Good Friday, 2011
‘See, my servant will prosper, he shall be lifted up, exalted, rise to great heights’ (Is 52:13) - the first words of today’s 1st reading. Today, ‘the royal banners forward go; the cross shines forth in mystic glow’. Today, the Cross is lifted up, a crucifix in fact, and therefore the Crucifixus himself, the crucified Christ. As he promised: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself’ (Jn 12:30).
Today is our Day of Atonement, our Yom Kippur. After the Easter Vigil, there is no liturgy so striking. It was described recently as ‘one of the most powerful rites of worship ever devised in any tradition’ (G. Collins, OSB). Two moments, surely, stand out: the reading of the Gospel, and the veneration of the Cross. And these two are really three. And in all of them the Cross shines out.
First, in the readings: in prophecy, in a reflection from the apostolic Church, and most of all in the Gospel of John. First, we hear of the Cross. ‘Faith comes by hearing’ (Rom 10:17).
Later, a veiled cross is brought in at the back of the church and progressively unveiled while the cantor sings, higher each time, ‘Behold, the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the world.’ ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’ (Jn 19:37; Zech 12:10), we heard at the end of the Gospel, and now we do literally ‘see’ the Cross. As he promised: ‘When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know [will see] that I am he’ (Jn 8:28).
Finally, the cross is brought us to kiss. We kiss it. We kiss Christ’s feet. This kiss is like the one the priest gives the altar at Mass. It counters the kiss of Judas. It’s the Church’s kiss given to Christ her husband. And so, last of all, we feel the Cross physically, we touch it.
Surely, there’s a progression here, full of meaning.
The Cross, the crucifix, the crucified Christ himself comes to us, here, today. He comes to us every day in the ‘church’ of our life. It is the Father who sends him, in his merciful love.
He comes as a word, first of all, the ‘word of the cross’ (1 Cor 1:18). ‘For I delivered to you, wrote St Paul, as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures’ (1 Cor 15:3-4). He ‘was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification’ (Rom 4:25). First, there is this ‘Gospel’, this message, this proclamation. At the heart of our faith stand the death and resurrection of the Lord. ‘Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life.’ And to the word of the cross we give the answer of faith.
But the Cross does not halt there. Faith is only a beginning. It’s a seed. It breaks open, it grows. Faith seeks understanding; it becomes prayer, reflection, theology. It becomes art. How many icons, paintings there are of the Lord’s death and resurrection, like that above our altar! And in each of us, faith - if we live it - presses towards understanding, vision. By the grace of the Holy Spirit we start to ‘see’ the Cross, acquire an inner understanding of it. It’s unveiled before us. The crucified Christ comes to us as wisdom, as light. The Cross is light in darkness. It sheds meaning, where there isn’t any. It makes sense of things, especially painful things. It can become a whole philosophy, a cast of mind, a new scale of values. It shows us Christ dying, rising everywhere. ‘See, my servant...he shall be lifted up’ - before the eyes of your heart.
But the Cross does not stop there either. It comes to be kissed, to be touched, to be felt. No sense affects us like the sense of touch. And the Cross doesn’t just come to us as a word to be believed or a light to be seen; it’s the power of God. These wounds have power. The prayers of this past week have tried to name it. It is ‘a pattern of patience’; it is indulgentia, pardon, forgiveness; it expels the power of the enemy; it gives us back our breath, our life; it is the gift of the Holy Spirit; it is the grace of resurrection. Perhaps, most of all, it is the power of peace, of reconciliation, of hostility changed to unity. It is the tunic without seam, woven from top to bottom. ‘For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross’ (Col 1:19-20).
‘Open wide your mouth and I will fill it’ says God in a Psalm. As we kiss the cross, let us open the mouth of our heart to the power that flows from the Cross. And let us accept one another in the unity of the Church.
‘Who can explain the love of Christ?’ asked a 20th c. saint.
‘Let humanity be silent. Let all creation be silent.
Let us silence everything,
so that in the silence we may hear the whisper of love:
of the humble love, the patient love,
the immeasurable, unlimited love,
that, with arms wide open,
Jesus offers us from the Cross.’ (St. Rafael Barón, 1938).
Fr. Hugh, OSB.