Whereof We Cannot Speak
Good Friday. Fr Aidan Nichols explains why Good Friday sermons must be brief.
Good Friday is the only day in the year when the rubrics direct the person giving the homily to be brief. The explanation might just be practical. After the lengthy Passion reading there are the equally protracted intercessions, and then your own approach to the sanctuary in two files, first for the veneration of the Cross and then for Communion with the pre-sanctified Species.
But there’s reason to think more is involved in this demand for brevity in preaching than being economical with time.
Today the divine Word, the self-expression of God who for our sakes emptied himself to become a human being so that we might hear the words of God himself, this incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, is dead, and his voice is extinguished. The New Testament attests that without the Son no one can see the Father, nor can anyone come to the Father. There may be a sporadic knowledge of God in the world religions, but without the Son the Father is personally revealed to nobody. And this is the day when the humanized Son dies and the Father, accordingly, becomes inaccessible to us.
At the end of the Passion, when the Word of God is humanly dead, the Church herself has few words left to say. She is not to proclaim her faith or criticize society or organize works of charity or do any of the hundred things her members have taken to be manifestations of the Gospel. She has only to intercede, and, above all, to be united to Christ.
First, to intercede. Faced with this cosmic cataclysm, the human death of One who was personally God, what believer would be unwilling to pray for all sorts and conditions of men who are affected by this event whether they know it or not. And secondly, to be united, not so much in words as in gestures, with the Lord who today sinks down into death and Hell. And so we come to the Cross, to plant our kiss on the figure of the Crucified – the kiss which was for him the instrument of his betrayal, the kiss which is so ambivalent an act: the sign of love and friendship, but also the symbol of lewdness and moral disorder, and the token of formal and possibly insincere relations in polite society. We should look today to the purification of our motives, as the precondition of daring to approach the image of our so costly redemption.
And finally, we are invited to come to Communion under the deliberately deficient symbolism of the single Species. As orthodox Catholics we know that our Lord is wholly present in his full Godhead and his full manhood under either Eucharistic sign. Yet we also respect the different ways in which he allows himself to be given us in the prayer of his Church. Today we receive him, quite deliberately, by the symbolism of incompletion. This is not for those practical reasons which led the Latin church of the Middle Ages normally to reserve the chalice to the ordained. Instead, it is out of doctrinal conviction. Today we have only a truncated Eucharist, a mutilated Eucharist, for today Christ our Lord suffered the disintegration of his very being. The human body which was to be forever the fleshly medium of the eternal Word of God in his outreach to us lies lifeless in the grave by action of our kind.
Every Holy Communion should include an element of repentance, and it does: ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof’. But in today’s Communion this is especially marked when our common Redeemer is wrapped in his bloodied burial shroud, sinful humanity’s parting gift to him, and the silence of the tomb closes in, seemingly for ever, around the Word of God.