Friday, March 26, 2010


Good Friday is arguably the most dramatic of the days of the Holy Triduum, the “3-day Day” (the liturgical commemoration and celebration of the Lord’s Passover from the Upper Room, through Gethsemane, arrest and trial, to Golgotha and burial, and finally to triumphant Resurrection). The one day in the liturgical year when the celebration of the Eucharist is forbidden EVERYWHERE, it involves stark silence, prostrations, powerful readings of Scripture, intercessions for all the world: and veneration of the Cross. Why do we do this?

The answer begins with the diary of a pilgrim of the late 4th century to Jerusalem, Egeria, a nun who traveled to the Holy Land from Gaul (or perhaps Spain?) and who wrote about everything she saw and experienced. Let’s remember that as she was traveling and writing, what we nowadays call the “Nicene Creed” was only just formulated; great saints like Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, and Cyril of Jerusalem were still alive, and Christianity (legalized only 65 years earlier) was just being made the State Religion of the Empire.

Egeria was in Jerusalem for Good Friday (or Friday in Great Week, as she calls it). On that day the relic of the True Cross on which our Lord was crucified was brought out for veneration. The antiphon that developed for chanting tells the story: Ecce lignum Crucis, in quo salus mundi pependitBehold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. All came forward, not daring to touch but only to kiss the sacred relic.

Pieces of the True Cross (known in Spanish as Vera Cruz) were sent to Constantinople and Rome, with the major portion remaining in Jerusalem. From these came the relics other churches soon craved and (rightly or wrongly)claimed to have. The trouble with relics in the days before things like DNA testing is that they couldn’t easily (or at all) be verified.

[footnote: for a pointed commentary on the practice of fake relics, you may check Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, both in the description of the Pardoner in the “General Prologue”, and the conclusion to the “Pardoner’s Tale,” and a biting comment by Pope John XXIII.]

Pilgrims could not get to the Holy Land after a while, once the Muslims conquered that territory. And the memory of venerating the Cross of Christ (along with the memory of literally following His path along the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha) was one that longed to be satisfied in local churches, at least symbolically. And so was born the “representational” veneration of the True Cross (and the practice of the “Stations of the Cross”) in individual parish churches. This is the origin of the way we honor the crucified (and risen) Savior today. It is not Jesus that we honor in this devotion, but the wood of the Cross, because it was this on which He hung—because the Church in Jerusalem believed they had the Cross, but they knew they could never “have” the Savior.

Our practice is like that of a father on a business trip kissing a picture of his wife and children before going to bed. Is it “idolatry”? Scarcely, so long as our hearts and minds are on the Lord. On Good Friday, whether at Stations of the Cross or the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion, where will your heart and mind be?


  1. You have re-arranged my priorities. As a life-long Roman Catholic, I have been a part of the Good Friday procession to kiss the Cross on which Our Savior was placed. I felt I was venerating Him, not the Cross.
    Perhaps I was inadvertently doing both. I am always amazed at the
    "unveiling" of information in these blogs; for instance, the nun, Egeria, and her part in the following of the 'Way of the Cross'. I have just added a copy of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' to my library through Amazon -- I find being an amateur sleuth of "Newer Pathways" very fulfilling.

  2. "To grow is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often."

    --John Henry Cardinal Newman

  3. Father D ~ Why did we use the plain cross tonight and not the crucifix like last year?