Given on Good Friday 2014 at Saint John the Evangelist, Calgary
There is perhaps no single day when the Church’s rites and ceremonies speak more profoundly and clearly of the faith she professes, than this. In every solemn gesture and action, she expresses in ritual form today the very essence of her life in a sacramental way: an exterior sign of an interior reality. The purpose of the sacred liturgy is never to teach the Christian faithful, but to shape them by their participation in the very life of the Blessed Trinity. By the worship that we offer here we are formed and conformed in a physical way to the via crucis, the way of the cross, along which we tentatively tread. We are united to the passion of Our Lord so intimately and so completely, that we share in his sufferings in a more than merely figurative way.
In fact the events of the passion and resurrection of the Lord which unfold before us in all the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter enable us to see in minute detail the mystery which we behold each and every time we come to the Eucharistic sacrifice, that banquet of divine charity which is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The triumphal entrance of the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the institution of the Eucharist and the sacred priesthood on Maundy Thursday, the passion and death of the Lord on Good Friday, and the resurrection we commemorate in the days of Easter, albeit separate in time, are now one single event in the economy of salvation. Each of these intensely beautiful acts of Christian worship relies on the other, each making sense only in the context of the integrated Christian life.
Though it encompasses more than simply the events we are gathered to celebrate today, that integrated Christian life nevertheless finds here something so essential that all else hinges on its existence. In our ritual commemoration of the acts of the Lord’s passion and death, we find ourselves today at a vital and essential point – a crossroads, if you like – which determines every other aspect of our life in Christ. In common parlance we call the central point of a discussion or argument, the ‘crux’; because it is the very point on which any outcome pivots. What we mark today, though, it is not a merely figurative crux but a literal one, one that is the centrepiece and essence of our life in Christ.
If a newcomer were to be sitting in the pews today (and perhaps they are), they may well wonder what on earth all our strange goings-on are about. ‘Why are these people lying on the floor?’, they might ask. ‘Why, on such an important day, does the church look so bare and empty?’ We could forgive their questions, even understand the raising of their metaphorical eyebrow. What that person could not avoid, though, even lacking an elementary theological understanding, is recognising that amidst these alien and seemingly obscure rituals, is the unsettling and indisputable fact that the cross plays a central role. The cross – the life-giving cross – is at the very heart of what we are here to honour, and it is at the very heart of what it is to be a follower of Christ, a Christian, one who seeks to follow the way.
The cross is rightly a fundamental element of Christian worship. When we baptize a baby, or bless a marriage, or ask for eternal rest for a loved one who has died, it is the cross that expresses in ritual form our faith and hope in God’s action. Every celebration of the Mass begins with the sign of the cross, and in the sacred liturgy the cross is front and centre in our worship of God, honoured with sweet-smelling incense and even, today, with the bending of the knee. It is relics of the True Cross that, above all others, are venerated with a singular devotion. It is the cross that, from Constantine to the World Trade Centre in New York, has been at once a sign of Christianity’s triumph and a threat to the philosophies and beliefs of the world. That sign, which in baptism is printed indelibly on the soul of every Christian, is what marks us out from the world and secures us in the vocation of missionary discipleship: a life led for the salvation of the world.
And yet the distinctiveness given us by the cross is not as the advertising and marketing campaigns that adorn (or litter) our streets and television sets. They seek custom by appealing to man’s innate desire for comfort and pleasure. The cross, on the other hand, conjures up images of torture and agony. It is at once objectionable and strangely alluring, and it is that contradiction and paradox which means that the cross is more than simply a sign or symbol – an inconsequential adornment on an altar or a wall – but a mystery into which, by its representation, we enter.
That mystery is writ large for us in these three great days of the sacred triduum. As the great canvas of an artist, both broad and detailed brushstrokes show us in these days the beauty and splendour of the mystery we celebrate. And yet every time we gather at the altar to offer the simple gifts of bread and wine in thanksgiving to the Father, that mystery is once more re-presented for us. For it is in the Eucharistic offering, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, that the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord is made tangible, as we participate in time in the worship of eternity. What we see spread out in these days is found at every Mass as we rehearse the saving works of God in the midst of his people.
What does all this mean for us? First, that the cross we will shortly hold aloft and venerate in this sacred ceremony, that will be held as gently as the Christ child in the arms of his mother, is a non-negotiable part of the Christian life. We cannot live without the cross, because we cannot hope to find salvation without the sacrifice it represents. As the people of Israel, in the course of their exodus from slavery in Egypt to the promised land, gazed at the bronze serpent lifted high in the wilderness and were restored to health, so we come before the cross of Christ by which our souls – sick with sin – are not simply healed of mere physical ailments, but of death itself.
It is through the offering of the Lord’s own life for our sake on the cross that the sacrificial tokens of the old world are trumped by the true sacrifice that cleanses us of sin and restores us to the relationship with God, forfeited in Eden’s garden. It is for this reason that tradition holds the location of Calvary to be the burial site of Adam and, as Cardinal Newman puts it, ‘a second Adam to the fight and to the rescue came’.
The cross is at once a weapon of extreme violence and the gateway to the peace of God’s kingdom. It is the means by which man’s nature is restored to the dignity it enjoyed before the fall, and by which we are united once more with our God and Father in the fullness of life. The ancient paschal office hymn reminds us of this as we sing, ‘Upon the altar of the cross / his Body hath redeemed our loss; / and tasting of his roseate Blood, / our life is hid with him in God’.
Secondly, the physical cross which we rightly honour today disguises the spiritual reality it portrays. Just as the violet veils of passiontide have hidden from our sight the sign of the cross, in order that we might enter more fully into the reality it represents, so our veneration of the cross today reveals our adoration of the mystery of the cross itself. When we hear that ritualised lament in the chant that heralds its coming, and our eyes are drawn to the crucifix held up for our veneration, when we come before the cross and honour it with a kiss, we do not simply kneel before the wood, but the mystery it signifies: a mystery that turns death to life. It is for this reason that we can say that this solemn drama is more than mere performance. We are not here for a passion play or an historical reenactment, but a cultic action in which we participate not as spectators but as ourselves, and are so drawn more fully toward the perfection of who we are called to be in Christ.
May this become so for us through these sacred rites. May we acknowledge the power and majesty of the cross, and embrace all that it signifies and means for us—those who wish to live the life of Christ now and for all eternity. May that cross be impressed inwardly upon our lives and revealed outwardly in our work, that others may come to know the love and truth that is the person of Jesus Christ, for he is our salvation, our life and our resurrection, through him we are saved and made free.