Many faithful would kiss the Cross but without knowing why. FATHER IGNATIUS YEO explains

There have been questions from the faithful about the varied practices or forms of Adoration of the Cross on Good Friday. This discussion will hope to bring about better understanding and appreciation of the liturgy on the day we commemorate Christ’s death on the Cross for us.

The rubrics for this part of the Good Friday liturgy offers two possibilities.

In the first form of the showing of the Holy Cross, the Deacon or another suitable minister goes to the sacristy and obtains the veiled cross. Accompanied by two ministers with lighted candles, the veiled Cross is brought to the centre of the sanctuary in procession. The priest accepts the Cross and standing before the altar and facing the people, uncovers the upper part of the Cross, the right arm and then the entire Cross.

The second form of the Adoration of the Holy Cross may take place at the door of the church, in the middle of the church and before entering the sanctuary.

However, are these the only forms of commemorating this Rite?

Let us first examine the rubrics. Where the Missal says ‘Cross”, it is an English translation of the Latin word ‘Crux”. The word ‘Cross” in English is ambiguous. Nevertheless, there is a rubric in the Rite that instructs:

The Cross is carried by the Deacon or a minister to its place at the altar. Lighted candles are placed around or on the altar or near the Cross.

In the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), a description of the altar Cross provides:

Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a Cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a Cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a Cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.

Room for expression
In this case the rubrics are not vague but rather it is allowing room for expression of its rich liturgical patrimony. This part of the Rite is drawn from the third century Gallican Rite dramatically enacting the crucifixion in a ‘Creeping” manner. This was originally done only with the Relic of the True Cross – not a crucifix.

Thus Churches that chose to use only one Cross without the Corpus appeal to this ancient ‘original” form.

In Antioch, Churches without the Relic of the True Cross began to enact this part of the liturgy with ‘creeping Crucifi xion” by means of nailing the icon of Christ at 3pm. This was followed by an evening Vespers of the Unnailing (still practised in the Liturgy of the Antiochene Rite, and also preserved by the Franciscans in the Holy Land and Assisi).

These traditions spread quickly throughout Europe and were widely ingrained in the popular piety of the faithful especially in Spain and Portugal albeit with their particular variations.

In a similar fashion, Churches that choose to unveil or even ‘crucify” the Corpus on the Cross (GIRM 308) appeal to this form of celebrating with the splendour worthy of the mystery of our salvation.

Unlike the essential, substantial and modal parts of the liturgy, the ‘accessory” component is largely not codified: it does not immediately concern the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, beliefs of the faithful and can therefore be left to the discretion of those who are responsible for conducting the liturgy.

The ‘accessory” is the ‘material” component used to enhance the liturgy as it appeals to ‘good taste” and to ‘common sense”.

This includes everything that appeals directly to the senses in order to indicate the degree of solemnity of a celebration (candles, altar cloths, flowers, lighting, incense, candlestick, crosses, lamps, etc).

The general rubric for Good Friday is a good example of where the Church recognises the varied forms in expressing this Rite and does not wish to rigidly impose uniformity. This is because the use of materials in the liturgy which is the ‘accessory” component can be largely adapted to the devotional temperament and circumstances of different people.

For the ‘accessory” component to be introduced into the liturgy and yield fruits, care must be taken to fulfill two conditions:

  • That the ‘accessory” does not become something cumbersome or more important than what is ‘essential” or ‘substantial” and that it does not become, for example, an opportunity for entertaining the congregation.
  • That the ‘accessory” does not make us lose sight of the ‘noble simplicity” that the rites should have.

Father Ignatius is a lecturer at the St Francis Xavier Seminary and CTIS, and parish priest at the Church of St Anthony.

This article was first published in The Catholic News on Sunday May 5, 2019.