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Good Friday

Good Friday is the premier occasion in the church year for solemn intercession. Though the liturgical observance of the day has varied in different places over time, with different customs, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer builds on the practice of the early church in Rome by placing intercession for the church and for the world, joined to the reading of Holy Scripture, at the heart of the liturgy of the day. Though other commemorative actions can be joined to this one, and a sermon preached, the liturgical focus on prayer and intercession speaks to the nature of Christ’s sacrificial death, and the church’s priestly role.

The Epistle to the Hebrews frames Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross as priestly work. “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, ‘he sat down at the right hand of God’” (Heb. 10:12, citing Ps. 110:1). “[W]e have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord … has set up” (Heb. 8:1-2). Though his sacrifice is singular, his priesthood is enduring. “[H]e holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24-25). Within Hebrews’ framework, intercession is priestly work, Jesus’ sacrificial mediation between God and humanity.

The priestly work of the church is connected to Christ’s priestly work, even though it cannot add to it or replace it. Rather, the church enters into the Lord’s work. First Peter puts it this way: “[L]ike living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). Part of that priestly ministry is a sharing in Jesus’ redemptive intercessory work: “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone” (1 Tim. 2:1). In the Revelation of John, the golden bowls of incense offered before the throne and the altar are the prayers of the saints (Rev. 5:8; 8:3).

Thomas Cranmer’s assignment of Hebrews 10:1-25 as the liturgical Epistle for Good Friday followed a sure theological instinct. Cranmer substituted the reading from Hebrews for the Roman rite’s use of Hosea 6:1-6 (a prophetic foreshadowing of Christ’s death and resurrection) and Exodus 12:1-11 (the account of the Passover), which were read before the Passion Gospel from John. Cranmer’s use of Hebrews foregrounded Jesus’ priestly ministry, and underscored the Reformation concern for upholding the unique sacrifice of Christ. The English Reformation insisted on “the one oblation of Christ finished upon the cross” (Article XXXI), and the error of “the sacrifices of Masses” in pretending to add anything to Christ’s sacrifice. “For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

At the same time, by associating Hebrews’ reflection on Christ’s priestly ministry with the liturgical commemoration of his crucifixion and death, Cranmer’s liturgy did what all liturgies do: make the connection between what was done then and what is being done now. It is easy to see liturgical revolution, like that of the 16th century, as simply disruptive, but to miss its propensity (in the literal sense of the word revolution) to come full circle and return to the beginning. There are deeper continuities at work. Liturgy typically draws the events of salvation history and our time closer by bending the time and space between them. It makes those events present now. As Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” As Cranmer’s reading says at the end, we ought not to neglect to meet together but rather encourage one another (Heb. 10:25). Our gathering is significant because it signifies.

Cranmer also included in his revised liturgy three collects drawn from or modeled on the intercessory prayers that had been said at the Good Friday liturgy before 1549. This ancient form of the Prayers of the People, consisting of biddings followed by concluding collects, had survived in the Roman liturgy mainly in the Good Friday rite: an illustration of Anton Baumstark’s law that liturgy tends to be conservative in the more sacred seasons. Cranmer’s provision for additional collects on Good Friday, even without the retention of the intercessions traditionally used on Good Friday, represented liturgical continuity, coming full circle with the 1979 prayer book’s restoration of the “solemn collects.”

These prayers in the 1979 liturgy consist of an introduction, followed by a bidding to prayer for particular needs. Each set of biddings is followed by silence and a concluding collect. A deacon or other person may bid the prayers, and the people may be invited to stand or kneel in the course of the silence. The collects that punctuate the prayers are said by the celebrant. The ancient pattern for these prayers was also hierarchical and even hieratic, with the different orders of ministry sharing the roles in a similar way, with much of the action taking place at the altar: the priest bidding the prayers, the deacon and subdeacon inviting the people to kneel and then to stand, and the priest concluding each period of silence with a collect. In both ancient and modern forms of the intercessions, varied voices are heard, with ample time for silence.

The resulting form of prayer is unique to the Good Friday liturgy. The biddings to prayer constitute the church’s most wide-ranging act of intercession: prayers for the church throughout the world; for all nations and peoples, especially for governing authorities, and for peace; for all who suffer in body or mind; for those who have not received the gospel, and for those who persecute Christians or are persecuted by them; and for those who have died. The church’s intercession is Christ’s work. As Augustine reminded his parishioners about their prayer, “If he is the head, we are the body, one person. Whether the head speaks or the members, it is the one Christ who speaks. And it is proper for the head to speak through the members” (Sermons on the Psalms 140.3). In these prayers the church takes the whole world with her into the heart of the mystery of Christ’s dying and rising again.

Though the readings and prayers are at the heart of the liturgy, other actions are traditional on this day, and are provided as options in the current rite. The veneration of the cross dates back at least to the fourth century, as part of the Good Friday observance in Jerusalem, perhaps taken back by pilgrims to their communities. Holy Communion was also from an early time distributed from the sacrament consecrated at the celebration on Maundy Thursday. In some sense this liturgy of the evening before, which significantly has no formal conclusion, is Good Friday’s celebration of the Eucharist, and the distribution of Communion its extension.

The theological significance of intercession being placed at the center of the Good Friday liturgy brings us back to Jesus’ priestly work on the cross. He is the mediator between God and humanity, himself fully God and fully human, who makes intercession for us on the cross. It is precisely as a human being that he is able to pray and to offer sacrifice: mediating acts that are proper to a priest. In the “heavenly session” that begins when he sits at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12), Christ continues to exercise his priestly office of mediation for the whole world. On Good Friday, we as a church “enter the sanctuary” (Heb. 10:19) with him, and through our intercessions join in Jesus’ priestly work.


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