Good Friday’s liturgy of the Lord’s Passion is the church’s most unaltered ritual. Being celebrated only once a year has left it virtually unchanged from the first centuries of the church’s life. Indeed the rather cumbersome petitionary prayers—Let us pray. Let us kneel. Let us stand.—are the original form of what we now call the “Prayers of the Faithful.”
Good Friday is the only day of the year that we do not celebrate the Eucharist, though parish phones ring all day long with the question, “What time is Mass?” This is also the only liturgy of year that makes no mention of Christ’s life, his teaching or his resurrection. This day we come to a full, silent stop at the foot of the cross.
Yet we will receive the Eucharist today, which was consecrated on Holy Thursday. The church has a single focus today—the death of Christ—but her Christ still lives, still suffers in her members and still feeds her with his flesh. We pause in time. Christ does not. Christ carries all of time within himself.
In the fifth century Pope St. Leo the Great used a phrase that explains the very essence of every liturgy: Quod Redemptoris nostri conspicuum fuit in sacramenta transivit. “What was made manifest in our redeemer has passed over into his mysteries.” Put another way, we do not come to liturgy in order to learn what Christ did or to recall what he accomplished. We come to liturgy to live with Christ as he continues to do these things that he first began to do more than two millennia ago. Today, Christ dies for us. Today, we are with him. Today, we die with him.
In his Eucharistic hymn “Verbum supernum,” St. Thomas Aquinas captures something of Christ’s liturgical indivisibility. He begins by noting that even when he walked among us, Christ was never divided from his Father.
The heavenly Word proceeding forth,
Yet leaving not his Father’s side,
And going to His work on Earth,
Has reached at length life’s eventide.
And the night before he dies, when it appears that he must leave us, Christ instead creates a way to remain with us. Thomas repeatedly uses the Latin verb dare and tradere (giving and handing over) to emphasize Christ’s gift of self.
By false disciple to be given
To foemen for His Blood athirst,
Himself, the living Bread from heaven,
He gave to His disciples first.
To them He gave, in twofold kind,
His very Flesh, His very Blood:
Of twofold substance man is made
And He of man would be the Food.
Thomas’s hymn tautly ties together every moment of Christ’s life: who he has been, who he is and who he will be.
By birth our fellowman was He,
Our Food while seated at the board;
He died, our ransomer to be;
He ever reigns, our great reward.
Finally, as though we stood at the foot of the cross with him, receiving his flowing blood in a chalice—as the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John do in so many medieval depictions of the crucifixion—St. Thomas Aquinas carries us from Christ’s Calvary, passing through our own deeply personal passions to a far and final point in the cosmos. And there he does not speak of a sacred object; he addresses a sacred Thou.
O saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to all below:
Our foes press on from every side;
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.
To Thy great Name be endless praise,
Immortal Godhead, One in Three!
O grant us endless length of days
In our true native land with Thee.
[Translated by Neale, Caswall, et al.]