This post was first published on the original Mental multivitamin site ten years ago. It was republished each Easter through 2013.
“Happy Good Friday.”
For seven years, the man who initialed memos and requisitions “JOB” greeted me such on this day in the Triduum. The first time it staggered me. Happy Good Friday? Even in my child-like understanding of the Roman Catholic tradition, I couldn’t reconcile “Happy” with “Good Friday.”
“It’s the beginning of the greatest mystery of our faith,” he explained. “He dies, but we know how the story ends. He rises. It is a celebration, the greatest celebration in our tradition. Happy Good Friday.”
Happy Good Friday.
Once upon a time ago…
I was a lector in one of the city’s large Catholic parishes. I am a great reader-aloud, and the stories on the liturgical calendar are among the greatest ever told, aren’t they? Whether you believe or not, the stories inspire awe. And it is this reader’s opinion that they should not be thundered or mumbled or chanted. The stories simply must be told. Read. With expression, not affectation. Oh, and I loved sharing those stories as much as I love reading aloud to my own children.
It happened, then, that the Triduum schedule was drafted. The liturgical director “scripted” the Passion readings for the evening Good Friday mass, breaking them into parts that five lectors would share. I was one of the lectors asked to read.
When I took my place at the lectern for the third time that Good Friday evening, it was to read the passages concerning Christ’s crucifixion and death.
I can affect no false drama — I laugh when it’s funny, cry when it’s sad. There can be no pretense. Artificiality is the death of narrative. Heck, it’s the slow death of feeling, of everything, isn’t it?
Well, at the sentences in which Jesus acknowledges his mother, my throat closed with silent sobs, and at “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” I was reading through tears. Usually one to look my fellow parishioners in the eye while lectoring, I simply couldn’t see anymore. I chose to keep looking at the page. I can’t tell you what I thought or observed in the long moment that followed my last word and my move away from the lectern to take my place among the other lectors. I knew only that these were among the most profound passages in perhaps the greatest narrative ever written, and that they overcame me. (Later, I determined that, believer or no, if these words do not arouse in one overwhelming emotion, then one simply isn’t human.)
I stood with the other lectors and, as they say, collected myself. Writers know that these moments arrange themselves and occur far more quickly than we can possibly describe. As regular awareness returned to me, though, I realized that silence was an immense roar in my ears. That “what comes next” had not begun, seemed unlikely to begin. That the people crowded into that large, darkened church, the priests on the altar, the Eucharistic ministers behind me… we were, all of us, spellbound.
Of course, at some point, the liturgy did continue, in its power and the promise of hope and renewal.
But, for a few moments, we were, that Good Friday night, aware of terrible sorrow, the ineffable sadness that precedes a renewal or realization of a hopeful promise.
What wise man said that we must look at Christ and not Christians because Christians disappoint but Jesus himself never does? If we were spellbound, then the spell did not last nearly long enough. Many parishioners felt compelled to talk with me afterward, about how this was the first time they had actually heard the words, felt them, been moved by them. A hundred, two hundred, and more thank-yous and hugs and tears. My legendary personal space issues had been lifted from me for this one evening, and I began to understand the meaning of “a community of faith.”
On the Monday after Easter, however, I learned that a young new priest was disturbed by the “drama” of the Good Friday liturgical celebration and was vehemently recommending a more traditional approach — notably a “straight read-through” delivered by priests or deacons, not members of the lay ministry.
My faith is usually strong, but my religion? A fragile thing in a glass menagerie.
It shattered that day.
Christ is in my heart, I think, in the hearts of anyone who can even begin to sense the enormity of his narrative. And today, he acknowledges his mother, giving her to his trusted friend. And today, he dies. Again. Because it is only in the repetition of the narrative that we humans get it. He will die every year. And he will be born every year.
It’s a story that perhaps mothers see most clearly.
And it makes us weep.
And that’s not drama, you foolish priest.
It’s life. And, perhaps, the promise of something beyond it.
Happy Good Friday.