Good Friday as Word, Symbol and Sacrament

Good Friday as Word, Symbol and Sacrament

The great Triduum is considered to be one great liturgy lasting three days. During this time we are invited to engage in intense communion with Jesus Christ. We walk with Christ on his journey from Table and Eucharist to Trial and Execution to Tomb and Exaltation.

On the second day, we focus on the physical punishment that Jesus endured for our salvation. We recognize how much God loved us that he sent his only Son to be our savior. We see how God became human so that we could learn to become like God. We are given the model of complete obedience which cancelled out the disobedience of our first parents—Adam and Eve. We reflect on the fact that this tragedy brought about our triumph and glory.

In the liturgy of Good Friday, there are three moments for our attention and reflection. The first is the WORD; the second is SYMBOL and the third is SACRAMENT. In these three expressions of God’s love, we deepen our connection to the crucified Lord. We are able to more closely identify with Jesus in order that we can become better Christians.

The Hebrew term for word is dabar. The Greek term is logos. In the ancient world, the word was more than just a marker for something. When you gave your word, it meant something special. When the word was spoken, something happened. When God spoke the word, power issued forth.

As we recall, it was God’s word that began the great act of creation. When Moses pronounced God’s name, miracles and wonders happened among the Israelites. In John’s Gospel we read, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” And a word from the lips of Jesus meant healing, forgiveness and restoration to new life.

The word that we hear in today’s liturgy is a word that calls us to remember. In Greek, the word is anamnesis, which basically means “making present the past to remember our future.”  Making present the past to remember our future.  We call to mind the events of the past and allow them to come alive here and now in order to remember what our destiny is. Remembering where we’ve been helps us to focus on where we are going.

Today’s readings invite us to recall that Jesus suffered for our sake in order that we might have life. Today people suffer in many ways. As St. Paul notes, “I make up in my own body what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” When we suffer humiliation, sickness, infirmity, rumors, torture and even death, we are invited to join our suffering to the suffering of Christ on the cross. In this way, our suffering becomes an avenue to our salvation. We become ambassadors of Christ, God as it were appealing through us. We are able to become instruments of God’s mercy, forgiveness and love.

In the fourth Servant Song of Isaiah which we hear today, the Servant is closely identified with Jesus. Through his chastisements we have been made whole. In his sufferings, we have the hope of eternal life.

The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was like us in every way save sin. He was subject to weakness, temptation and death but because of his perfect obedience, he won for us eternal salvation.

The Passion account from the Fourth Gospel calls us to reflect upon who we are imitating. The various characters of the crucifixion narrative mirror our attitudes and actions. While all of us would like to think we are Jesus—the innocent suffering servant—the fact is we’re most often like the others in the story:

Some of us are like Judas—betraying our friends. Others may act like Simon Peter, denying those we love. Some of us are like the soldiers who merely do our jobs without regard for the feelings of others. Others may act like Annas or Caiaphas who presume to know it all. Some of us are like Pilate who was most concerned about his political career. Others of us may be like the faithful women who silently stand and pray. Others may be the beloved disciple who steps in as a substitute caretaker. Some of us may be like Joseph of Arimathea who are present at the end to pick up the pieces and clean up.

However, who we are now is not whom we should aspire to be. The Passion account challenges us to try to imitate Jesus in all our relationships. The reading from Isaiah reminds us to focus on developing the virtues of humility, meekness, forgiveness, mercy, and love.

The word spoken on Good Friday leads us to reflect on the symbols inherent in today’s liturgy. The primary symbol being the wood of the cross.

We venerate the Cross because this is the sign and symbol of our salvation. It was through the cross that life came into the world. The symbol of death and man’s cruel inhumanity has become a symbol of eternal life because of Jesus who died for our sake. Like the seraph serpent that Moses mounted on a pole to heal the Israelites bitten by the snakes in the desert, Jesus was lift up on the cross to heal, to forgive and to bring new life.

Other symbols abound on this day as well. The Church is bare and stark, devoid of fabric, flowers and candles. Music is somber. The silence…..The Stations of the Cross invite us to walk the road to Calvary with our Lord and be His witnesses on the via dolorosa.

As we contemplate the symbol of the cross, we are reminded of how some people seek to misuse or destroy symbols of people’s faith. The Ku Klux Klan burned crosses to scare people into silence. The pastor in Florida burned the Koran to push an agenda. The Nazis smashed symbols of Judaism on Krystalnacht. The Iranian hostage takers burned the American flag and the list goes on. Despite these violent attacks on symbols, the faith of the people remains unshaken.

When military personnel are trained for potential capture and interrogation, they go through a process known as SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). Part of this training is to attempt to break the soldier down so that he/she comes to despise the flag and ultimately the United States so that he/she will reveal secrets and turn traitor. After undergoing this intense training, those who pass salute the flag as their first official duty as graduates of the program. This program prepares the soldier to undergo captivity. They learn that even if the flag is destroyed in front of them, that the values of life, liberty and freedom as American citizens can never be taken from them.

While the cross is precious to us, while our scripture is holy, while our church buildings are sacred, they are but symbols of the reality to which they point—Jesus Christ. So while someone may burn our cross, destroy our places of worship or try to eliminate the words of scripture, the reality still lives in our heart. Just ask any POW who has returned what kept him/her alive and they will tell you it was their faith in God.

The cross that we venerate today is a reminder of the sufferings of Jesus. The precious wood upon which hung our savior is the wood of our salvation and ultimate glory. The wood that we reverence leads us to worship the One who died upon it.

The third element of today’s liturgy is the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood—the Eucharist. Good Friday is the only day on which Mass may not be celebrated. In some sense, we “fast” from Mass. Instead we partake of the Eucharist which was consecrated at Mass last night. The Church calls today’s celebration the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified. The word sacrament comes from the Latin sacramentum which is a translation of the Greek word mysterion.  A sacrament then is a great mystery or to use a more classic definition: a visible sign instituted by Christ to give grace. In other words, a sacrament is a sacred action rooted in the salvific work of Christ while he was present here on earth by which we encounter God’s invisible grace bringing about our sanctification.

In this liturgy of the pre-sanctified, we partake of the Eucharist which is our pledge and promise of salvation. The Eucharist calls us to action. We are made one with God by our sharing in this meal.

On this day, our focus is on God’s great gift—his son Jesus who suffered, died and rose from the dead so that we might have life to the fullest. The Eucharist leads us into service and in turn our service of others should lead us back to the Eucharist.

The sacrament that we celebrate becomes an encounter with the divine. Heaven touches earth at the moment of consecration. The bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. When we partake of the Eucharist, Christ becomes one with us and we become one with Christ. But the sacrament also means that we need to go forth and live what we have received. We are called to proclaim the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord by the way in which we live our lives.

This Good Friday is an opportunity to put into action that which we believe and receive. As people of faith, today’s liturgy with its focus on word, symbol and sacrament is an opportunity for deepening our relationship with Jesus through our encounter with him in scripture, the visible signs and by partaking of his Eucharistic food.

May this Good Friday, truly be good as we grow in God’s grace and become the visible signs of Christ’s action in our world.

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Written by
Msgr John Kasza