Good Friday’s Poetic Solemnity

Easter 2017 has passed. Lenten sacrifices have been completed. The celebration of the Christian Holy Week is over until next year (to be celebrated secularly in 2018 as April Fool’s Day). I confess that the most solemn and meaningful Holy Week service this year for me occurred on Good Friday.

The Book of Common Prayer provides a proper liturgy for that day that focuses on solemnity.

For Christians, Good Friday is the day of recalling and meditating upon the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and from beginning to end the liturgy is solemn, and celebration is subdued.

The rubric of the opening of the Good Friday liturgy instructs that “ministers enter in silence.” By custom, the clergy dresses entirely in black. The altar is stripped of any colorful seasonal dressings, and the clergy and lectors enter and kneel before the altar.

The service is comprised of readings from the Old Testament, especially the words of the prophet Isaiah describing the suffering servant. Then a Psalm is read or sung, often the text of Psalm 22, which contains the transliterated Aramaic words expressed by Jesus on the cross, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). The epistle to the Hebrews is read to remind Christians of the priesthood of Jesus “who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” A lengthy reading of the Passion Gospel of St. John follows Jesus from the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is betrayed and arrested. The narrative continues to the place of the skull, Golgotha, where Jesus is nailed to a cross as a criminal, and to the unused tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, one of the followers of Jesus, where our Lord is laid to rest.

Typically in the Good Friday liturgy, a meditative sermon is preached, often on one or several of the words Jesus spoke from the cross, and an offering to be distributed to the poor is collected.

The remainder of the service is comprised of prayers while the people and clergy kneel or stand. With the prayers completed, clergy and congregation exit the sanctuary in silence.

Impressive for me this year were the two hymns we sang. I offer the lyrics here as two examples of solemn poetry marking the crucifixion of Jesus that took place outside Jerusalem on so-called “Good Friday” (which many scholars believe derives from “God Friday”).

When I survey the wondrous cross on which the prince of glory died,

my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast save in the cross of Christ, my God:

all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet sorrow and love flow mingled down!

Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown!

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;

love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

The above hymn, written by Isaac Watts in 1707, is in part a paraphrase of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (6:14).

The second hymn, considered by many to be the quintessential poem celebrating Holy Week, is believed to have been composed in either the 9th century by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, or in the 11th century by Arnulf of Leuven, a medieval poet. The text was first translated into English in 1752 by a British Anglican vicar, John Gambold. In 1899, Robert Bridges translated it into its more modern English.  It is most familiar sung to a tune that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for his St. Matthew Passion. (I provide only the first stanza.)

O sacred head sore wounded, defiled and put to scorn;

O kingly head, surrounded with mocking crown of thorn:

what sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower?

O countenance whose splendor the hosts of heaven adore!

The text and music of both these hymns appear in the Hymnal 1982 of the Church Hymnal Society at numbers. 474 and 168 respectively.

And what do these Holy Week penultimate liturgies and texts provoke? The glorious declaration of Easter: “Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

 

 

 

 

 

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