The sounds of Good Friday

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It’s an image and moment of Good Friday I’ll never forget. More poignantly, it’s the sound that still resonates in my mind and heart more than a decade later.

I took an extended break — longer than I probably should have — that particular Good Friday from my job as a reporter at a daily newspaper in a small Indiana town. I drove to my parish — aptly named after St. Paul (something my mother noticed when I first moved there) — for the Good Friday liturgy. Good Friday is the only day of the year when the Church doesn’t celebrate Mass.

Part of the Church’s Good Friday liturgy is the Veneration of the Cross, when worshippers process to a cross at the front of the altar and quietly show some sort of respectful gesture. Some kneel, bow, or genuflect before it. Others may lightly kiss it or grasp part of it with a hand. Before that can happen, the cross is brought into the church.

On this particular Good Friday at this parish, the pastor, wearing red vestments, crouched before the cross and hammered it in place. The church was quiet. You could hear the sound of the priest striking the stakes with the hammer as he prepared the cross for his flock to venerate. Boom! Boom! The hammering pierced the quiet stillness of the sanctuary.

It was a scene of great humility and love. A grown man — wearing the color of blood — on the floor, hammering away at a symbol of one of the cruelest ways to die. A death that had to happen for all of us to live. Often I heard Fr. Richard say that familiar line: “There’s no Easter without Good Friday.” There’s no joy without experiencing first the pain. Christ had to die before rising.

Can you imagine what it must have been like to be at the foot of the cross that first Good Friday? Picture yourself there at the precise time St. Matthew recounts in his Gospel:

And about three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 27:46).

To this day, Good Friday remains my favorite day of the year to go to church. There’s something about that experience that’s more satisfying for my soul than the joyful carols of Midnight Mass on Christmas or hearing that great hymn “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” at Easter Sunday Mass.

The solemnness of Good Friday trumps it all. It’s the only day of the year when any Catholic church feels like it’s dead. Statues are covered in cloth. Holy water fonts are dry. The altar is bare. The tabernacle is empty. Someone is missing — someone we all take for granted because on any other day of the year we can walk in that sanctuary, genuflect, and acknowledge his actual physical presence. He’s there. But on Good Friday, he’s not. We feel empty. We, too, feel abandoned (see Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34, Psalm 22:2, and Isaiah 49:14).

There’s another sound of Good Friday that strikes a chord within me — the First Reading from the day’s liturgy (Isaiah 52:13—53:12). Close your eyes and imagine a lector reading it aloud in a silent church:

We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all. Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:6–7). 

Of all of the days in the Church’s liturgical year, none touches us as profoundly and as intimately as Good Friday. We silently process up to the cross. We stand alone along one of its beams. We, as unworthy as we are, offer a small gesture of gratitude to Jesus for dying for us.

As Cardinal Albino Luciani (who later became Pope John Paul I) said in his homily at the Good Friday liturgy in 1974:

During the reading of John’s deeply compassionate account, I have contemplated him together with you, full of sorrows, nailed in his hands and suspended; nailed in his feet and immobilized. There I was, facing him; I, who cannot bear obstacles; I, who shrug off every annoyance; I, who am drowning in ease. And yet I profess to be his disciple. (The Smiling Pope: The Life and Teaching of John Paul I by Raymond and Lauretta Seabeck, Our Sunday Visitor, 2004) 

This Good Friday, find a quiet place. Listen to the nails being hammered into the cross. Hear Our Lord’s last words as he hands over his spirit (see John 19:30). Then whisper “thank you” to him.

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