the Byzantine and other Eastern rites. Its introduction into ours seems to be a case of the considerable influence of the Byzantine rite in Gaul (St Germanus of Paris, +576, M.P.L. LXXII, col. 89, 91), whence it passed to Rome.
THE MASS OF THE PRESANCTIFIED
The Mass of the Presanctified, known to us on this day only, occurs frequently in Eastern rites. It is really only a little Communion service… On Good Friday the Sanctissimum is brought from the place where it has been kept since Maundy Thursday; the altar is incensed, and the priest goes on at once to what would follow after the Consecration, ‘the Pater noster’ and Communion. [Afterwards] the torchbearers extinguish their candles, and the service comes to an end with the same sense of desolation with which it began. Vespers are said as yesterday, the altar is stripped, the church is left empty and bare for the rest of the day of mourning.”
– Adrian Fortescue, from “The Holy Week Book”, Burns Oates & Washbourne, London, 1913