Rutherford, “the Borough of Trees,” located on a ridge above the New Jersey Meadowlands lies just west of the Hudson River opposite the Empire State Building. On the windy afternoon that Alice and I had accompanied our daughter to St. Mary Church for the day’s solemnities, trains and busses to New York City were running half full, and banks, schools, and stores were closed.
The Catholic service for Good Friday is remarkably spare. The altars are stripped, the prayers are abrupt, and the elements of the service seem almost disjointed, a series of events leading to a bare communion service: the readings from Isaiah and the Passion narrative, long prayers of petition, and the adoration of the cross. Apart from the veneration of the cross, the ritual is deliberately slow and colorless. After the first few intercessions, my mind was adrift. If distraction during a church service is a sin, then I am the most shameful of sinners.
I was brought back to the meaning of the day, when the priest walked from the altar toward an unusual amount of movement at the entrance to the church. The ushers were bringing in the cross. Perhaps if I been less distracted I would have recognized what was now taking place.
The cross was an unusually large piece of work, taller than a man, and the four able-bodied men tasked with bringing it to the altar, struggled to keep it upright. As each arm was unveiled, the priest chanted out three times in progressively higher notes, “behold the wood of the cross on which hung the savior of the world.” We watched, hoping that somehow the top-heavy intersection of beams would not topple out of the ushers’ grasp, as we answered: “Come let us adore.” Finally, mercifully, the cross reached the altar where with some difficulty it was laid out at a 45 degree angle. The four ushers in a line left to right held the arm of the cross. They were flanked on each side by two servers with lighted candles.
Those in the fringe edges of the half-round church were invited to process forward to venerate the cross, by touching or kissing the wood. And so from my relative anonymity, I found myself among the first to come up the aisle, where the pastor stood at midpoint whispering to each worshiper as they passed. As I approach, he asked me if I would “would like to hold the cross,” to which I graciously replied, “no, but thank you.” I kissed the wood of the cross.
At St. Mary Church services there is a certain formalism to the services and the altar ministers are always well-rehearsed. I was therefore taken aback at having been asked at this late moment to help with the cross. But as I returned to my pew, something remarkable was taking place. Looking back to the altar I saw that the ushers were no longer holding the cross. They had been replaced by other parishioners: young and old, male and female. In a choreography that all seemed to understand, I realized that matrons in their dresses and gold, high school students in varsity jackets, men in ties, seniors with gray hair, one after another were swapping out the role of cross or candle bearer. The priest had asked me. “Would I help carry the cross?” I had answered “no.”
There is a language of symbolism in the Easter Liturgies that goes beyond words. As Christians we are told to carry our cross, bear our cross, to offer our sufferings to God, to be one with the suffering Christ. On Good Friday we affirm this mystery – and with more or less success attempt to do so. The priest had asked me. “Would I help carry the cross?” and I had answered “no.”
Sitting in the pew, and wishing I could relive that moment, I concluded that perhaps this was my cross to bear for the day and was mortified. The liturgy resumed and the priest invoked Christ’s death, praying that “we who participate in this mystery never cease to serve you.” I had been asked to bear that cross, and had answered “no.” Reverting to the simple truths of childhood, I “offered it up.”
But perhaps that is precisely what Good Friday is about: the offering-up of the hurts and blunders of daily life into the embrace of a dying Savior. As Jesuit Father Karl Rahner reminds us “Death …is not just an event at the end of life but is something that takes place throughout the whole of life… Every awareness of limitation, all bitterness, and disappointment, every decline in our powers, experience of failure, emptiness and barrenness, pain, misery and need, oppression and injustice, all such things are precursors and even parts of the death that we die throughout life.” In the Christian mystery, life is composed of little deaths to which we are called to say “yes.”
Larry Mullaly, April 25, 2010