QUESTION: What exactly does the Catholic Church celebrate on Good Friday?
ANSWER: This question can be understood in two ways. The first is about the actual liturgical activity that takes place on Good Friday.
Ancient Christians observed this day as a response to the events of Christ’s passion and death, that is, in mourning and grief. In that context, there was no celebration of the Eucharist on this day of mourning. Most sources also note that there is no mention of the distribution of Communion in the ritual for Good Friday (in the Roman Rite) before the eighth century.
This ancient custom is also rooted in an appreciation that the church “liturgy” encompasses more than Mass. The liturgy is essentially the gathering of the assembly for common prayer. For this reason, the ancient church gathered in sorrow to meditate on the suffering of Jesus. It made use of the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the church. The Roman liturgy for that day also made use of prayers and chants from the life of the church when its official prayer was in Greek.
While the Eucharist is still not celebrated on Good Friday, recent changes in the liturgy for Good Friday have enabled us to receive the Eucharist consecrated the previous evening (at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper).
Therefore, on Good Friday the church gathers for a liturgy that is beautiful in its simplicity and profound in its content. It begins with the symbolic prostration of the ministers indicating the profound awe felt by the church on this day. The readings from Scripture follow and enable us to appreciate the passion and death of Christ in the context of the message of the prophets. Following the Scripture, there is the public veneration of the cross, followed by the distribution of the Eucharist and a very simple closing prayer and silent recessional.
The second way of understanding the question above involves a deeper theological meaning for this day and its liturgy. The official liturgical books use the formal title of “Friday of the Passion and Death of the Lord.”
The Catholic Church understands the power of the Lord’s passion and death in our devotional and personal life. But the question has been raised over the centuries as to the necessity for such a painful death.
It is important to appreciate that Jesus, although divine, was also truly human (he had both a human and divine nature). It has always been taught that unless he tasted death he could not fully appreciate the reality of our own human deaths.
But that raises the point of what action on Calvary brought about our salvation. Three men died there, but salvation came only through one of them. There must be something more to it than suffering and death.
That is why ancient Christian authors draw us to the willing obedience of Jesus. He did the Father’s will and became flesh, suffered and died so that we would live. That willingness is at the heart of what was salvific for us. Good Friday recalls the willingness of the Son of God to die for others.
Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.