“That is the Good Friday of the twentieth century”


Isenheim Altar--Matthias Grünewald

In the great Passions of Johann Sebastian Bach, which stir our hearts anew each year during Holy Week, the terrible event of Good Friday is steeped in a transfigured and transfiguring beauty. These Passions do not, it is true, speak of the Resurrection—they end with the burial of Jesus—but in their eminent purity they speak to us of the certainty of Easter, of the certainty of that hope that is not extinguished even in the night of death. In recent times, this tranquil confidence of a faith that has no need to speak of the Resurrection because it lives and thinks in terms of it has become sadly unfamiliar to us.

In the Passion of the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, the holy repose of a community of believers who live always in the certainty of Easter has disappeared. Instead, we hear the agonized cries of the persecuted at Auschwitz; the cynicism and brutal voices of the commandos of this hell and the sycophantic cries of those who hope to curry favor by joining in the violence and so to save themselves from a like terror; the lashes of the anonymous, ever-present power of darkness; the hopeless sighs of the dying.

That is the Good Friday of the twentieth century. The face of mankind is ridiculed, spat upon, lacerated by man himself. From the gas chambers of Auschwitz, from the destroyed villages and brutally beaten children in Vietnam; from the slums of India, Africa, and Latin America; from the concentration camps of the communist world, which Solzhenitsyn has described so movingly and so graphically—from every side the “bleeding Head so wounded, reviled and put to scorn” looks upon us with a realism that makes impossible any aesthetic transfiguration.

If we want to unite the Good Friday of the twentieth century with the Good Friday of Jesus Christ, we must convert the cry of anguish of our century into Jesus’ cry to the Father for help—turn it into a prayer to the God who, despite all appearances, is truly near. We might, of course, carry our thought a bit further here and ask: Can we pray with honest hearts as long as we have done nothing to wipe the blood from those who have been tortured and to dry their tears? Is not Veronica’s gesture the very least we must do before we can even speak of prayer? Can we pray with the lips alone or does not prayer require the participation of the whole person? To raise these questions again each year is the crucial demand that Good Friday places upon us.

Pope Benedict XVI from Dogma und Verkündigung, in the Logos Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI Collection. Also in C0-Workers of the Truth: Meditations for Every Day of the Year.

“In spite of that, we call this Friday good”

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.

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.

T.S. Eliot, “East Coker” from Four Quartets