O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray thee to set thy Passion, Cross, and Death between thy judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Vouchsafe to grant mercy and grace to the living, rest to the dead, to thy holy Church peace and concord, and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; who with the Father and the Holy Ghost livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.
In the first centuries of the Church, the Easter Vigil was preceded by a long prayer vigil that began with the end of the Good Friday liturgies. There was no sense that these were disconnected from one another – one segment of the Holy Week liturgy flowed into another, with long periods of quieter prayer and fasting in between them. This reflects the fact that it is impossible, for Christians, to mark the death of Jesus without marking his Rising or to recall his Rising for us without encountering the brutal realities of the Crucifixion.
The pilgrim nun, Egeria, gives us the first accounts of the Good Friday observances in Jerusalem in around 381-384 A.D. From eight in the morning that day to noon, the True Cross, said to be found by Helen (the mother of Emperor Constantine), was laid on a table in the courtyard of the Martyrium (a church built by Helen). There the faithful came to venerate the Cross (which was guarded by deacons at either side to prevent the faithful from attempting to take a bite out of it so as to take home a relic). They would then head into the church for a service and the vigil would begin until the Great Vigil of Easter commenced.
The service here at St. Philip’s begins in the same stark almost terse way as the earliest liturgies of which we have record. The ministers enter in silence and kneel or prostrate themselves on the floor. The beginning is followed by the Passion, Solemn Collects, Veneration of the Cross, and Communion from the reserve Sacrament (left over from Maundy Thursday in the Chapel during the vigil maintained until noon on Friday).
The Passion Gospel is from St. John’s Gospel and is sung by three voices. Traditionally these were deacons who would sing the Gospel to the melody of an ancient chant. The chant remains, but we have chosen cantors and the Celebrant to sing this haunting version of the Gospel.
From the beginning of the liturgy, with its silent entrance, to the Procession of the Cross, to the Veneration and Communion from the reserve – we attempt to hold to those ancient customs which mark the earliest centuries of the life of the Church. For example, the form of Solemn Collects we use is held to be the one generally used from the third or fourth centuries in Rome. These Solemn Collects are extensive, with a call to pray for particular intentions and then a collect said by the Celebrant. Within Anglicanism, our Book of Common Prayer is the first to restore the Solemn Collects as part of the compilers’ efforts to restore ancient customs and patterns of worship.
The Prayer Book also recovers traditional texts read or sung as a cross was processed in to the center of the church for the Venerations and when the Sacrament was processed back into the church from a chapel for the faithful to receive. In one of the few places where a hymn is directed specifically, it is here specified that a hymn is to be sung after the anthems are sung or read. Specifically commended is the sixth century hymn, “Sing my tongue the glorious battle.”
We will process the Cross in after a hymn, and we will make three stops, at each stop offering a verse which the Celebrant will say and to which the congregation will respond. These same spots in procession where we are called to “Behold the Wood of the Cross” will be the spots from which we will proclaim “The Light of Christ” on the following evening at the Great Vigil. Again – the liturgies of Holy Week are replete with reminders of the unity of the whole of the Passion with the triumph of the Resurrection.
The venerations themselves can take many forms – though I encourage all to make some sort of physical encounter with the Cross part of their devotions. Christianity is a religion of real things – real people, real Bread and Wine, real Bodies and real Blood – and real wood. We are not commemorating the disembodied spiritual experience of a ghostly being but the upending reality of hard wood and hard truth. The Cross is a visual focus of our prayer as it enters the space, and our simple acts of devotion – touching, kissing, kneeling, or bowing – draw us to accept and claim a connection with Our Lord in his suffering and to accept all that his Death accomplishes.
Early books of worship (called sacramentaries) indicate that the reserve Sacrament is to return to the Altar in a simple manner – far simpler than the elaborate ritual which often accompanied its move to Chapels or other places of vigil prayer on Maundy Thursday. It is a powerful reminder that the same Lord who gave us Himself for Food on Maundy Thursday (which we mark with great joy) also feeds us in times of sorrow when we may feel abandoned or have little awareness of that Real and True Presence that ever sustains us through the changes and chances of life. The Altar has been bare to this point, except for the empty Tabernacle.
This simple form of administering Communion – with little fanfare and preceded simply by the Lord’s Prayer and Confession – is especially poignant when we contrast it with our normal patterns, which include offertory processions, sometimes censing, hymns, and other more festal preparations. This simple pattern of Confession, Lord’s Prayer, and Communion is a medieval one. It is done with the utmost simplicity.
The very earliest sources provided no dismissal or closing prayer on Good Friday – in recognition that modern worshipers like some sort of closure and will often head home and resume their daily routines, there is a closing prayer in the Prayer Book. This prayer is a version of one frequently found in medieval devotional books.
While many people may be present for the entire length of the Good Friday liturgy, others are not able to stay for its entirety; feel free to come and leave as is necessary. —Fr. Robert