Friday, 2 April 2010

Bringing hope to Easter

Carrying the Cross ... a scene from the Passion Play in Ballylinan in Co Laois, photographed by Alan Benson in today’s edition of The Irish Times

The Irish Times, in today’s edition [2 April 2010], publishes this editorial comment:

Bringing hope
to Easter


Since the publication of Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter to Irish Catholics, most commentators and critics have focused on his reaction to the present abuse scandal that is tearing apart the Catholic Church in Ireland, and on the many bewildering silences in his letter. His letter failed to meet the expectation of the victims of abuse – and of many faithful Catholics – but it also contained timely reminders of the significance and relevance of the Gospel message that is at the heart of this season of Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

In that part [of his letter] addressed to “the victims of abuse and their families,” Pope Benedict reminds them that “Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of his self-sacrificing – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.” He tells those “priests and religious who have abused children” that “Christ’s redeeming sacrifice has the power to forgive even the gravest of sins.” And he tells “the children and young people of Ireland” that Christ loves them and “has offered himself on the cross for you.”

These are age-old beliefs that are at the heart of Christianity and it was seasonally appropriate that they should be re-told and reiterated only days ahead of the great Paschal solemnities. But it is also at the heart of the message of Good Friday and Easter that all Christians are crucified with Christ and that all who believe can find hope in the Resurrection. At the heart of Christian faith is the belief that the church is the Body of Christ, as Saint Paul says throughout his Epistles. Indeed, he is so explicit about this, that in some versions of the New Testament he says “we are members of his body, of his flesh and of his bones” (Ephesians 5: 30).

Baptism is incorporation into the Body of Christ, and the Eucharist is not only a memorial of Christ’s death but a real sacrament or sign of the Body of Christ. These apostolic and sacramental teachings are reminders that when members of the Church are injured – when innocent members of the Church are abused – Christ himself is wounded and assaulted once again, as truly as he was crucified on Good Friday. It is for these very reasons that the present crisis for the Catholic Church is truly what the word crisis means – it brings the church to the very cross of decision-making. The Body of Christ has been tortured, abused and forced to face the crucifixion of Good Friday constantly and perpetually across the world.

But Good Friday is meaningless for Christians without faith and joy in the Resurrection. That resurrection hope is for new life, new joy and renewed justice. Pope Benedict – however inadequately – has responded to the sufferings of the Body of Christ. But he and the bishops of the church need also to bring Easter hope to many. And that can only be brought through decisive, firm and resolute action. Otherwise, the stone remains rolled across the tomb, and, like the women who came to the grave on the first Easter morning, many will weep and wonder what they have done with the body of Christ.

Friday in Holy Week, Good Friday

The Crucifixion

Patrick Comerford

This year, Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter fall on the same days in the calendars of both the Western Church and the Orthodox Church.

Today, the Friday of Holy Week is Good Friday. Today we remember the day on which Christ was crucified outside the walls of Jerusalem, on the Hill of Calvary, and in most traditions this day is marked by solemn observances in memory of the crucifixion.

Good Friday in the Anglican tradition

The 1662 Book of Common Prayer did not specify a particular rite to be observed on Good Friday but local custom came to expect an assortment of services, including the Seven Last Words from the Cross and a three-hour service consisting of Matins, the Ante-Communion (using the Reserved Sacrament in some parishes) and Evensong.

The Seven Last Words have been identified in tradition as:

● “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23: 34).

● “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 43).

● “Woman, here is your son … Here is your mother” (John 19: 26-27).

● “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46, Mark 15: 34).

● “I am thirsty” (John 19: 28)

● “It is finished” (John 19: 30)

● “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23: 46).

Recent revisions of the Book of Common Prayer and the introduction of Common Worship in the Church of England have re-introduced pre-Reformation forms of observing Good Friday.

They are similar to those in the Roman Catholic Church, but include observances that were common in the Church of England prior to the reforms of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

However, the Church of Ireland’s Book of Common Prayer (2004), which introduced provisions for Ash Wednesday, makes no provisions for Good Friday. Three collects are provided, but the note in the Calendar (p. 18) and the lack of a Post Communion Collect implies there must be no celebration of Holy Communion today. Otherwise, it is left to local custom and tradition to decide how to observe this day.

This morning, in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, we are praying The Litany at 8.30. In Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 3 p.m. this afternoon, the Liturgy of the Passion includes the Eucharist of the pre-sanctified.

Roman Catholic observances

Roman Catholics usually observe the day with fast and abstinence, which is understood as having only one full meal and two repasts that together ought not to equal a full meal.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there is no celebration of the Mass after that of the Last Supper yesterday [Thursday] evening until the Easter Vigil tomorrow [Saturday] night, and the only sacraments on this day are Baptism occasionally, Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick. Holy Communion is distributed only in the Service of the Passion of the Lord.

In churches, the altar remains completely bare, without a cross, candlesticks or altar cloths. It is customary to empty the holy water fonts in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil. Traditionally, no bells are rung on Good Friday or Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil.

The Commemoration of the Passion of the Lord takes place in the afternoon, usually at 3 p.m., although for pastoral reasons a later hour may be chosen. The vestments are red, although traditionalists sometimes use black. This liturgy consists of three parts: the Liturgy of the Word, the Veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion.

The first part, the Liturgy of the Word, consists of the reading or chanting of Isaiah 52: 13 to Isaiah 53: 12; Hebrews 4: 14-16, 5: 7-9, and the Passion account from Saint John’s Gospel, which is often divided between a number of singers or readers. This is followed by a series of prayers for the Church, the Pope, the clergy and laity of the Church, those preparing for baptism, Christian unity, the Jewish people, those who do not believe in Christ, those who do not believe in God, those in public office and those in special need.

In the second part, the Veneration of the Cross, a crucifix is solemnly displayed and venerated while special chants are sung.

The third and last part is Holy Communion according to a rite based on the final part of Mass, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer, but omitting the Fraction or the Breaking of the Bread and the singing of the Agnus Dei. The Eucharist, consecrated yesterday at the Mass of Holy Thursday, is distributed at this service. The priest and people then leave in silence, and the altar cloth is removed, leaving the altar bare except for the cross and two or four candlesticks.

In addition, the Stations of the Cross are often prayed either in the church or outside, and a prayer service, known as the Three Hours’ Agony, may take place between mid-day and 3 p.m.

The Roman Catholic tradition includes specific prayers and devotions as acts of reparation for the sufferings and insults that Christ suffered during his Passion on Good Friday. These Acts of Reparation do not involve prayers for the living or the dead, but seek to repair the sins against Christ. Pope Pius XI described these Acts of Reparation as a duty for Catholics and referred to them as “some sort of compensation to be rendered for the injury” and sufferings of Christ. Pope John Paul II referred to them as the “unceasing effort to stand beside the endless crosses on which the Son of God continues to be crucified.”

Orthodox Great Friday

In the Orthodox Church, this day is known as Holy and Great Friday, or simply as Great Friday.

Because of the penitence and sorrow associated with the Crucifixion, the Divine Liturgy is never celebrated on Great Friday. On Great Friday, the Orthodox clergy no longer wear the purple or red that is customary throughout Great Lent, and instead wear black vestments. All the church hangings are changed to black, and they remain so until the Divine Liturgy tomorrow, on Great Saturday.

There are public readings of specific Psalms and the Gospels, with the singing of hymns about Christ’s death. Rich visual imagery and symbolism as well as stirring hymnody mark these observances. Holy and Great Friday is observed as a strict fast, and Orthodox adults are expected to abstain from all food and drink throughout the day if their health allows.

The Orthodox observance of Holy and Great Friday began last night [Thursday] with the Matins (ὄρθρος, Orthros) of the Twelve Passion Gospels. This service includes 12 readings from all four Gospels, recalling the events of the Passion from the Last Supper through the Crucifixion to the burial of Jesus. Each reading is followed either by antiphons, reflecting on the passion of Christ, or by parts of Matins. Some churches have a candelabrum with twelve candles, and one candle is extinguished after each Gospel reading.

The first of these twelve readings (John 13: 31 to John 18: 1) is the longest Gospel reading of the year.

Just before the sixth Gospel reading, which recounts Christ being nailed to the cross, a large cross, with an image of the body of Christ, is carried out of the sanctuary by the priest, accompanied by incense and candles, and is placed in the centre of the nave. As the cross is being carried, the priest or a chanter chants a special antiphon:

Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross,
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross,
Today he who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross.
He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns,
he who wraps the heaven in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery,
he who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon his face.

The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear.

We venerate your Passion, O Christ,
We venerate your Passion, O Christ,
We venerate your Passion, O Christ.
Show us also your glorious Resurrection.


During the service, everyone comes forward to kiss the feet of Christ on the cross.

After the canon, a brief, moving hymn, The Wise Thief, is chanted by singers who stand at the foot of the cross in the centre of the nave.

The service does not end with the First Hour, as usual, but with a special dismissal by the priest:

“May Christ our true God, Who for the salvation of the world endured spitting, and scourging, and buffeting, and the cross, and death, through the intercessions of his most pure Mother, of our holy and God-bearing fathers, and of all the saints, have mercy on us and save us, for he is good and the lover of humanity.”

Then this morning, all gather again to pray the Royal Hours, a special expanded celebration of the Little Hours, including the First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, Ninth Hour and Typica, with the addition of readings from the Old Testament, the Epistle and the Gospel, and singing hymns about the Crucifixion at each of these hours.

This service can appear to be more festive in character, and derives its name “Royal” from both the fact that the Hours are served with more solemnity than normal, commemorating Christ the King who humbled himself for the salvation of humanity, and because in the past this service was attended by the Emperor and his court.

The Taking down from the Cross

In the afternoon, around the 3 p.m. all gather for the Vespers of the Taking-Down from the Cross, recalling Christ’s Deposition from the Cross.

The Gospel reading is from all four Gospels. During the service, the image of the body of Christ is removed from the cross, wrapped in a linen shroud, and taken to the altar. Near the end of the service, an Epitaphios or “winding sheet” – a cloth embroidered with the image of Christ prepared for burial – is carried in solemn procession from the sanctuary to a low table in the nave that represents the Tomb of Christ. This is often scattered with and decorated with flowers.

A 14th century Epitaphios in the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki

The Epitaphios itself represents the body of Christ wrapped in a burial shroud, and looks like a full-size cloth icon of the body of Christ.

Later this [Friday] evening, the Matins of Holy and Great Saturday is a unique service known as the the Orthros of Lamentation at the Tomb, and sometimes called Jerusalem Matins. Much of the service takes place around a representation of the tomb of Christ in the centre of the nave of the church.

A unique feature of the service is the chanting of the Lamentations or Praises, which include verses chanted by the clergy interspersed between the verses of Psalm 119. At one point, the priest sprinkles the tomb with rose petals and rose water.

The Epitaphios being carried in procession outside a church in Pelekas, Corfu (Photograph: Dimitris Arvanitis)

At the end of the Great Doxology, while the Trisagion is sung, the Epitaphios is taken in procession around the outside the church, and is then returned to the tomb. In some churches, the Epitaphios is held above waist level at the door so people must bow under it as they re-enter the church, symbolising their entering into the death and resurrection of Christ.

The Epitaphios in procession in Corfu

The Troparion (hymn of the day) of Great Friday is:

The noble Joseph,
when he had taken down your most pure body from the tree,
wrapped it in fine linen,
and anointed it with spices,
and placed it in a new tomb.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
The angel came to the myrrh-bearing women
at the tomb and said:
Myrrh is fitting for the dead,
but Christ has shown himself a stranger to corruption.


The Collect of the Day:

Almighty Father,
Look with mercy on this your family
for which our Lord Jesus Christ
was content to be betrayed
and given up into the hands of sinners
and to suffer death upon the cross;
who is alive and glorified with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.


No Post-Communion Prayer is provided for Good Friday.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin