I always find today’s liturgy starkly beautiful. The church stands in shocked silence at the events that unfold in the reading of St John’s Passion.
The building is bare. The statues gone or covered up. The tabernacle is empty. There is no Mass today, not anywhere in the world. Yesterday, we had a church. Today, we have an empty room. Jesus is not there: he has been taken by force of arms and is to be executed as a common criminal.
We gather in silence. Our priests prostrate themselves at the foot of the Cross. Words are spoken.
See, my servant will prosper: he shall be lifted up, exalted to great heights.
Isaiah’s words begin with such power, with such positivity, with such hope. Hope that is dashed with the very next sentence:
As the crowds were appalled on seeing him – so disfigured did he look that he seemed no longer human.
The words that pour from the prophet’s pen describe so closely the events that were to take place 800 years afterwards that we cannot but see a connection, for it was our sufferings that Jesus bore; he was pierced through for our faults and by his wounds we are healed.
The letter to the Hebrews proclaims Jesus’ priesthood and gives us the boldness to stand in the presence of the Most High. Not because of our own good efforts, far from it, but because Jesus’ suffering has bought redemption for us all.
And so to the reading of the Passion.
We know the story well. Jesus is betrayed by a friend; Jesus gives the only military command of his life on earth: Put your sword back in its scabbard. Jesus is not broken, though. He sets his face like flint and talks back to Annas, the High Priest’s father-in-law and even reproaches the guard who takes umbrage with his tone.
Pilate wants nothing to do with this case. He’s got Rome breathing down his neck because of recent trouble and the last thing he needs is another riot on his hands with so many people in Jerusalem for the Passover. The local religious authorities are not willing to give him what he wants, though. For his own part, Pilate can see exactly why the chief priests have dumped Jesus on him and he is convinced of Jesus’ innocence. He doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, however, and washes his hands of it. He gives the people what they want and walks away.
Not walking away, and at great personal risk, we see the three Marys and John at the foot of the cross. Jesus knows that Mary will be left destitute with no man about the house so, even as he is dying in agony, he ensures that his mother will be cared for.
In completion of the Father’s work of redemption, Jesus bows his head and gives up his spirit. His soul’s anguish over, he shall see the light and be content.
It is left up to the less-known disciples to claim Jesus’ body and bury it.
The last sentence of today’s Gospel always takes my breath away. Our saviour has been killed; all hope is dashed; the life drained out of him. The starkness of this moment is captured perfectly in John’s closing words:
Since it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and the tomb was near at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Full stop. The end. We hear no more words of scripture until the Easter Vigil. In the meantime, we wait by the tomb, or we wander, subdued, through the world. Our Saviour is dead. What now?
The closing prayer of the Good Friday liturgy is one of my favourite parts of the whole cycle of the liturgical year. It is rendered best, in my opinion, in the 1970 translation:
Lord, send down your abundant blessing upon your people who have devoutly recalled the death of your Son in the sure hope of the resurrection. Grant them pardon; bring them comfort. May their faith grow stronger and their eternal salvation be assured.
All depart in silence.