The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
The celebration of the Passion of the Lord is dramatic. It is the climax of all sacrifice. The curtain is torn. The temple is destroyed. On this day, when “Christ our passover was sacrificed,” the Christians fall prostrate in grief and sorrow. The whole range of human emotions experienced in the life of Christ are now on bended knee—sorrowful suffering, dripping blood, bloody flesh—the grief is palpable.
After so many penitential prayers, after the palms have been folded into little crosses, after so many small reminders of sacrifice along the way, we find ourselves spiritually stripped down before the enormity of Christ crucified. In my Catholic parish, we do not even celebrate the Eucharist; in fact, the rubrics do not permit any sacraments to be celebrated, except for penance and anointing—sacraments especially tied to sin and death. Our attention is fixed on Calvary.
Perhaps it should seem odd not to celebrate the Eucharist on Good Friday. Shouldn’t we, at the crucial climax of the Holy Triduum, celebrate the body and blood of Jesus Christ? Yet Catholics, and many other Christians do not, and have not since the early church. St. Augustine once observed that “Christ is sacrificed once in Himself, and daily in his sacrament,” therefore “receive the Eucharist daily that it may benefit you every day.” Yet the Bishop of Hippo also did not celebrate the Eucharist on this day.
This caused me to wonder, why have most Christians, for most of history, refrained from celebrating the Eucharist on the day Christ sacrifices his flesh and blood for the sins of the world? Aquinas says that Good Friday is the one day of the year that we do not celebrate the Eucharist because it is fitting that we adore Christ’s sacrifice as the cause of our redemption, just as we enjoy the effects of being made partakers of this redemption in the Eucharist throughout the year.
For Aquinas, Good Friday is not so much a day without the Eucharist as it is the day which gives the Eucharist its very intelligibility as that sacrament by which we are united to Christ’s one true and perfect sacrifice. This is why he tells us that Christians reverence the Cross with the same worship (latreia) that we offer in the celebration of the Eucharist: we make the sign of the Cross in the Triune name and we bind ourselves to Christ crucified by kissing the image of the cross with a holy kiss—a kiss which aims not at the image but at Christ himself (ST III, q.25, a.4). Here the reasoning is striking: it is a kiss which presses past the image to the reality of Christ crucified himself.
It is sometimes thought—or even preached—that, like the Eucharist, God is absent on Good Friday. Deus Absconditus rather than Adoro te devote. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday may appear to some only as manifestations of some eternal suffering and death by which we mourn. Others may see in the cross only shame and folly. G.K. Chesterton thought Christ’s “cry of dereliction” was the one moment in which every atheist could identify with Christ. And perhaps that is so. But to those with eyes to see, to those who keep watch over these three days, Christ crucified is human salvation. The cross pulsates with divine power. The cross is not folly, but triumph over Adam’s sin, over principalities and powers, the Devil, and death itself. For the vigilant, the cross is the one death “to save all the nations.”
St. Thomas tells us that the adoration we give the cross on Good Friday is real worship—no less real than the adoration we give the Eucharist the night before. The eyes of the faithful do not adore the image of the cross as a thing—as carved or painted wood—but the reality of Christ himself is adored and worshipped by means of the image: limbs stretched out, saturated with blood from each of his five wounds, thorns crowning his head not only as “king of the Jews” but as king of the eternal City of God.
It is thus no accident that Thomas’ final mystical vision was before an icon of Christ crucified. He heard Jesus say to him, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labor?” Thomas answered, “Nothing but you, Lord.” After this, he stated that he would not continue writing, for “all I have written seems like straw to me.” This was not because he had no regard for theology. Rather, just as Thomas’ Eucharistic devotion constantly conformed him to the reality of Christ’s sacrifice—moving from the accidents to the substance—so did his adoration rise through the icon of the cross to the eternal substance of Christ himself.
There is the temptation to think, as Eliot has it, that “we are sound, substantial flesh and blood.” But as our ashen foreheads testified at the beginning of Lent, we are dust. Our only hope is to press our lips to the cross—to bind our flesh to Christ—to adhere ourselves to the way which raises our flesh and blood to the summum bonum, eternal life in the heavenly city. In this way, St. Thomas helps us to see why we call this Friday Good.
C. C. Pecknold is associate professor of systematic theology at Catholic University of America.