The Good Friday Veneration of the Cross
(from The Liturgical Year by Gueranger)
After that portion of the Good Friday Liturgy known as The Solemn Orations, in which the charity and zeal of the Church have embraced the whole universe of men, invoking upon them the merciful effusion of the Precious Blood, the Church turns next to her faithful children. Filled with holy indignation at the humiliations heaped upon her Jesus, she invites us to a solemn act of reparation: it is to consist in venerating that Cross which our Divine Lord has borne to the summit of Calvary, and to which He is to be fastened with nails. The Cross is a stumbling-block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23); but to us Christians it is the trophy of Jesus' victory, and the instrument of the world's redemption. It is worthy of our deepest veneration, because of the honor conferred upon it by the Son of God: He consecrated it by His own Blood, He worked our salvation by its means. No time could be more appropriate than this for honoring it with the humble tribute of our veneration.
The holy ceremony of venerating the cross on Good Friday was first instituted in Jerusalem, in the 4th century. Owing to the pious zeal of the Empress St. Helena, the True Cross had then recently been discovered, to the immense joy of the whole Church. The faithful, as might be expected, were desirous of seeing this precious relic, and accordingly it was exposed every Good Friday. This brought a very great number of pilgrims to Jerusalem; and yet how few, comparatively, could hope to have the happiness of such a visit, or witness the magnificent ceremony! An imitation of what was done on this day at Jerusalem was a natural result of these pious desires. It was about the 7th century, that the practice of publicly venerating the cross on Good Friday was introduced into other churches. True, it was but an image of the True Cross that these other churches could show to the people; but as the respect that is paid to the true Cross refers to Christ Himself, the faithful could offer Him a like homage of adoration, even though not having present before their eyes the sacred wood which had been consecrated by the Blood of Jesus. Such was the origin of the imposing ceremony at which holy Church now invites us to assist.
The celebrant removes the cope, in order that the reparation, which he is to be the first to offer to our outraged Jesus, may be made with all possible humility. He then stands near the Epistle side of the altar, and turns towards the people. The deacon gives the cross to the celebrant, who then unveils the upper part only. He raises it a little, and sings these (continued on back) words: Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. All genuflect and adore the cross, while the choir sings: Come, let us adore.
This first exposition, which is made at the side of the altar, and in a low tone of voice, represents the first preaching of the cross, that, namely, which the Apostles made, when, for fear of the Jews, they dared not to speak of the great mystery except to a few faithful disciples of Jesus. For the same reason, the priest but slightly elevates the cross. The homage here paid to it is intended as a reparation for the insults and injuries offered to our Redeemer in the house of Caiphas.
The celebrant then comes nearer to the middle of the altar. He unveils the right arm of the cross, and holds up the holy sign of our redemption higher than the first time. He then sings the Ecce lignum on a higher note. All genuflect and adore while the choir responds as before.
This second elevation of the holy cross signifies the Apostles' extending their preaching of the mystery of our redemption to the Jews, after the descent of the Holy Ghost; by which preaching they made many thousand converts, and planted the Church in the very midst of the Synagogue. It is intended as a reparation to our Savior, for the treatment He received in the court of Pilate.
The priest then advances to the middle of the altar, and, with his face still turned towards the people, he removes the veil entirely from the cross. He elevates it more than he did the two preceding times, and triumphantly sings on a still higher note the Ecce lignum. The people fall down upon their knees, and the choir sings again: Come, let us adore.
This third and unreserved manifestation represents the mystery of the cross being preached to the whole earth, when the apostles, after being rejected by the majority of the Jewish people, turned towards the Gentiles, and preached Jesus crucified even far beyond the limits of the Roman Empire. It is intended as a reparation to our Lord for the outrages offered to Him on Calvary.
There is also another teaching embodied in this ceremony of holy Church. By this gradual unveiling of the cross, she would express to us the contrast of the Jewish and Christian view. The one finds nothing in Christ crucified but shame and ignominy; the other discovers in Him the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24). Honor, then, and veneration be to His cross, now that the veil is removed by our faith! Unveiled let it be upon our altar, for He that died upon it is soon to triumph by a glorious Resurrection! Yes, let every crucifix in our churches be unveiled, and every altar beam once more with the vision of the glorious standard!
But the Church is not satisfied with showing her children the cross that has saved them; she would have them approach, and kiss it. The celebrant leads the way. He has already taken off his cope; he now takes off his shoes also, and then advances towards the place where he has put the crucifix. He makes three genuflections at intervals, and finally kisses the cross. The clergy follow him, and then the people.
The chants which are used during this ceremony are exceedingly beautiful. First of all, there are the Improperia, that is, the reproaches made by our Savior to the Jews. Each of the first three stanzas of this plaintive hymn is followed by the Trisagion, or prayer to the thrice-holy God, Who, as Man, suffers death for us. Oh! let us fervently proclaim Him to be the Holy, the Immortal! This form of prayer was used at Constantinople, as far back as the 5th century. The Roman Church adopted it, retaining even the original Greek words, to which, however, she adds a Latin translation. The rest of this beautiful chant contains the comparison made by our Lord between the favors He has bestowed upon the Jewish people, and the injuries He has received from them in return:
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