(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
‘Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ John 12:31-32
This evening we continue to explore the rites and liturgies that accompany our Easter celebration in the Easter Triduum. Yesterday we talked about Maundy Thursday and the institution of the Eucharist as the Sacrament in which the love of Christ for us is manifested ‘to the end’ (John 13:1); today I would like to share with you some thoughts about the Good Friday Liturgy. First of all we call it “liturgy” because it is not a Eucharist. We will indeed receive Holy Communion at the end of that service, but the sacrifice of praise of the Mass will not be celebrated; Communion will be administered from the reserved Sacrament consecrated on Maundy Thursday. This is the only day of the year in which Mass cannot be celebrated at any time. So in some church traditions a rather peculiar name for this service has come about, the “Mass of the Pre-Sanctified”; meaning that the liturgy looks a bit like a Mass – with readings, intercessions, and distribution of Communion – but the Sacrament has been “pre-sanctified”, that is consecrated in advance.
Central to this celebration will be the reading of the Passion of Our Lord according to John. On this sombre day, when the church building is deprived of ornaments, the priests prostrate themselves before the barren altar, and the sorrow of death is palpable, John’s passion offers a unique perspective into the mystery of Calvary. In John, Jesus remains in control of the situation even to the bitter end; he is the new Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of all; the One who willingly undergoes the suffering of the Cross as his glorification; the One who is willingly lifted up from the earth to draw everyone to himself. In this Passion reading the story of Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, so that those who looked on it found healing from snake poison, finds its right fulfilment (Cf. Numbers 21:8-9).
After the reading of the Passion and the homily, we will have a time of formal prayer, called the “General Intercessions”, for the needs of the world, the Church, and other faith communities. Sure, we pray for the world all the time; but at the Good Friday Liturgy we will make our prayers especially for those who do not know or who refuse Jesus Christ. Therefore, when we will get to that moment in the service, I ask you to pray earnestly, with all your heart, that unbelievers and lapsed Christians may turn to the Cross of Christ to find healing.
After this, we ourselves we will be invited to draw near the Cross of Jesus, as an image of it will be carried to the altar. We will be invited to go up to venerate the Cross, to kiss the wood, to genuflect or bow towards it so that the outward gestures of our bodies may inspire the inward motions of our hearts to turn anew to the Cross and find healing for ourselves.
The distribution of Holy Communion – under the form of bread alone – will conclude our liturgy and then the Church will be silent again in preparation for the Easter Vigil and the day of resurrection.
Look at Jesus on the Cross and be saved! Look at the Crucified Lord; approach, draw near to the Cross and be saved. This is the message of our Good Friday Liturgy. This we will do both by meditating on the Scriptures, and by venerating that instrument of death and torture, which through the death of Our Lord Jesus has become the instrument of salvation for all.
‘Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ John 13:1
Over these first three evenings of Holy Week I would like to share with you some thoughts about the liturgies which will mark our celebrations of Easter. These celebrations are spread over four days which will form a single unit of worship, arranged in two complementary parts; the first is what is called the “Easter Triduum” meaning the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday; the second part will be the joyful celebration of Easter Day on Sunday.
On Maundy Thursday we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist in a special Mass that is traditionally named the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper”. This traditional name can create some confusion, because at every Eucharist we celebrate “the Lord’s Supper”. So, why this name? Because on Maundy Thursday we rehears an aspect of Jesus Last Supper which is not normally part of our liturgy; and this is the washing of the feet. The action of the Lord taking off his outer robe, girding himself with a towel, kneeling at the disciples feet (Cf. John 13:4), and performing a duty reserved only to servants is an integral part of the Eucharistic liturgy that follows it. Both the foot washing and the self-offering of Jesus in the Sacrament are a single act preceded in the gospel of John by the words, ‘Jesus… Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.’ (John 13:1) Jesus loves us with unsurpassable love, and in his love he stoops down to wash away our impurities, however little or great they might be, so that we may have part with him, so that we may share with him at the Easter feast, of which we are given a lasting pledge in the Eucharist. Not by chance then, these actions of Jesus also form the pattern for our Christian life; they inform us that we should be people who partaking of the holy food of the altar are also the ones who devote themselves to the service of others. At the foot washing, the priest – who stands in the congregation in the person of Jesus – takes off his outer vestment, called chasuble, puts on a towel, and washes the feet of those present who are invited to be followers of Jesus just like the first disciples were.
The Mass will be celebrated with joy, the Gloria will be sung, and the vestments will be white or golden; yet this will be a subdued joy, because this is the evening of the Passion of Our Lord. Soon after having eaten the Passover meal with his disciples, Christ is betrayed into the hands of his enemies while everyone escapes the scene. So after having received Communion we will move into the final part of the service, which is the Watch. We will go with Jesus into the garden, leaving the nave of the church for what is called the “altar of repose”. We will go with Jesus to stay with him for a while remembering his sufferings which began long before the beatings, his anxiety, and his tears for our sake. Jesus will be with us in the Sacrament on the altar and we will be with him in the silence of our contemplation. As we do this, the other altars will be stripped, and all music and noise will be hushed – because Good Friday will be upon us. The silence will be interrupted at times by readings from the Passion according to John. There will be no formal ending to the liturgy, so feel free to stay at the altar of repose for as long or as little as you wish.
Take your time during the celebration of the Easter events to meditate on the liturgy, on the signs and gestures of it all. Let God speak to your soul and nurture your faith through them. He is present and he invites you to love him through the liturgy – which, at the end of the day, is his own gift to the Church.