Good Friday's Silence Speaks

Silence speaks. On a first date, long periods of silence, say, “This is not going well. Why is this human being so painfully boring?” On a hike through a gorgeous mountain pass, silence bespeaks wonder at the created universe. At a funeral, silence signifies the pain of losing one we have loved so deeply. At a wedding, it testifies to the joy of nuptial love.

In this way, silence is not the absence of meaning, but a kind of privileged form of poetic discourse.  Silence is the linguistic posture of wonder, of awe, of mourning, of contemplation.

The Good Friday liturgy begins in silence, the priest and deacons processing through the aisle then lying prostrate upon the floor. Indeed, the silence in the church on Good Friday is as much visual as aural. The altar, bare. The cross, empty. The Eucharist, absent. Candles, snuffed out. Even the stomach is empty. Yet, as the liturgy progresses something begins to happen to the permeating silence.

It gives up its space to the word, to the image.

Lengthy passages of Scripture from Isaiah, from Hebrews, from the Gospel of John (either said or sung) fill the space. Intercessions are chanted, the longest and most comprehensive of the year, making it quite clear that Christ’s death upon the cross is about the fullness of humanity—not just the small clan gathered in the space that day.

The visual austerity is broken when the cross, concealed to human eyes, is revealed before the world: Behold, the wood of the cross, on which is hung our salvation—come let us adore.

The cross, unadorned with the body of Christ, is filled with kisses of lips, gentle tears of sorrow, and images of the human body bowing before it. When the Son of Man is lifted up, he shall draw all things to himself.

And the absence of the Eucharist is but momentary. For, we do not pray the Eucharistic prayer but we consume nonetheless the body of Christ. The body of Christ is not visually upon the cross. But, it is even more present as we eat his flesh, as we ourselves become his body.

So, the silence that begins the Good Friday liturgy—the visual austerity and aural emptiness—is one of anticipation and preparation. Before one consumes a large, delicious meal, it is often a good idea not to gorge oneself at Taco Bell. Likewise, this liturgy is slight on words at the beginning, nearly empty of images, so that we might become full of delicious words about the redeeming work of the Word made flesh.

Of course, this does not mean that our silence is necessarily the same as that of the rites of Good Friday. Our silence may be a sign of sorrow that the world still too often speaks words of injustice. The silence of the cross speaks here. Our silence may be one of spiritual emptiness, an internal clamor asking God to intervene where God has not thus far. The silence of the cross speaks here. Our silence may be one of disappointment that those we love most have failed us; that perhaps, even the ministers of the Church, those whose love is to be a sacrament of the divine love of the cross, have made dreadful noises muffling the divine Word. The silence of the cross speaks here.

The silence of the cross speaks to us this day through liturgical rites not because words are inadequate, but, because only such meaningful silence has the capacity to fill us.

Featured Image: Crucifix at the parish and pilgrimage church Kefermarkt, 1497, taken by Uoaei1 on 24 September 2016; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Timothy P. O’Malley

Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy, associate professional specialist in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame, and founding editor of Church Life Journal.

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