The Good Friday Liturgy of Our Lord’s Passion begins at about three o’clock in the afternoon – because that’s the ninth hour of the day by ancient reckoning, the hour of Our Lord’s death (see Matthew 27, 46-50).
The Liturgy consists of three parts: readings & general intercessions, veneration of the Cross, and Holy Communion. It is marked by a stark simplicity. The altar is bare for most of the service, having been stripped of its coverings after the Mass of Maundy Thursday yesterday evening. Traditionally, the stripping was accompanied by recitation of Psalm 21 (Psalm 22 in many Bibles). This psalm includes a number of prophecies of Our Lord’s passion – among them how (as Saint John’s Gospel describes in 19,23-24) the soldiers would strip Our Lord of his garments and divide them out among themselves. This is prophesied in verse 19 of the psalm: “They divide my clothing among them. They cast lots for my robe”. The removal of the altar cloths in preparation for Good Friday is thus likened to Our Lord being stripped of his garments. Only for the Communion rite at the very end of the Good Friday Liturgy is the altar dressed.
Of the readings, the main one is St John’s account of Our Lord’s passion and death. This reading sets the tone for the whole Good Friday Liturgy: neither mournful nor sorrowful, it is a loving contemplation of Our Lord’s willing sacrifice of his life, the fount of our salvation. In the first reading we hear Isaiah’s foretelling of Our Lord, God’s appointed servant, who “by his sufferings justified many”. The second reading says that Our Lord accepted his sufferings in obedience to his divine Father’s will – and, in turn, Our Lord is now the “source of eternal life for all who obey him”. The general intercessions pray for the Church, particularly the Pope, clergy and people, for those preparing to be baptized, for Christian unity, for Jewish people, other non-Christians and those who do not believe in God, for those in public office and those in special need.
Next follows the Veneration of the Cross. The Cross is treated with special reverence on this day: it is accompanied by lighted candles – and we genuflect (go down on one knee) before it, as we would do at any other time only before the Blessed Sacrament itself. At first, we venerate the Cross together: three times the priest proclaims, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world”, and three times the people respond, “Come, let us adore”. Then we draw forward to honour the Cross of our salvation individually.
After receiving Holy Communion – the Sacrament of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, which he offered up for our redemption – the service ends in stark silence, without a blessing and without music.
Because of the lockdown, our churches have to remain closed, so in most places priests will be celebrating today’s Liturgy alone. Some priests have decided not to receive Holy Communion at the Liturgy this year, as an act of solidarity with the vast majority who are unable to receive Holy Communion at present because our churches are locked. This is an unprecedented situation, and none of us is sure what to do. But I’ve decided that I will receive Holy Communion at the Liturgy, holding all my parishioners in mind and drawing them spiritually into my Communion.
Here is the altar at Saint Mary’s stripped bare, ready for the Good Friday Liturgy.