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. I would also think of Mary, John, and the other women beneath the Cross mournfully beholding Jesus as He was slowly and painfully dying. These were heavy and somber notes but deeply moving themes.
In addition, the crucifix reminded me that I must carry my 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, often replacing them 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 signaling a touchdown. 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 a powerful indicator 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.
This “cross-less” Christianity tended to lead to what I thought was a rather silly, celebratory style of Mass 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, in 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, and further, that the processional Cross had to bear the image of Christ crucified (it could not just be a bare cross).
Balance Restored – I was (and still am) very happy about these new norms because they restore the proper balance in seeing the Mass as making present 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 also thought that such a move would help bring proper solemnity back to the Mass; to some extent this has been true.
All of this background is 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. He wanted me to see another understanding of the Cross. He wanted to balance my balance!
In effect, He also wanted me to experience the “good” in Good Friday. For while the Cross is everything described 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 then 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 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 Catholicism of the ’70s and ’80s had 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 up a half-step in 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 was indeed a place of great pain but also great love; there was grief but also glory; there was suffering but also victory.
Please do not misunderstand my point. There is a time and place 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 at almost the same moment!
The Balance – Some in the Church of the ’70s and ’80s rejected the Cross as too somber, 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; it was unbalanced. For at the Cross the vertical, upward pillar of man’s pride and sin is transected by the horizontal, 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!
The balance is for the individual and for the Church. Some prefer a more somber meditation on the Cross to prevail while others feel moved by the Spirit to celebrate joyfully 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 we should 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.
Here is the song I heard that Sunday in 1994, sung in very much the style I remember.