Good Friday 2020
Friday of the Passion of the Lord | Fr Martin Ganeri points to Christ who dignifies us and gives us hope as we come face to face with our mortality in all its dimensions.
Two of the most popular liturgies in the Church’s liturgical year are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This is surprising not least because both focus on what we might call the more sombre side of our faith. They are not joyful celebrations like so many of the Masses of other great feasts of the year, such as Christmas, Easter or Pentecost. The popularity of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is rooted rather in the fact that these two services are moments when we can take stock of our deep, if often unexpressed, knowledge of our mortality and of our need, our hunger, for salvation from death and for life. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday offer to us the promise of that salvation, without cheapening or making light of how heavily our mortality weighs upon us.
When as Christians we think of mortality we mean in the first place of course the fact that we die, that our lives come to an end. Yet, for us mortality means more than this. Mortality also means the fact that our lives themselves are often marked by death even while they are being lived out. That is to say that our lives are often compromised and lack the flourishing and happiness that they could have. Our lives are marred by what we do and what is done to us, by the abuse of our human freedom that we call sin and by the reality of natural suffering and calamity that befalls us. In all these ways our lives are deadened even while we live.
In the Wisdom books of the Bible this richer understanding of mortality is given very full expression. In the Wisdom books two paths are set out for human beings to choose between: the path of wisdom and the path of folly. The path of wisdom is the path of life and the path of folly that of death. Wisdom is the knowledge about how to live well and fully as human beings in accordance with the will of God and the dignity of our natures. And if we follow the path of wisdom we can hope to live lives in which we do flourish, in which we enjoy health in mind and body, have good standing with our fellow human beings, are right in our relationship with God, with the hope of eternal life with God to come in the next life. Folly is the opposite of all this and is a path characterised by selfishness and self-indulgence, one that deadens our lives in the here and now and where the end of life brings only darkness and desolation.
On Ash Wednesday the simple fact of our mortality as the end of life itself is something we acknowledge. ‘Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.’ Yet, when we use the ashes of the palm branches to mark our foreheads as we say these words, we are also pointed towards the Passion of Christ. We are pointed towards Good Friday. And it is in Good Friday that the wider reality of death is manifest so clearly. Physical death as well as physical suffering are all too present. Natural human fear in face of uncertainty and calamity are also all too present. Yet there is also the death that is manifest in human sinfulness: the rejection of the truth about who Christ is, as well as the grim realities of betrayal, mockery, cruelty and hatred.
But in the midst of all this death Christ stands before us as our saviour and the one who gives life. Every Good Friday we read the account of the Passion of Christ that is found in St John’s Gospel. In the course of his Gospel St John teaches us the deepest reality of who Christ is and what he gives to us. St John teaches us that Christ is the embodiment of the divine wisdom. Christ is the light and life of the world. It is in him, in his teaching and in what he does, that he reveals the life that God offers us so that we can live fully again as human beings, beyond all the sinfulness and suffering that have marked our human history. Christ is the embodiment of divine wisdom and the path of life. He is the source of our hope as we come face to face with our mortality in all its dimensions.
In the Passion narrative of St John’s Gospel we also see Christ revealed as king, whose kingdom is that of the truth, which is for us the path of life. And Christ as king manifests a dignity in the face of suffering. He shows dignity as the soldiers come to arrest him; he shows dignity during the hostile questioning before Annas; he shows a calm dignity in his trial before Pilate; and he shows dignity when he is crucified and in his death. The dignity of Christ in the face of suffering and death reveals that he is indeed the king, the one who is in control and the one who freely chooses to sacrifice himself for the salvation of others.
As we come to this Good Friday in this year, we are of course faced by death in the new and almost overwhelming form of the COVID-19 pandemic. We see the death of so many thousands whose lives have come to an end across the world. We see death entering our lives in the fear we have of this disease and the effect this fear has on us. We see death in the compromises we have to make, in the social isolation and economic hardship that we have to endure. But we also see dignity in the face of suffering and death. The dignity of those who face the end of their own lives with calm. The dignity of those who work in our health care services, as they carry on despite everything and despite the threat to their own lives. The dignity of those who do accept the restrictions and hardships imposed on them for the sake both of their own welfare and that of others.
As we come, then, to this Good Friday in the extraordinary times we find ourselves in, we cannot go to our churches for the Good Friday liturgy as we would have liked. But we can all place a crucifix before us and read St John’s Gospel. Let us do this and let us remember our mortality in all its forms. But let us also see the dignity of Christ the king and our saviour manifest to us. Let us find in that dignity in the face of suffering and death a source of strength for us at this time. Let us give thanks for the dignity shown by so many around us and pray for those who persevere in it. In the dignity of Christ and in the dignity of others we can find hope and in this dignity we will find a path to life in all its fullness once again.
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a mural by Blessed John of Fiesole (Fra Angelico) from the convent of San Marco in Florence.