There are only a few days in the life of the Church which could possibly hold the title of the most important day of the liturgical year (after Easter Sunday, of course). Some would give the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Day, this honor, as we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. But some would go a little further back, as the actual first day that Jesus came into existence on this Earth would be the day of his conception. That day corresponds with the Feast of the Annunciation. Still others would argue another day, though, and I would fall into that camp. The second most important day of the entire Church year has to be Good Friday.
It was on this day that the New Adam repaired the damage that the old Adam had done. It was on this day that the temple veil was torn in two. It was on this day that the gates of heaven were open to all. It was on this day that the righteous waiting in Abraham’s bosom were able to go to their heavenly home with the Father. It was on this day that the Catholic Church, our Mother through baptism, was born. If you had any doubts before, can you now see why we call this particular Friday “good”?
One prayer that was traditionally recited on this day notes the inseparable connection between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Without Jesus dying himself, he never would’ve been able to have trampled and conquered death for us:
“Thy cross, O Lord, we honor, and we praise and glorify Thy holy resurrection: for by the wood of the cross the whole world is filled with joy.”
This day, Good Friday, truly brings us a mix of emotions. We are both sad when we contemplate how Jesus suffered, and horrified by our own sins that have put our Lord on the cross. Despite this we are also filled with joy because we know how the story ends. We know that Jesus Christ will triumph over both death and sin. Indeed, those of the Byzantine Rite call the entire Lenten season a journey into “Bright Sadness”.
The liturgies that take place in the Catholic Church on this day are great reminders of this “Bright Sadness”. We don’t participate in the Sacrifice of the Mass this day, but we are still able to receive our Lord in the Eucharist from the reserved Hosts that were placed in the tabernacle from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper the day prior. It’s also a great moment to venerate the wood of the Cross during the liturgy of this day, and it is an excellent teaching moment especially for children. Speaking of our Byzantine brethren again, it’s interesting to mention the traditions that they keep on this day, in comparison to those of the Latin Rite.
A Byzantine Good Friday
First, instead of venerating the Cross on Good Friday, Byzantine Catholics venerate the Holy Shroud, or burial cloth of Christ, with a procession around the church with the shroud before veneration. Second, Good Friday is not the only day of the year that Byzantine Catholics do not celebrate the Mass, or Divine Liturgy. According to the Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, throughout the entirety of Great Lent, barring Sundays and vigils on Saturday evenings, the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated “as a sign of the anticipation of Christ’s Pascha and glorious second coming.” But “in order to sustain the faithful in the spiritual effort of fasting during Lent”, a special Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is celebrated on most Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent.
Interestingly enough, the name given to the Liturgy of Good Friday in the Latin Rite prior to 1955 was the “Mass of the Presanctified”. For a period of a few hundred years, the priest was the sole communicant on Good Friday. Following Pope Pius XII reforms of Holy Week in 1955, Holy Communion was able to be administered to the entire congregation, as we see today in the “Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion”.
So no matter where you may be going this Good Friday, we can see that there are many different ways we can unite our own sufferings to the Cross through our prayers and veneration. The traditions of the Catholic Church on this day truly bring us into a deeper contemplation of what our Lord suffered in his Passion.
Truly, this occasion is one of “Bright Sadness”, but we can be assured that in a few short days all of Christianity will be rejoicing in resounding voices that “He is risen!”