Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Holy Week Book: Good Friday

Saint Matthias’ Anglican Church, Bellwoods Avenue, Toronto
Some Notes on the Liturgy and Readings of Good Friday
by the Reverend Dr William Craig, Honorary Assistant

The English are probably alone in calling the Friday of the Lord’s Passion “Good Friday”. Other names for this day are Great Friday, Holy Friday, High Friday, Passion Friday, Sad Friday, Friday of Lamentation and the Friday of Christ’s Suffering. In Scandinavian countries it is known as “Long Friday”, a name that was also used in Anglo-Saxon England: it may reflect feelings about the time spent in church. Some uneducated people call it “Easter Friday”, a name which properly refers not to the Friday of Holy Week but to the Friday of Easter Week. Some people wonder why we call such a sad day “good”. This is probably why you often hear the explanation that the name was originally God’s Friday and ground down to Good Friday. That’s a nice idea, but without any evidence that I can find. The Oxford Dictionary gives a much simpler explanation: one old meaning of “good” is “holy”, so that our Good Friday is really just same as Holy Friday (Vendredi Saint or venerdi santo).
Nonetheless. there is a truth in our English name for today; for we cannot divorce the Cross from the Resurrection. Though it is sad to hear the account of what people like you and me did to Jesus — more than that, it should make us ashamed — when we read and hear all the scriptures, and remember that this was all done so that we might be put right, made one with God, then we will know why this Friday is not merely Holy but Good.
The Celebration of the Lord’s Passion is a liturgy of great simplicity and beauty. It begins with readings and the solemn singing of the Passion. Then we offer prayers for the world that Christ came and died to save. Then follows the Meditation on the Cross of Jesus. The liturgy ends with the distribution of communion from the sacrament consecrated on Maundy Thursday (“Mass of the Presanctified”).

The Readings
A Reading from the Book of Isaiah (52.12-53.12). This is the fourth of the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (see notes for Passion Sunday). Its very first verse (See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high) can be understood as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion, for in John’s Gospel the “lifting up of the Son of man” refers to the crucifixion (3.14-15, 12.32-33). It is almost impossible for a Christian to read this passage and not have the story of Jesus’ sufferings come to mind. Even more, through the suffering of the righteous servant will many be made righteous.

Psalm 22. The song of one who feels utterly deserted by God, even though he constantly (by day and night) cries out for help. Nonetheless he does not despair, for he is convinced that the Holy God, in whom his ancestors trusted, still reigns. Despite this faith, the psalmist despised by all around him, and painfully describes their taunts and their persecution, as fierce as wild animals. In his sickness and pain his enemies treat him as if he were already dead. Indeed his friends and neighbours have already divided his clothing among themselves. Even now he does not despair: God will save him, and he will return thanks in the great congregation. The psalm which began so far in the depths of misery ends on a note of confidence and hope in the future.
Jesus spoke the opening words of this psalm from the Cross (Mark 14.34, Matthew 27.46); other verses of this psalm are remembered in the account of the crucifixion. While his quoting the verse leads to fruitful meditation on his sense of desolation, another understanding of it may be mentioned. I once heard it suggested, though I cannot remember when or where, that in the Passion the first words of this psalm are meant to signify that Jesus recited the whole of Psalm 22, including the triumphant hope at the end. Though not the usual view, this is worth thinking about.

A Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews (10.16-25 or 4.14-16; 5.7-9). The lectionary offers a choice of reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. At St Matthias we have opted for the second selection. Although it is traditionally attributed to St Paul, the author of this letter (if it is actually a letter) is unknown. Its title “comes from its approach to Christianity: it is couched is Judaic terms” (Chris Haslam). One of the themes of Hebrews is the superiority of Christ’s priesthood to that of the :priests of the line of Aaron. In this passage we are urged to have confidence that in Christ we may draw near to the throne of God. We are confident because our great high priest knows the human weakness he shared in himself. “Perfect” (v 9) is to be understood in its root sense of complete or finished rather than as a synonym for “best” as people often use it.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to St John [18.1-19.42] is the one traditionally read on Good Friday. Here are some points that struck me on reading the Passion again this year.
The striking thing about this account is how clearly it presents Jesus as being in command of the situation. So, when the mob of soldiers and police burst into the quiet of Gethsemane, Jesus takes the initiative and comes forward to ask what this turmoil means, and proceeds to direct the action. His command carries all the way through to the end of things on the Cross, when Jesus knowing that he as done all that God has sent him to do for the redemption of the world, proclaimed, It is accomplished, and gave up his Spirit. (on a Friday, just as God gave the breath of life to the first man on a Friday). All of this is presented in active and not passive terms: no one forced Jesus to go to the Cross, suffering and death.
In contrast to Jesus stands Pontius Pilate. From the first moment he comes on stage, Pilate is being bustled about by someone. The priests, using their religious laws to full advantage, refuse to enter his residence, and for the rest of the inquiry into Jesus of Nazareth Pilate has to run back and forth between the priests and the accused, in and out of his own house like a servant. Nowhere do we sense the dignity and gravity on which the Romans prided themselves.
It is interesting to note that Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” is found in all four Gospels in precisely the same words. The last words recorded from Pilate show how exasperated he was. He ordered the usual placard naming the offender and the crime, and when the priests objected he said merely “What I have written, I have written.”
While the fourth Gospel gives the fullest account of Jesus’ questioning by Pilate, it reports nothing of the trial by Caiaphas nothing of the mocking of Jesus on the cross by the passers-by, nothing of the two criminals crucified with him. St Augustine commented on the differences: “Each Evangelist only inserts what he thinks sufficient.” This gospel sums up Jesus’ meek and patient acceptance of hurt in the words spoken to one soldier who slapped him: "If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?"
Finally we should note one of the most poignant and beautiful moments in all the Passion Gospels. John alone records the presence of Jesus’ mother and the disciple whom he loved (usually thought to be John Evangelist himself) at the foot of the cross. In his last will, as it were, Jesus commits his mother to the care of his disciple, and the disciple to his mother. “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” From this incident is developed the title, fruitful for contemplation, of Mary as “Mother of Christians”.
Preparing comments on the Passion gospel really only serves to make the commentator feel insufficient! So in conclusion we recommend R. E. Brown’s magisterial The death of the Messiah : from Gethsemane to the grave : a commentary on the Passion narratives in the four Gospels, 2 volumes, (Doubleday, c1994). This work may found in the university libraries; there is a copy in the Toronto Reference Library [226.07 B68]; it can sometimes be found in second-hand book shops.

The Solemn Intercession, which differs in structure from our normal Sunday prayers, reflects a very ancient form used in the Roman Church. First a bidding is read, which sets out the need to be remembered; then the deacon or some other minister directs the people to kneel in silent prayer, and after a few moments to arise; then the Celebrant gathers the prayers of the community in a collect (hence the name).

The Meditation on the Cross of Jesus (Adoration of the Cross) had its origins in Jerusalem after the relics of the True Cross were reportedly found by the empress St Helena. The custom is mentioned in a letter of a Spanish lady who travelled to the Holy Land not long after AD 380, but it was some time before it was imitated in other places, and a wooden cross used where no relic of the True Cross could be had. Anthems are sung while we meditate upon the Cross. The first group are adapted from a very old set of anthems called the Improperia or “Reproaches”. In their original form these anthems, based on passages from Micah and Jeremiah, blamed the Jewish people for the death of Christ. The form we use includes us Christians in the blame. In the other sets of anthems we praise God for the Cross.
Finally, since anti-Semitism never seems to go away, we must not downplay the rubric on page 309 of the BAS: The term “the Jews” in St John’s Gospel applies to particular individuals and not to the whole Jewish people. Insofar as we ourselves turn against Christ, we are responsible for his death.

No comments: