No person alive will ever celebrate again Good Friday as we do today. It will be over 140 years until, once more, the Church commemorates the Passion of the Lord on this date, 25 March. And whilst this may not, in and of itself, appear to be of particular interest or importance, we might recognise its significance when we recall that it is on this date that we usually celebrate the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to Our Blessed Lady: that is, the day of the appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to Our Lady, and Christ’s conception in her womb. Exactly nine months before the feast of the Lord’s nativity, this feast serves not only as a signpost that directs our gaze toward the coming of Christ as man, but also to recall the inalienable dignity of every human life, from conception until natural death: a sign that God in Christ has infused our human nature with his very self.
The Church in more recent centuries has adapted her practice by transferring the celebration of the Annunciation of the Lord, when it falls within Holy Week, to the first free liturgical day: the importance of so beautiful a feast has grown in the minds of the Christian faithful to the point where it demands its own standalone commemoration. But in former times this was not so, and the feast of the Annunciation of the Lord could and indeed did fall on Good Friday. The early and medieval Fathers saw great significance in this, not least because they dated the death of Our Blessed Lord to this actual date, 25 March. As Saint Augustine writes: “[Christ] is believed to have been conceived on 25th March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.”
It is not insignificant that this commemoration of the conception of the Lord and that of his crucifixion should also fall this year at a particular point in the natural cycle. The Paschal moon that has already begun to grace the sky is a sign not only of the light of Christ’s victory over the darkness of death, his new life which is now extended to us, but also of his first birth into our fallen world: “the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Jn 1). The natural and the supernatural, we might say, both mark these events with the same hymn of praise.
And whilst there is a certain poetic truth to these parallels between the Annunciation and the Crucifixion, we might also initially perceive a contradiction between the vivifying act of Our Lord’s conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, and his death on the Cross of Golgotha’s hill. Yet it is not simply a coincidental observation that such a paradox exists, rather it is a true symbol of what it is that the Church bids us come to know today. And what might this be?
At its heart, the practice of the Christian religion demands an acknowledgment of contradictions. We know, for example, that the greatest expressions of our faith are generally deemed preposterous by our fellow man: they stand in opposition to the world; acts of Christian virtue stand opposed to acts of human sinfulness. Saint Paul reminds us of this most memorably in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1: 23). The belief that Christ rose from the dead, for example, is absurd to the world, but essential to us; the truth that eternal life comes only through death, both in the spiritual sense of death to self in baptism and in the very real sense of the death of the Lord, is nonsense to those who reject, or at best have not yet come to know, Christ as Saviour, the anointed one, the Messiah. And the actions of the Sacred Liturgy in these days of the Triduum represent, in a very particular way, this paradox. The celebratory tone of the Missa in Cœna Domini, the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, is at odds with our knowledge of what follows. The language used of new Christians ‘dying to the world’ at the Paschal Vigil is almost an affront to those who have not themselves gone down into the tomb of the font, to be reborn in the new life of Christ.
And if this is true of Sacred Triduum as a whole, then it is all the more so this day, even in its name, known as it is in English-speaking countries as Good Friday. On this day we elevate, worship, and venerate the very instrument of Our Saviour’s suffering; we call that brutal scaffold the “Faithful Cross, above all other, / one and only noble Tree,” and we further compare it with the tree which, in Eden’s garden, caused our damnation, bestowing on it the high accolade of participating in our salvation through Christ: “God in pity saw man fallen, shamed and sunk in misery, / when he fell on death by tasting / fruit of the forbidden tree: / then another tree was chosen / which the world from death should free.”
How, then, are we to interpret this series of paradoxes? What is it that the Church, in her ancient worship, is whispering to us in this most profound and poignant moment? Certainly the Cross and the sacrifice of Christ enacted upon it stand as the example par excellence of this message. As we heard in the Gradual: “Christ became obedient for our sakes unto death: even to the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2: 8). His obedience to the Father is the pre-eminent example of our vocation to union with him. But perhaps we might hear it also in the echoes of the Annunciation. Our Blessed Lady shares in Christ’s victory over sin and death because she first bore the weight of his passion. Her fiat, her obedience, her assent to the will of God at the cost of her own desire, is the source of her eternal salvation. And so it is with us. Our physical prostration before Christ, who is symbolized by the altar in the opening moments of this liturgical ceremony, is a radical sign of this; of how we must live our entire lives: becoming nothing before Christ so that, united to his sacrifice, we may become everything in him: “let it be to me according to thy word” (Lk 1: 38).
Our obeisance, though, is not that of a slave before his master, however much our sins might be deserving of such a relationship. Rather, we come before Christ—and this is why we must venerate that dreadful instrument of his death—in order to be taken up into the sacrifice he offers on the Cross, the eternal and complete sacrifice, and in order that we might live in him in the union of the Godhead. That is to say: he does not leave us face down on the ground before him, but transforms us into his likeness. “No longer do I call you servants,” says the Lord in the Gospel according to Saint John, “but I have called you friends” (Jn 15: 15).
It is with that confidence that we come to kneel before and to venerate the wood of the Cross; knowing that by submitting ourselves to Christ we will also be one with the fruits of his sacrifice. It is in this act, which is the antidote to all individualism, relativism, and egotism, that we set aside our way, our truth, and our life, in order to become one with the very personification of the way, the truth, and the life: the person of the Second Person of the Most Blessed and Undivided Trinity, Christ Jesus, the Son of the Eternal Father, who for our sakes has become the Priest, the Altar, and the Lamb of Sacrifice. It is he who bids us return to the life of paradise in the kingdom of his Eternal Father, a paradise relinquished by our first fault and compounded by our sin. It is he who bids us return to him and to his life, his arms outstretched to embrace us. It is he who has offered himself in atonement for our sins, so that the death he endured is forfeited for us. Aided by the prayers of his Blessed Mother, may we not turn our backs on this great gift of love and life that, united to his sacrifice in this life, we might be forever one with its fruits in the life of the world to come.