Good Friday’s is the starkest of the Church’s liturgies: the sanctuary is divested of every encumbrance, the altar left bare, the tabernacle emptied of the Lord’s Eucharistic presence. Such starkness takes on new meaning, though, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, as it is not just the gathering place of the church, which is so stripped, but the social spaces of the world as well.
And not just these gathering spaces; increasingly, as time marches forward toward an indefinite future, each one of us is being stripped as well. The layers of performance we have developed for the world’s benefit are rendered pointless, as the stages for those performances are made one by one to disappear. We are left only with ourselves, as we truly are, hovering over the abyss of the nothingness from which we emerged and to which we can always return.
When confronted with this — having been unburdened of our delusions of control and power — we become acutely more aware of our need for salvation, for a savior. But the real one: not the innumerable impostors that are the stuff of advertising and politicking. We need the one who actually has the power to lift us from the abyss, because he is the same one who entered fully into our powerlessness, and unlike us, did not reject it, knowing that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
The power of God’s incarnate weakness is most visibly manifest on his cross, the object of Good Friday’s veneration. We, who have not yet learned to embrace that weakness, are made to confront this instrument of torture, which is the consummate symbol of those who seek to wield power and impose control, when in truth they lack both. The enemies of Christ (which we are through sin) think they can keep him at bay. Wood, nails, hatred or even indifference should do the trick. Only they will not, and for that, thank God. Thank God that our powerlessness before him has not excluded us from being the recipients of his power made perfect in weakness. For as St. Paul reminds us, Christ “while we were still helpless…died at the appointed time for the ungodly,” and in doing so, he “proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners [he] died for us (Rom 5: 6-8).”
Beyond venerating the cross, Good Friday is defined by its silence. The silence with which the service begins, the silence in which it ends: the cry of the crucified Christ enveloped in the silence.
Increasingly our world is enveloped in silence. Not on our screens, surely, from which much noise and silliness continues to spill. But in the places of flesh and blood, in the face to face encounter, the stuff which goes to make up a human life fully realized. There, only a haunting silence.
Silence though, is an interesting phenomenon, for not all silences are in fact the same. Especially with respect to the relationship between silence and love, the type of silence involved speaks volumes.
There is the silence that manifests love’s absence: the silence which refuses to speak the necessary and life-giving truth, the silence of fear which true love casts out, the silence of conspiracy, the silence of indifference, the silence of brooding hatred, the silence that refuses to impart forgiveness. These are a type of silence, the silence which is love’s enemy.
But there is another kind of silence. Adoring and restful silence before the beloved, the contented silence that follows the mutual declaration of love, the silence that follows the exhausting sacrifices of love made visible in action.
Perhaps the last of these is most beneficial to dwell on in this moment. There are all kinds of malicious silences plaguing our world. The trajectory of our hyper-individualistic technologically oriented culture is toward the silence of indifference and neglect. The coronavirus pandemic presents the strong possibility of pushing us further in that direction.
But there is another possibility. We consciously embrace our enforced distance from the flesh and blood encounter and its silence, not out of indifference, but out of concern for others, making it a silence of love. We do whatever we can for those on the front-lines of this struggle, who have been rendered silent by their exhaustion, reduced as they are to speechlessness by their self-giving love. And we take some time to silently and delightfully bask in the wonder of other persons, most especially the person of God.
We embrace these silences of love, knowing they are made possible by God’s own loving silence. For we belong to a God left silent on the cross after saying “it is finished” (Jn 19:30), because with such love expressed, what more needed to be said?
Father Andrew Clyne writes from Maryland.