Answer Me!

good friday

My people, what have I done to you?
Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!
Because I led you out of the land of Egypt,
You have prepared a Cross for your Savior. 
—From the Roman Missal, Good Friday Reproaches

Before I became a priest, or even entered seminary, the Good Friday liturgy was always one of my favorites. After my first experience of the Good Friday service, I rarely missed it. Even in those times when I wasn’t exactly practicing my faith very well, Good Friday seemed to always call me back.

Liturgy is anamnesis, that is, a “holy remembering”. In liturgy we call to mind God’s saving actions. But this is more than mere recollection, more than reminiscence. For liturgy, by the grace and power of Christ, makes God’s saving action present to us, or rather, makes us present to His saving acts. St. Leo the Great (d. 461 A.D.) wrote that “what was visible in the Lord has passed over into the mysteries”, that is, into the liturgy. So when we celebrate the Church’s liturgy, we encounter Christ, and the working of his grace. And we do so not as passive spectators: in the liturgy the Church makes Christ’s work her own, as an active recipient. As the liturgical scholar Odo Casel (1886 – 1948) explained, in the liturgy we have a “mystical” sharing in the life of Christ. The “mystical” is where the symbolic and the real meet: the real in the suffering and sacrifice of Christ, the symbolic in the words and actions of the liturgy. Because Christ has endued the liturgy with himself and his power (has “passed over” into it), the symbolic now has real power, the power and presence of Christ himself, and so through the symbolic, we have true communion with the real.

True communion! A true sharing, a true participation. Perhaps that explains why the Good Friday liturgy kept calling me back. Perhaps that is the reason that I cannot participate in that liturgy unmoved. We need true communion with the sacrifice of Christ, we need true participation in His work on the Cross, and I, as the chief sinner of my experience, know that I need it.

The Good Friday liturgy has at its center the Showing and Adoration of the Cross. It begins with the priest or deacon entering the church carrying a veiled cross, holding up the cross three times, unveiling it a little more each time, until, the third time, it is unveiled completely. At each display, he sings, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” The people respond, “Come, let us adore.” Each successive unveiling represents the progressive revelation of the mystery of the Cross, and the preaching of the Cross: first to the disciples, then to the Jews, and finally, to the whole world. The Cross and its power have been manifested to the whole world, so as to save the whole world – that is why the Church prays for people of every nation, race, and degree, for believers and non-believers, in the solemn Good Friday intercessions which precede the Showing of the Cross. Some have not yet heard of Christ, and some, sadly, still reject Him. But it is the Church’s fervent desire, as of her Lord’s, that the whole world be saved through the wood of the Cross.

It is not enough that we see the Cross by which we are saved. No, the Church invites us to approach and adore it. Those words, “come, let us adore,” are not figurative. We are asked to come forward and show our love of Christ through love of the Cross. As He embraced the Cross, we who belong to Him and are members of Him come forward to embrace it as well. In our symbolic embrace of the Cross, we have true communion with His real embrace of it.

During our time of adoration, the liturgy makes the reality of who we are, and what we are doing, all the more vividly apparent. For during this time, the Improperia, or Reproaches, are sung. They recall the events of salvation history, and challenge God’s people with their infidelity and betrayal. They do so with beautiful poetic language, showing how we have turned each of God’s saving acts into a cause of His suffering, beginning with the Exodus:

Because I led you out of the land of Egypt,
You have prepared a Cross for your Savior.

They continue with the parting of the Red Sea:

I opened up the sea before you,
and you opened my side with a lance.

and God’s provision of water in the desert:

I gave you saving water from the rock to drink,
and for drink you gave me gall and vinegar.

And throughout, the refrain continues:

My people, what have I done to you?
Or how have I grieved you? Answer me!

These words are directed at us. Though none of us were there at the Red Sea, or at Calvary, nonetheless we are challenged: “What have I done to you, my people?” In the liturgy, we are made present to Calvary, and we must face reality: I have done this to Christ. Not someone else. Not “society”, or “structures of sin”, or anything else. I, by my selfishness, pride, lust, anger, laziness, and self-righteousness, have done this to Christ.

Answer me!

What answer is possible? What can we say, what excuse can we make, in the face of such innocence, confronted with the full burden of our sins?

Answer me!

What is the answer, when the ultimate Good confronts the totality of sin, and the grim power of death, with the inevitably violent result?

Answer me!

What answer can we give, but to come, lament and adore, that our sins have exacted from Christ such a terrible, wonderful price?

The liturgy gives us an answer, when we can muster no words that will give an adequate answer. That is the genius of the liturgy: for in it we are taken up into Christ, who Himself is the answer. We must approach the Cross and embrace it, so as to embrace His death. In embracing His death on the Cross we have a true share in it. In approaching the Cross we enter His death. And therein is the true answer: Christ’s death is the answer to death, for in Him we know that this death on the Cross is not an end, but a beginning.

© 2012  Rev. Robert J. Johansen This work is protected by copyright. The author reserves all rights to himself. This work may not be sold or republished in any newspaper, magazine, journal, or other commercial publication without the express written consent of the author. This work may not be excerpted or re-published in part without the express written consent of the author.

Fr. Robert Johansen

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Fr. Robert Johansen is a priest of the Diocese of Kalamazoo, Michigan. He earned an M.A. in Classics from Catholic University of America and completed studies for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology at the Liturgical Institute.

  • Patrick Kinsale

    Beautiful. I just read an article about how the Reproaches are officially discouraged in some dioceses. Shame. Thanks for this. Wish I heard them in church today.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tony-Esolen/1184164082 Tony Esolen

    One of the most powerful religious poems in English is George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice.”  Its structure is that of the Reproaches.  It is a stunning litany in tribute to God’s generosity and our ingratitude.  A sample stanza:

    O all ye who pass by, behold and see:Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree,The tree of life to all, but only me:
         Was ever grief like mine?

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