The Altar of Calvary in
the Basilica of the Holy
The Good Friday services in the Jerusalem Church were not terribly dissimilar from today’s ritual. In fact, the Good Friday Liturgy of the Roman Rite is a more ancient form, a far more ancient form, of the Liturgy than either the “Extraordinary Form” (pre-conciliar Tridentine Rite) or the revised Rite of Paul VI (Novus Ordo.) Some attribute the Good Friday liturgy to Pope Saint Gregory but you will see that it has elements of the much older Jerusalem ceremony recorded by Aegeria.
Today the Sacred Ministers on Good Friday enter the church in silence, prostrate before the altar and then the Presider stands and offers a prayer. Then scripture lessons regarding the Passion are read. After the Passion according to John’s Gospel is read, the Deacon calls for prayers for the needs of the Church, civil society, and various categories of believers and non-believers. This is followed by the Cross (not a crucifix but a plain cross) being shown to the people for their veneration, after which the Sacred Ministers and the laity come forward to kiss the Cross or show some other act of veneration. Finally the Deacon brings to the altar Eucharist consecrated at the Mass on Thursday and all receive the Eucharist. (For Traditionalist purists who insist on celebrating the Rites as they were done before 1955, only the priest receives Holy Communion.) There is a prayer after communion and a prayer over the people, but no blessing or dismissal. It is a very elegant ritual, noble in its simplicity and notable in its starkness. It reflects the ancient Liturgy of the Church before the addition of penitential rites and Kyries and Glorias and intercessory litanies, and creeds, and other accretions. It is my favorite liturgy of the year for its simple beauty.
When Aegeria visited Jerusalem in the late fourth century, the rites were very simple. You may remember from my previous posting that on Thursday evening the Bishop and faithful had set out on an all-night vigil and procession from the Garden of Gethsemane commemorating the Lord’s agony in the Garden and his arrest. That procession would have arrived about dawn at Calvary where the account of Jesus before Pilate was read to the people and then the Bishop sent the people home for a brief rest. On their way home, the people would stop at the pillar of the scourging for prayer but then go home and rest for a few hours. About eight they would return to the chapel of Calvary where the Bishop would take the wood of the Cross from its silver reliquary along with the sign that Pilate had ordered to be hung over the cross and place them on a table. With the bishop holding the relic, the faithful would come forward to touch their forehead and then their eyes to the wood of the Cross, and finally to kiss it, but without touching it with their hands. The deacons would display various other relics in possession of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. At noon the Cross was brought down to the open courtyard before the Holy Sepulcher and with the bishop seated facing it, the faithful spent the next three hours listening to the psalms and scripture readings from both the Old and New Testaments that mention of the suffering of Christ. The Evangelists’ accounts of Christ’s suffering and death are read last. This continued from noon until three in the afternoon. Afterwards the people are dismissed but many would remain to pray until all gather again at the Tomb in the evening for a reading of the account of Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the Body and then burying it in his tomb. While the bishop encouraged people then to go home and rest, many—and especially younger people—remain at the tomb praying psalms and listening to the scriptures. So we have here the Passion and the Veneration of the Cross. There was no communion service on this day in the Jerusalem Church—that was a later innovation in the Roman Rite, probably dating to the time of Saint Gregory the Great c. 600. The style of the prayers—the Deacon’s call and the Presider’s collect or prayer—also reflects Roman usage and probably also comes from this time. They are good examples as the Western Liturgy is considered to have reached the apex of its development in the time of Pope Gregory and most of the reforms of Paul VI in the 1970 Missal were an attempt to adapt the Gregorian Ritual to the modern era. It seems that Pope Francis is anxious to restore that noble simplicity to the Liturgy which had in many placed begun to devolve anew into a baroque mishmash of superficial piety and clerical pomp. Go Francis!!!