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GREAT AND HOLY FRIDAY

GREAT AND HOLY FRIDAY

The services of Passion Week reach their climax on Holy Friday, when the faithful are called to assemble at three points. The first time calls us to the Morning Service, with its twelve Passion Gospels, often held on Holy Thursday evening, since at 1:00 AM -- the time prescribed by the Typikon -- we will probably still be ‘dragged down by sleep'. We come together a second time at midmorning to read the Royal Hours, so called because (as at Nativity and Theophany) the Roman Basileus would serve as psalmreader, or at least be present. This practice was often observed by orthodox monarchs in other countries long after the fall of the Roman Empire in 1453.

Now there is no king but One Whose ‘reign is not of this world' (JN 18:33-38). So, at the ‘third hour', about nine in the morning, at the same time (MK 15:25) as Jesus was lifted up on the cross, we begin to read the Royal Hours with a very different royalty in mind as we contemplate the King of Glory nailed to the tree. On this most somber day of the liturgical year, the holy Church directs our attention to the awful and awesome sufferings which the immortal Son of God endured for our sake.

‘The One Who is without passions now comes to His voluntary passion' (Triodion). ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to Myself' (JN 12:32). ‘Lifting up' was a Roman euphemism for crucifixion, a hideous form of torture to death, and humiliation even after death, from which they spared their own citizens, but savagely inflicted on their unruly slaves and rebellious subject peoples.

This is why (according to ancient tradition) St Peter was crucified, but St Paul beheaded (ACTS 22:22-29). ‘Today, the One Who suspended the heavens is suspended between Heaven and Earth' (Triodion). What can we say as we behold this incredible sight? The Son of God is hanged, naked and tortured on a shameful gibbet; He endures it, although the very elements protest (MT 27:45, 51-52; MK 15:33; LK 23:44-45).

In His awesome suffering, He speaks but a very few words. He has already said everything He had to say; now He fulfills the destiny He accepted when He accepted a human body and soul for our sake (JN 18:37).When Jesus says ‘It is finished.' (JN 19:30), He means that the redemption of the human race has been accomplished, and that His work is over. His obedience, even to the point of death on the cross (PHLP 2:7-8), annulled the effects of Adam's -- and our own -- disobedience, if only we will claim that annulment.

No human being could perfectly fulfill the laws of the Old Covenant, which the rabbis say were imposed on Israel as a result of their sin of idolatry at Sinai (EX 32), and which were regarded as a curse from which Christ ransomed us (GAL 3:13), since only H e, by His perfect obedience as the Son of God and Son of Man in one person, could observe the Old Law perfectly (MT 5:17).

The Old Law is finished, and we are now free to become by grace what Christ is by nature: by His death and resurrection, the only Son of God made it possible for us to become adopted children of God, and His royal heirs along with Christ (ROM 1:17). Naturally, this is cause for our great joy.

But, at the same time, we must also accuse ourselves of the sins which made it necessary for so great a Savior to save us, and we would be much worse off for ignoring and despising the Savior than if He had never come at all (HEB 2:1-3).

Oh, how Christ loves us! What can we do to return such great love? He tells us: ‘If you love Me, you will obey My commandments' (JN 14:15). The last service on Holy Friday is actually the first service of Holy Saturday. This is the Evening Service, sometimes called the ‘Un-nailing' or ‘The Descent from the Cross', not only because of the late afternoon time of this service in our commemoration of the Lord's death and burial, but also because, in many places, there is a liturgical reenactment of the event: the image of the dead Christ is removed from the cross, and the shroud depicting His body in repose is solemnly brought out for veneration and placed in the ‘tomb' at the center of the nave. As affecting as these rites are, we would do well to note that they are of relatively recent origin, as is the outdoor procession with the shroud, certainly not more than two centuries or so in general usage.

This is important as a brake on our native conservatism in liturgical practice: what we seek to conserve may not be all that old -- it's just that we're used to it, and we might want to consider restoring ancient practices or developing new ones even now.

There is an ancient tradition describing St James, the Brother of God, serving the Divine Liturgy on a table covered with the original shroud of Christ, and this may be the origin of the image usually found on the _antimension_, not to mention the _epitaphion_ itself, and possibly even the ‘Image Not Made by Hands'; the ‘Holy Shroud' still preserved at Torino presents a prototype of all of these: the full-length figure of a crucified man reclining in death, hands crossed over the abdomen.

Notice that the right hand is placed over the left, the right hand which we venerate with our kisses.

This is just the opposite of how we place our hands on our breasts as we approach the Holy Cup, when we place the right hand over the heart and the left hand over the right.

There is a very loud silence, a palpable emptiness, which palls the holy Church on the evening of Holy Friday. As we struggle to comprehend the horror of the suffering and death of the very Son of God, each of us stands ashamed and wonders: Since He was crucified for me, since my sins went far beyond my poor ability to atone for them, it is I who crucified Christ.

More than Judas, more than the Jews, more than the Romans, I crucified Christ. How can I escape the wrath of God for putting His Son to death like this? How can creation itself endure it? Even ‘the sun goes dark, unable to bear the sight of God outraged' (Triodion). But it is the very death of Christ which ‘tramples Death', since He rises from the dead and liberates us from death as well, allowing us to escape the ultimate punishment we deserve for our sins.

This is why we describe God's mercy as ‘great'; this is the very definition of ‘grace'. This is the divine forgiveness and reconciliation with God for which we hope and pray, and which is ours for the asking if only we will return His love by accepting the salvation He offers us uniquely through His Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ. ‘We adore Your passion, O Christ! Also show us Your holy resurrection!' (Triodion).

 

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