From the earliest times, the liturgy of Good Friday was quite simple. The altar is bare because, before Communion, it was just this way in the Church of the early Christians. Before the opening prayer, the priests do not genuflect rather they prostrate themselves on the floor as did the clergy in the early Church, begging God to forgive them for their sins.
In the first part of the liturgy, there is a Service of the Word, because, up until the second century, there were no daily Masses. Christians celebrated Mass only on Sunday. On Wednesdays and Fridays, however, there were religious services, which consisted solely of Scripture readings and prayers.
In the second part of the liturgy, the Veneration of the Cross takes place. In t h e fifth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem encouraged veneration of the relic of the true Cross which had been discovered by St. Helena in the third century. In time, relics of the true Cross were obtained by many faith communities throughout Christendom; however, most Christians did not have access to these relics, so there evolved the practice of venerating the Crucifix. It’s a custom that the Church observes only on Good Friday.
The third part of the liturgy is the Rite of Communion from the Blessed Sacrament that was consecrated in a previous liturgy and kept in a repository or temporary tabernacle. This goes back to the fact that in the early Church, when no Mass was celebrated on weekdays, people received Communion
from the reserved sacrament.
Of all the liturgies celebrated by the Church throughout the year, what we do on Good Friday comes the closest to what it would be like to worship as Christians in antiquity.
At the heart of what we do on Good Friday and every day stands the once-forall sacrifice of expiation, the life-line of the Church from which all grace flows: the sacrifice of Calvary. What makes this Cross so meaningful, so victorious over sin and death is not the wood but the man on the wood, who was more than a man. It is this Jesus, the God-Man, who gives us the courage to carry our cross, as it consists of all our worries and personal problems, our troubling family secrets and sense of emptiness which we’ve managed to keep to ourselves, eclipsed from those who surround us. But we can’t keep secrets from God. No matter how hard we pretend that everything is okay — God knows what’s really going on. Since nothing is kept hidden from the God who mournfully watched, as his only Son suffered and died for us, but who, three days later, had the last word which, in retrospect, transformed a bad Friday into a Good Friday, then why not let God into our hearts? Why not ask God to take away the pain that weighs on us like the beam that straddled the shoulders of Jesus? If God can take something horrific, like the execution of his Son, and make it the vehicle of our salvation, then God can surely help us. Why? God loves us.
God, in the Passover celebrated by the children of Israel, delivers his Chosen, from Egyptian slavery. It is this same God who, in the liturgy of Good Friday, liberates us anew through Jesus’ Passion and death from our bondage to sin and death. If the God of Jesus Christ is capable of such deliverance in the physical order 2,000-plus years ago and in the sign order every year thereafter, then surely God knows when his adopted children are on the brink of giving up, moving on, ending it all. To all such, Jesus insists, “don’t give up”! To all who feel like they are on a road to perdition, our Lord implores: “don’t give in!” Instead, following the example of the Lamb without blemish, let us give it over, to the Father!
This is what Jesus did from the altar of the Cross. May we muster the trust and courage to do the same from the altar of our hearts.
Father Comandini is managing editor of “The Catholic Spirit.”