Good Friday Soul Booster

To get deeper into the spirit of Holy Week, and to help you to do the same, I’ll be posting daily “soul boosts” containing the following: (1) a hymn tied to the liturgical day; (2) a timely Biblical text; (3) a beautiful piece of religious art; (4) a spiritual reflection; and (5) a Saint you should get to know (or get to know better).

Today is Good Friday, the worst and best day in history. How does one enter into the incomprehensible mystery that man killed God? These aids might be a start:

Hymn: The Reproaches (Improperia)

This might not strictly be a “hymn” (since it’s a day of mourning, hymnody and music are generally avoided) but it’s the most perfect music for Good Friday. It begins with a word of worship of the Lord and of veneration of the Cross, and then it turns to the reproaches themselves. These are said from the perspective of Jesus Christ to His people. You can get a sense of what they sound like in Latin here (this is Palestrina’s setting, the setting used by St. Peter’s for centuries), and read them in English here:

I.

1 and 2: My people, what have I done to you
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: I led you out of Egypt,
from slavery to freedom,
but you led your Savior to the cross.

2: My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: Holy is God!
2: Holy and strong!
1: Holy immortal One, have mercy on us!

1 and 2: For forty years I led you
safely through the desert.
I fed you with manna from heaven,
and brought you to a land of plenty; but you led your Savior to the cross.

Repeat “Holy is God…”

1 and 2: What more could I have done for you.
I planted you as my fairest vine,
but you yielded only bitterness:
when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink,
and you pierced your Savior with a lance.

Repeat “Holy is God…”

II.

1: For your sake I scourged your captors
and their firstborn sons,
but you brought your scourges down on me.

(Repeated throughout by Choir 2)
2: My people, what have I done to you?
How have I offended you? Answer me!

1: I led you from slavery to freedom
and drowned your captors in the sea,
but you handed me over to your high priests.
2: “My people….”

1: I opened the sea before you,
but you opened my side with a spear.
2: “My people….”

1: I led you on your way in a pillar of cloud,
but you led me to Pilate’s court.
2: “My people….”

1: I bore you up with manna in the desert,
but you struck me down and scourged me.
2: “My people….”

1: I gave you saving water from the rock,
but you gave me gall and vinegar to drink.
2: “My people….”

1: For you I struck down the kings of Canaan.
but you struck my head with a reed.
2: “My people….”

1: I gave you a royal scepter,
but you gave me a crown of thorns.
2: “My people….”

1: I raised you to the height of majesty,
but you have raised me high on a cross.
2: “My people….”

 

Also worthy of mention: the Lebanese singer Fairuz has sung a number of beautiful Good Friday meditations (in Arabic). If you want a different experience of Good Friday, these are worth a listen.

Scripture: The Sacrifice of Isaac

There’s a sense in which the entire Old Testament is about Good Friday. We hear this in Jesus’ response to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-27),

“O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

Some of these Old Testament prefigurements (like the parting of the Red Sea) are mentioned in the Reproaches, above. But there’s one in particular that’s worth probing more deeply, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Abraham is explicitly promised a covenant, with a perpetual line of descendants, through Isaac (Genesis 17:21). The boy is even mentioned by name. And yet a few chapters later, God “tests” Abraham, calling upon him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. Here’s what happens next (Genesis 17:3-14):

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

In this episode, God is doing three things with this: first, showing forth the depths of Abraham’s faith; second, demonstrating that human sacrifice (widespread in Abraham’s day) was in fact repugnant to God; and finally, pointing the way to Christ’s Death and Resurrection. How do we see this last part?

Abraham’s simultaneous belief that Isaac is to die and that he will subsequently have descendants through Isaac is possible only if Isaac could somehow be raised up from this sentence of death.  And sure enough, this belief in something like the Resurrection is vindicated when God reveals that human sacrifice isn’t what pleases Him. The author of Hebrews draws the connection in this way: Abraham “considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead; hence he did receive him back, and this was a symbol” (Heb. 11:19). Fittingly, it’s “on the third day” that Abraham receives Isaac back (Genesis 22:4).

Isaac, the one who is brought back from presumptive death, carries his own wood to the sacrifice. Acting as a prefigurement for Christ, Isaac ascends the mount carrying the wood upon which he was (barring God’s intervention) to be killed (Gen. 22:6). Most strikingly, when he asks his father where the sacrifice is, Abraham says, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). And yet God doesn’t provide a lamb when they get to the top of the mount. Instead, they find a ram, crowned with thorns in the brambles (Gen. 22:13). This resolves the issue in the moment, but we’re still left with the incompleteness of the Jewish sacrificial system. For the fullness of God’s providential response, we needed to wait for Him to send His Son, the Lamb of God, the perfect Sacrifice. Today, that day has come.

Religious Art: Anonymous, Crucifix (18th c.)

Perhaps my favorite depiction of Christ on the Cross, this is a broken Crucifix carved in ivory by some anonymous artist from (probably) the early 18th century. It’s not even on display anywhere: just in the reserves of the Walters collection. Yet it shows the suffering and humanity of Christ in a startlingly realistic way, without ever losing sight of His Divinity and dignity:

Anonymous, Crucifix (18th c.)
Anonymous, Crucifix (18th c.)

“They shall look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:37; Zechariah 12:10).

Spiritual Reading: The Annunciation and Death of Christ

Today is both Good Friday, the day on which we commemorate the Death of Christ, and (ordinarily) Annunciation, the day on which we commemorate His conception. This is also the date of the original Good Friday, according to the Church Fathers. St. Augustine writes in On the Trinity, Book IV:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.

This convergence won’t happen again until 2157, so enjoy! You can read much more about it over at A Clerk of Oxford, exploring this mystical connection between the beginning and ending of Christ’s earthly life.

Saints of the Day: Saint Paul Miki and the 26 Martyrs of Japan

On February 5, 1597, the Japanese government sentenced 26 Catholics to death for the crime of believing in Jesus Christ. The youngest of these 26 was St. Luis Ibaraki, only 12 years old. The most famous is St. Paul Miki, a Jesuit studying for the priesthood (he died a year before he was to have been ordained). The contemporary account of their martyrdom is gripping:

The crosses were set in place. Father Pasio and Father Rodriguez took turns encouraging the victims. Their steadfast behavior was wonderful to see. The Father Bursar stood motionless, his eyes turned heavenward. Brother Martin gave thanks to God’s goodness by singing psalms. Again and again he repeated: “Into your hands, Lord, I entrust my life.” Brother Francis Branco also thanked God in a loud voice. Brother Gonsalvo in a very loud voice kept saying the Our Father and Hail Mary.

Our brother, Paul Miki, saw himself standing now in the noblest pulpit he had ever filled. To his “congregation” he began by proclaiming himself a Japanese and a Jesuit. He was dying for the Gospel he preached. He gave thanks to God for this wonderful blessing and he ended his “sermon” with these words: “As I come to this supreme moment of my life, I am sure none of you would suppose I want to deceive you. And so I tell you plainly: there is no way to be saved except the Christian way. My religion teaches me to pardon my enemies and all who have offended me. I do gladly pardon the Emperor and all who have sought my death. I beg them to seek baptism and be Christians themselves.”

Then he looked at his comrades and began to encourage them in their final struggle. Joy glowed in all their faces, and in Louis’ most of all. When a Christian in the crowd cried out to him that he would soon be in heaven, his hands, his whole body strained upward with such joy that every eye was fixed on him.

Anthony, hanging at Louis’ side, looked toward heaven and called upon the holy names — “Jesus, Mary!” He began to sing a psalm: “Praise the Lord, you children!” (He learned it in catechism class in Nagasaki. They take care there to teach the children some psalms to help them learn their catechism.)

Others kept repeating “Jesus, Mary!” Their faces were serene. Some of them even took to urging the people standing by to live worthy Christian lives. In these and other ways they showed their readiness to die.

Then, according to Japanese custom, the four executioners began to unsheathe their spears. At this dreadful sight, all the Christians cried out, “Jesus, Mary!” And the storm of anguished weeping then rose to batter the very skies. The executioners killed them one by one. One thrust of the spear, then a second blow. It was over in a very short time.

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