Good Friday

I learn every single time I attend a Catholic mass or veneration service. Last night I attended a veneration of the cross. Faithful lined up to go up to the front and kiss the cross after a long period of Latin singing while the cross above and statues of Mary and Michael the Archangel were veiled in purple. The mood was somber and reverent, despite the occasional children or babies crying. Each prayer, each statement was filled with meaning if only one would read the words. The sparkling emblems of the stations of the cross hung on the interior walls.
Catholic Liturgy has had the advantage of being old. Old things that stick around usually have a unique quality to them – they can feel foreign, but they have a universality and a depth that is undeniable. Sophistication of thought requires diversity of intellectual inputs across time; the brain is narrowed by not hearing words written thousands of years ago, or poems written in the 1300s, or war manuals written by successful generals in Asia hundreds of years ago.
My daughter (5) asked me after we left why people were kissing the cross. She thought that was yucky because it was made of wood and might have buggies on it. It’s funny that children’s observations can really make you cut to the heart of something. Why are people kissing the cross? Why do they take two and a half hours out of their Friday to kneel, stand, kneel, stand, sit, stand, kneel, and on and on?
Coming from a very nontraditional Protestant background, it is very strange to me. But the appeal of the Latin Mass is the same as the appeal of the veneration of the cross. I did not go myself to kiss the cross, because I found myself conflicted. I didn’t know that’s what the service entailed. There is something so foreign about the Latin Mass, so otherworldly, so authentically different from everyday life. But the same is true of the cross itself. It was something so absurd and so unexpected – that the Messiah himself would be brutally abused and mocked by the very people to whom he offered salvation. The scent of the incense during a Latin Mass, the beauty of the chanting, the density of meaning in the words of the liturgy that jump off the missal because of my ingrained knowledge of the scriptures; it is like returning home after a lifetime away. It is like silence after a day of overwhelming noise and distraction. It is like order after complete mayhem.
I remembered what I had read in the liturgy before – that it was intended to be a re-enactment; it brings you face to face with the reality of the sacrifice written in the pages of the gospels. It is not a participatory concert with a speaker and some handshaking. The mass is the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. Likewise, the veneration of the cross is the attempt to re-enact that scene at Calvary and kiss the feet of the bloodied, battered body of the son of God who was fastened to it on behalf of the human race. Perhaps some people were there because their parents made them, or because they grew up Catholic and thus have social reinforcement to be there. But it means so much to many of those people to recognize that sacrifice and physically touch the means of their salvation in such an intimate way. The veneration attempts to bring you back almost 2000 years to stand in front of your savior, flanked by dead thieves, and recognize the unbelievable act that had just occurred. We are willing to do strange things for what we recognize as worthy of our reverence.

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