How the Good Friday liturgy can change your life

The deep meaning behind one of the most important days in Christianity

Therese Bussen

Most of us aren’t strangers to the Good Friday service, or Good Friday itself, for that matter — but sometimes we go through the motions and miss the richness behind the liturgy we’re partaking in. What’s so special about celebrating Good Friday liturgy?

The most important thing to note is that the service is an opportunity to enter into Jesus’ suffering and death — and realize in a deeper, or even new, way — that he died for you personally. We can arrive at that place by having a disposition of fully entering into the rites and letting our hearts be moved through them, according to Father Daniel Cardo, pastor at Holy Name Parish and chaplain at Christ in the City.

“We should experience it in a very personal way — through the rites, we don’t need to change anything — it’s very ancient and that’s very moving,” Father Cardo said. “But through that, we should arrive to the experience of, ‘He died for me,’ to be able to say that and mean that.”

“The most important disposition is entering into the rites — it’s clearly unique. We start in silence, and then the priest prostrates himself. Those prayers are very ancient, and we’re not aware of how ancient they are,” Father Cardo added. “The main point would be to pay attention, to listen, to see the gestures, seeing and adoring the cross as an expression of love.”

The rite of Good Friday offers us the opportunity to actually participate in Christ’s suffering through its various parts.

DENVER, CO - APRIL 3: Eva Bueno kneels in prayer during the Celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception April 3, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

Eva Bueno kneels in prayer during the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion on Good Friday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception April 3, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

It’s important to note, however, that it’s not Mass we’re celebrating. It’s technically a communion service with four main parts: the Liturgy of the Word, general intercessions, veneration of the cross and communion. So why a communion service instead of celebrating Mass?

“Traditionally, there’s never been a Mass on Good Friday per se. The main reason is that it’s seen by the Church as a day of mourning, a day of participating in the suffering of Christ, experiencing that absence,” Father Cardo said.

In the Church’s tradition, the Good Friday rites developed organically over time, so that the structure that formed by the eighth century is what we still celebrate today, according to Father Cardo.

The first part of the rite, the Liturgy of the Word, is special because we enter into the story of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross. But we shouldn’t listen to it just like any other Sunday Mass readings.

“The main benefit is participating in that suffering and experiencing that pain. We shouldn’t be afraid of it,” Father Cardo said. “We have a very emotional understanding of joy, but there is room for participating in the pain of Christ, because we want to be where he is. We suffer with hope, and it’s important to let our hearts be moved by what the Church offers.”

In participating in Jesus’ offering of himself to God the Father, we have a special opportunity to offer intercessions with him, and participate in the ancient tradition of the Church, where intercessions originated. Next, the service offers a veneration of the cross — one of the most moving parts of the liturgy, said Father Cardo.

“That rite comes from Jerusalem, when St. Helena discovered the cross. People would go and see the cross exposed and kiss the cross. That’s why today we approach and kiss the cross,” Father Cardo explained. “The Church invites us to break the routine so that we can appreciate more deeply the gift of the cross, and so, we cover all crosses until we see the cross again as we adore it on Good Friday.”

“The other part is the communion service, a liturgy in which you don’t consecrate the Eucharist, but receive what’s been previously consecrated,” Father Cardo added.

These various parts offer for the faithful an opportunity to “stay awake” with Jesus.

“It’s saying to Christ, ‘I’m going to be with you in your suffering so I can continue to be with you in your victory,’” said Father Cardo.

We can do this by making an extra effort “to listen, to see, to let those gestures inform our way of feeling, to let him take us to his passion and resurrection,” he said.

This experience of entering into the liturgy in such a profound way isn’t just a “remembering,” Father Cardo said.

“One of the unique aspects to the Church is liturgy makes those events a reality — it performs what it signifies. We’re not just remembering, we are suffering with him because he’s suffering for us.”

It’s saying to Christ, ‘I’m going to be with you in your suffering so I can continue to be with you in your victory.’”

He pointed out, that because the Triduum rites are so intense and carefully observed, it signals how carefully the rites are preserved from what was practiced in ancient times.

“There’s a difference between the Western and the Easter Church [rites]. Originally, the Roman liturgy was very sober, and what we celebrate now was the first part of the celebration. Later, we assumed some practices of the Eastern Church, like the adoration of the cross,” Father Cardo said. “With the most intense times of the liturgy, we’ve preserved more carefully the most primitive elements — they’re more sober, but extremely eloquent.”

If we allow our hearts to be moved by Jesus’ death for us, the liturgy won’t just a one-day experience, but something that changes the way we live daily.

“Maybe we can think again back to the experience of saying, ‘He did it for me, he was thinking of me,’” Father Cardo said. “Good Friday is one day a year that we contemplate exclusively love until the end, so hopefully we unfold a profound gratitude and live the consequences of that love every day in a very humble and honest way.”

COMING UP: What is truth?

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As we approach Holy Week, I am returning to a meditation I have been making in my heart on Jesus’ statement to Pilate, “I came into the world to testify to the truth,” and over the next three days he did just that through his Passion, Death and Resurrection.

The Church relives and celebrates Jesus’ testimony to the truth during the Triduum, the three final days of Holy Week known as Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. During these three days, we encounter Jesus in the gift of the Eucharist, his death for us, and his resurrection, in which sin and death are conquered.

Last summer when I was on my annual 8-day silent retreat, I meditated on the Passion of Christ in John’s Gospel and the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. I often reflected on Pilate’s profoundly skeptical response — “What is truth?” – to Jesus stating that he came to testify to the truth. Pilate’s skepticism and flippant tone capture our own times well.

During my retreat, Jesus’ statement of his mission that triggered Pilate’s dismissive question came alive for me. Christ declared, “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (Jn 18:37). The words of Jesus struck my heart and have continued to resonate in my heart since the retreat.

In the times in which we live, truth has in many ways been discarded. We live in a time of relativism, when even things that contradict the truth are viewed as “true” if the person believes them. We have become blind to the truth and never want to contradict what a person says or thinks is true, even if the evidence is contradictory.

Some of you may have seen the YouTube video with almost 2 million views that displays this approach to the truth so obviously. In the Family Policy Institute’s video, a 5’ 9” white man asks college students what they would say if he claimed he was 6’ 5” Chinese woman. Seven of the students he interviewed refused to contradict him, even though it was clear he did not fit that description. We see the same phenomenon in the case of people who claim to be genderless, such as Time Magazine’s March 15th cover story. Despite alterations that people might make to their clothes, bodies or behaviors, a DNA test will show that they are either male or female. The test will not show that they have multiple genders or are genderless.

In the past, people who acted in this way would have been considered delusional or irrational, but today, reason and logic are cast aside in the name of tolerance and open-mindedness, no matter how absurd the claim being made is.

Into this confused and lost world, Jesus’ words to Pilate ring out. “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” The theme of truth runs strongly through John’s Gospel, as we hear at the beginning of the Gospel where Christ is described as “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14).

But the gift of Jesus is not just that he gives us the truth and is the truth. John’s Gospel also tells us that “the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32).

Jesus desires us to come to the truth – to come to him and be free. Only by encountering Jesus in his Word, in the sacraments, in prayer and in others do we come to know the Father and his eternal love for us (cf. Jn 14:6). Jesus is the way, the truth and the life! Every human being is born for the truth and longs for the true freedom that Christ alone gives.

Truth and freedom go together; not the freedom to do ‘whatever I want as long as it doesn’t “hurt” anyone,’ but freedom that is rooted in truth and goodness and directed towards God, who is all good (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1730-1748). Only when freedom is directed towards the true and good can one experience happiness, peace and fulfillment. This is because when we move away from all that is evil and toward the truth of Jesus, he sets us free from sin and guides us to the will of the Father. This is the work of a life-time, yet the more deeply we encounter Jesus as the truth, the freer we become.

As we enter Holy Week, I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, to mediate on the Passion of Jesus and ponder in your hearts the words of Jesus, especially his words on truth. Reflect in your hearts about how you have been influenced by the relativism of our day. All of us are influenced by it, even if we are unware of it. Do you listen to the voice of Jesus or the voice of the world? Are you skeptical and flippant like Pilate in response to Jesus’ words or do you encounter and receive them? Jesus desires that you come to know him so that you may encounter him who is true, who has died and risen for you so that you may walk in true freedom. Open your hearts to that encounter and give witness to it in a world sorely in need of the truth, Jesus, who is our Lord and fills our hearts with joy!

To help you encounter the truth and the mercy of Jesus, I want to remind you to participate in the novena of Divine Mercy that begins on Good Friday, April 14. You can find the novena either in your parishes in a brochure or by simply searching the web for “Divine Mercy Novena.” May you have a blessed Holy Week and may you come to encounter the Truth, Jesus Christ, and his mercy and love for you!