Good Friday is the only day of the year in which the Church does not permit celebrations of the Eucharist. This prohibition serves to underline the unique sacrifice of Christ's body on the Cross and the blood that flowed from his wounds. All communion services take their meaning from this. They may replicate Christ’s sacrifice, but they can never replace it. It is quite a widespread practice, nowadays, for the Liturgy of Good Friday to end with people receiving communion from the elements consecrated on Maundy Thursday, before leaving the church in silence. But on this day the heart of the Liturgy is to be found elsewhere.
In line with a very ancient practice, the Maundy Thursday service ends with the ‘stripping of the altar’. Every item of furniture, and every hint of decoration --altar hangings, pulpit falls, candlesticks, reading stands, hassocks, flags, crosses and crucifixes -- are all removed, until the sanctuary is completely bare and the altar stands alone, in a sort of splendid isolation. This emptiness is how the church looks when the Good Friday liturgy begins. Then, as on a Sunday, a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm and an Epistle are read, followed by the story of the Passion, told this time in the version according to John. After priest and people join in a series of ‘solemn’ prayers and intercessions, a simple wooden cross is brought into church and placed where everyone can see it. There follows ‘The Veneration of the Cross’.
In some places, ‘The Veneration’ is conducted with great ceremony, in other places with much less, but at its centre lies this refrain: “By virtue of your cross, joy has come into the world”. This, when we think about it, contains a remarkable conjunction – on the one hand crucifixion, on the other hand joy. Surely it is Christmas when we sing ‘Joy to the World’. ‘Cross of Jesus, Cross of Sorrow’ seems much more in keeping with Good Friday. Yet it was indeed the cross, not the manger or the empty tomb, that became the universal symbol of the Good News that Christians felt compelled to preach.
It is worth observing straight away that this symbol is not a crucifix, on which the body of Christ still hangs, but an empty cross. Yet its emptiness does nothing to diminish its significance as one of the most cruel instruments of torture and death ever devised by human beings. Its meaning, then, is to be found at the intersection of sin and suffering. The Cross's emptiness, however, points beyond this, to Easter, and in this way conveys its further meaning as a source of joy. The empty cross is thus a threefold symbol. It expresses the reality of evil, it signals Christ’s victory over it, and it invites us to share in that victory.
Yet we can only do so if first, and repeatedly, we grasp just what was involved in Christ’s sacrifice. The Good Friday lesson from Isaiah speaks powerfully to this point, so powerfully that four verses were chosen for incorporation in Handel’s great choral work Messiah.
He was despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
He was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The Veneration of the Cross, as the focal point of the Good Friday liturgy, encourages us to look on the Cross at its starkest, and at the same time to anticipate the joy that is about to break out from it at Easter.
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