St. Ignatius NYC Logo

Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

Good Friday
March 29, 2024

Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

The Passion According to Saint John

Last night I talked about how the Maundy Thursday liturgy we have is, perhaps, the least historical of our Holy Week services. I said that in the liturgical revisions of the second half of the twentieth-century, for Maundy Thursday, the church centred the ceremony of foot washing and the commemoration of Jesus doing the same in the Last Supper in a way it had never been done before. I suggested that this was a good thing as it, perhaps, shocks us into a new perspective on our duty to follow the New Commandment Jesus gave us to love one another.

Today on Good Friday, we sit on rather the opposite side of the fence. You will remember that with the introduction of the first Book of Common Prayer in 1549, the proper liturgies for the great feasts and fasts were swept away, and that they only began to return (in some cases actually illegally) with the various liturgical resources produced by antiquarians and Anglo-Catholics in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and finally, officially revived with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and other similarly minded revisions throughout the Anglican Communion.

The form of the liturgy that was abolished by the Protestant zeal of Edward VI’s minders, a version of which we celebrate today, dates back to late antiquity, and we know it from various fourth-century writings. Originating at Jerusalem, where they marked the events of the Christian Passover in the places where they took place, this liturgy began to spread. It likely first came to Rome, where a piece of the true cross had been brought by Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, and to whom its rediscovery is credited. The relics were housed in the new, specially-built church at the site of Helena’s villa. The Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, so-called because its floor was built upon soil specially transported there from the holy city, very soon became a focus of pilgrimage and devotion, especially on Good Friday. Later these rites and ceremonies, developed at Jerusalem and assumed in Rome, were taken up in other centres, even where they possessed no relics. Indeed, as early as the first half of the ninth century, the great Carolingian liturgist and bishop, Amalarius of Metz wrote, “Although every church cannot possess [a relic of the true cross], yet the virtue of the holy cross is not wanting to them in those crosses which are made after the likeness of the Lord’s cross.” (1) There – as here – a simple wooden cross could be treated as that to which Jesus nailed.

The actions we undertake today, then, are those enacted by millions upon millions who have come before us for almost two thousand years, first at Jerusalem, then at Rome, and now in places unknown and unimaginable to those early worshippers. We hear the Passion in all its painstaking detail, weep ourselves at the foot of the cross, hear of the generosity of Joseph of Aramathea in that moment when everything seemed to have been lost. We will soon pray for the church, the world, the sick, and the dead. Later, I will take up our cross, the one that usually hangs by the Choir, and has now been sitting atop our altar since Ash Wednesday, and bring it down for our veneration. In this act of remembrance, it will become for us the very Cross of Christ, as if it had been brought to Saint Ignatius from Jerusalem by Saint Helena herself, and given to us as a gift to preserve for ever. We sing the hymns that have been chanted for centuries, and in all these things – including receiving the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood that unites our bodies with his Body – we place our whole selves in relationship with those who have come before, even with Christ himself.

This is a supremely tactile, fully embodied celebration, in which we are called upon to use all our senses, to touch the wood, smell the incense, hear the music, taste the Sacrament, and see it all with our eyes. We are meant to be transformed physically and emotionally by these experiences in a way that makes those past events present with us here and now, and conforms our faith with the faith of Christ.

Good Friday brings us to the foot of the cross and leaves us exhausted. Although we do know the whole story, we know what lies ahead tomorrow night and Sunday morning, for we live on the other side of the Cross, we can still be moved by this exercise into an experience of that sense of desolation, the emptiness that the three Marys and the Beloved Disciple must have felt as they saw the stone rolled over the entrance of tomb, and thought that it was all over. The liturgy does its job, and we can be grateful to the Church that it gravitated over centuries of neglect back to these rites and ceremonies, and give us the chance to touch the very wood of the cross and experience in such a powerful way Jesus’ sacrifice, the sacrifice that makes us one with God.

Andrew Charles Blume ✠
New York City
Maundy Thursday, 28 March 2024

1. Amalarius of Metz, De Ecclesiasticis Officiis, i.14 (ed. Patrologia Latina); quoted in John Walton Tyrer, Historical Survey of Holy Week: Its services and ceremonial, Alcuin Club Collections, no. XXIX (Oxford: University Press, 1932), 129.

© 2024 Andrew Charles Blume