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Finding the Good in Good Friday – A Lenten Meditation on the Liturgical Experience of the Cross

March 13, 2011

When I was younger and through my seminary years I had usually seen the crucifix and Jesus’ suffering on the cross in somber tones. It was my sin that put him there, had made him suffer. The cross was something that compelled a silent reverence, and suggested to me that I meditate deeply on what Jesus had to go through. Perhaps too I would think of Mary and John and the other women mournfully beneath the cross beholding Jesus slowly and painfully dying. These were heavy and somber notes, but deeply moving themes.

In addition the crucifix also called forth memories that I must carry a cross and go through the Fridays of my life. I needed to learn the meaning of sacrifice.

Liturgically I also saw the crucifix as a way of restoring greater reverence in the Mass. Through the 70s and 80s parishes had largely removed crucifixes and replaced them, quite often, with “resurrection crosses,” or just an image of Jesus floating in mid air. I used to call this image “touchdown Jesus” since he floated in front of the cross with his arms up in the air as if indicating a touchdown had just been made. In those years we had moved away from the understanding of the Mass as a sacrifice and were more into “meal theology.” The removal of the crucifix from the sanctuary was powerfully indicative of this shift. Many priests and liturgists saw the cross as too somber a theme for their vision of a new and more welcoming Church, upbeat and positive.

A cross-less Christianity tended to give way to what I thought was a rather silly celebratory style of masses in those years and I came to see the restoration of the Crucifix as a necessary remedy to restore proper balance. I was delighted when, through the mid 80s and later, the Vatican began insisting in new liturgical norms that a crucifix (not just a cross) be prominent in the sanctuary and visible to all. Further, that the processional cross had to bear the image of the crucified, not just be a bare cross.

Balance Restored –  I was very happy about these new norms (and still am) because they restore the proper balance in seeing the Mass as a making present of the once-for-all perfect sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. It is also a sacred meal, but it is the sacrifice that gives it its power. I further thought that such a move would help restore greater and proper solemnity to the Mass, and to some extent this has been true.

All of this background just to say that I saw the Cross, the crucifix, in somber, serious tones, a theme that was meant to instill solemnity and sobriety, a meditation on the awful reality of sin and our need to repent. And all of this is fine and true.

But the Lord wasn’t finished with me yet and wanted me to see another understanding of the Cross.

In effect he wanted me to experience also the “good” in Good Friday. For while the cross is all the things said above, it is also a place of victory and love, of God’s faithfulness and our deliverance. There’s a lot to celebrate at the foot of the cross.

It happened one Sunday in Lent of 1994, one of my first in an African American Catholic Parish. It being Lent, I expected the highly celebratory quality of Mass to be scaled back a bit. But, much to my surprise, the opening song began with an upbeat, toe-tapping gospel riff. At first I frowned. But the choir began to sing:

Down at the cross where my Savior died,
Down where for cleansing from sin I cried,
There to my heart was the blood applied;
Glory to His name!

Ah, so this WAS a Lenten theme! But how unusual for me to hear of the cross being sung of so joyfully. (You can hear the song in the video below; try not to tap your toe too much).

It was something quite new for me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been but it was. The 70s and 80s Catholicism that had been my experience found it necessary to remove the cross to celebrate. But here was celebration with and in the cross!  Here was the good in Good Friday.

The Choir continued:

I am so wondrously saved from sin,
Jesus so sweetly abides within;
There at the cross where He took me in;
Glory to His name!

Congregation and choir were stepping in time and clapping, rejoicing in the cross, seeing it in the resurrection light of its saving power and as a glorious reflection of God’s love for us. Up the aisle the procession wound and the last verse was transposed a half step up, an even brighter key:

Oh, precious fountain that saves from sin,
I am so glad I have entered in;
There Jesus saves me and keeps me clean;
Glory to His name!

Yes, indeed, glory to his name! A lot of dots were connected for me that day. The cross indeed was a place of great pain, but also of great love, there was grief, but there was also glory, there was suffering, but there was victory.

Please do not misunderstand my point. There IS a place and time for quiet, somber reflection at the foot of the cross. All the things said above are true. But one of the glories of the human person is that we can have more than one feeling at a time. We can even have opposite feelings going on at almost the same moment!

The Balance – Some in the Church of the 70s and rejected the cross as too somber a theme, too negative. They wanted to be more upbeat, less focused on sin, and so, out went the cross. There was no need to do this and it was unbalanced. For at the cross, the vertical, upward pillar of man’s pride and sin is transected by the horizontal and outstretched arms of God’s love. With strong hand, and outstretched arms the Lord has won the victory for us: there at the cross where he took me in, glory to his name!

And the Balance is for the individual, and for the Church. For some prefer a more somber meditation on the cross to prevail and others feel moved by the Spirit to joyfully celebrate at the foot of the Cross. The Church needs both, and I suppose we all need some of both experiences .  Yes, it right to weep at the cross, to behold the awful reality of sin, to remember Christ’s sacrifice. But rejoice too, for the Lord has won victory for us, right there: Down at the Cross. There’s a lot of good in Good Friday.

Photo credit (right click on photo for URL)

Here is the song I heard that Sunday in 1994, sung in very much the style I heard.

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  1. crazylikeknoxes says:

    I’ve always thought that the Truth reflected by the sobriety of Good Friday is the same Truth reflected in the joy of Easter Sunday. In God, both reflections exist together in indivisible unity. Among us, that is more truth than we can handle at one time. While we are capable of having “opposite feelings” at the same time, it is perhaps best not to celebrate liturgy that way! That it is why the feast of our salvation is a triduum, it is too much for a single liturgy (at least here on earth) to bear at one time. Let Thursday be holy, Friday sober, Saturday exultant, and Sunday “joyful joyful” and never forget that there is an element of each in all.

  2. Dismas says:

    The cross of ‘touchdown Jesus’ has always bugged me. It always tempts me to think that Jesus is leaving or has left the building. This isn’t all bad though, it never fails to remind me of the Eucharist. Mentally, it always triggers an image of a tabernacle or Jesus in a monstrance on the Altar.

    I know the Church teaches and celebrates it’s birth at Pentacost, the Descent of the Holy Spirit, but sometimes I wonder if more emphasis shouldn’t be placed on the mystery of Jesus giving Mary to John as his mother. I can’t help but see this event along with the lance bringing forth the Blood and Water from the Sacred Heart of Jesus as the Church’s conception? Truly a mystery of sorrow and joy.

    When Jesus therefore had seen his mother and the disciple standing whom he loved, he saith to his mother: Woman, behold thy son. After that, he saith to the disciple: Behold thy mother. And from that hour, the disciple took her to his own. Afterwards, Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the scripture might be fulfilled, said: I thirst. John 19:26-28.

    But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water. John 19:34

  3. Cynthia BC says:

    One day I was perusing crosses on an online catalogue. My then-2nd-grader happened to be looking over my shoulder. She looked with disdain at the “touchdown” Jesuses, and asserted that those weren’t REAL crucifixes.

    Out of the mouths of babes…

  4. Joe says:

    “Touchdown Jesus” thanks Monsignor, I thought that for some time, like yours those ideas have always be present, while no greater unfortunately as death beckons. That touchdown stuff is too easy

  5. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    It’s a nice gospel tune and I like all styles of good music but I don’t think it fits well in the Catholic mass. When they put a full set of drums, an electric base a back-up singers, it kind of steals the quiet thunder of the sacrament.

  6. Guerline says:

    Systematically way of reflecting on liturgical experience of the cross
    1. The suffering of christ : major components : one must reflect on Sunday preceding the feast of Easter , Christ made a solemn entry into Jerusalem, on holy Thursday evening Christ ate the Pasch with his disciples , instituted the blessed sacrament , and then went out to the mount of olives , where he suffered his agony and bloody sweat, on good Friday at noon, Christ was nailed to the cross on the hill of Calvary , just outside of Jerusalem and died on the cross about three o’clock, during Easter Saturday , that is, on the greatest feast day of the jews , our lord remained in the sepulcher.
    2. The passion of Christ , please reflect on saintly Thomas aquinas (summa theology part three question 47-47 on the passion , there are twelve articles on the passion)
    3. The exposition of the bible , please reflect on the commentary from the following resources ( saint Jerome biblical commentary , and Navarre bible commentary on the following scripture passages)
    A. Christ bears his cross ( mat 27:32, mark 15: 21-22, Luke 23:26, John 18: 17)
    B christ crucified ( mat 27:35-36, mark26:25, luke33:33, acts 10:39)
    3. Please reflect on the concept of sacrifice ( fundamental s of catholic dogma page 183)
    4 read the council of Ephesus (431) on ” Christ sacrifice on the cross / Christ offered himself on the cross as a true and proper sacrifice
    5 death of Jesus / reflection with catechism
    A. Real death catechism number619,627,629
    B burial of Jesus catechism number 624-626,630
    C descent to the underworld catechism number 624,631-635
    D God turns murder into salvation catechism number 312,622
    6 interpretation of Jesus death / reflection with catechism
    A. Elevation on the cross and ascension number 662
    B God made him to be sin catechism number 602-603
    C in the mystery of God’s plan catechism number 599,620
    D self- sacrifice of Jesus catechism number 605-618,621,623
    E. The death of the servant of God catechism number 601,713
    7 suffering as participation in Jesus work of salvation / reflection with catechism
    A Jesus work of salvation catechism number 1508,1521 union with the passion of Christ
    B as a consequence of original sin catechism number 1521
    C experience of suffering catechism number 164
    8 lastly Pope John Paul II 1979 encyclical ” redemptor hominis” and 1980 encyclical on ” dives in misericordia”
    Translation of these encyclicals( redemption of man and divine mercy )
    Closing remark is a quotation from the catechism number 1804 is a refekection on the human virtues , according to the catechism the definition of human virtues ” firm attitudes, stable disposition, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions , order our passions , and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. During this Lenten season , please remain wholesome by correcting error because it lead to division . These guidelines on the cross / suffering define and interelate basic concept with one another systematically
    May the peace of Christ be with you!

  7. Joanna Ionescu says:

    Yes, I find that this theme, the victory of Jesus Christ on the cross, more than any other, is most helpful in addressing the questions of evil and of suffering. At the foot of the cross we experience both suffering and joy.

  8. Michael J Donnelly says:

    in our day, the cross is most often seen as a popular necklace piece and has been thus downgraded I fear = I am always thankful to see the crucifix which somehow cannot be reduced in meaning but stands as a reminder that I have been bought by my savior at great price – thanks for the article!