The Sacred Triduum: The Veneration of the Cross and the Rite of the Presanctified

Continuing from the previous entry on the Lessons and the Solemn Collects of the Mass of Good Friday, here I will examine the rest of the unique rituals of Good Friday.

The Veneration of the Cross

Having returned to the altar after removing their chasubles, the deacon approaches the altar and takes the veiled altar Cross and brings it to the priest. All three sacred ministers will be standing on the floor of the sanctuary on the Epistle side. The priest, turned to the people, holds the cross so that the corpus, under the veil, faces towards the people. The Cross is then uncovered in three stages.

The priest first unveils the upper part of the Cross so that the title inscription, I.N.R.I., is uncovered. He then lifts the cross to the height of his face and chants on a low note, “Ecce lignum Crucis” (“Behold the wood of the Cross”). All kneel, the deacon and subdeacon then singing with the priest “in quo salus mundi pependit” (“whereon was hung the world’s salvation”). To this the choir responds, “Venite adoremus” (“O come, let us worship”), and everyone in the church kneels except for the priest.

The ministers ascend to the middle altar step, still on the Epistle side, and the priest unveils the right arm and head of the corpus. Facing the people again he again sings “Ecce lignus Crucis” on a slightly higher pitch, with the same responses following as before. The ministers then finally ascend to the middle of the altar, the priest unveiling the whole Cross and singing again in a higher pitch, with the same responses given. When the priest has completely unveiled the Cross the servers also unveil the processional cross and whatever others that might be veiled in the church.

The priest then carries the unveiled Cross to the cushion on the purple carpet that was prepared by the servers earlier. The priest lays the Cross upon the cushion, so that the upper part is propped up by the cushion. The ministers genuflect to the Cross and go to their seats, where they remove their maniples. They will then, as will the entire altar party and all the attending clergy in choir, remove their shoes. The veneration of the Cross is done barefoot, an ancient act of repentance. As this is being done the choir will begin to sing the Improperia, known as the “Reproaches” in English.

The Reproaches are some of the most beautiful ecclesiastical compositions of the Roman Rite, and of great dramatic force. It is one of the very few elements of the Good Friday liturgy that was attempted to be incorporated into some recent revisions of the Prayer Book. I say attempted, because it was hacked up in a truly ghastly fashion in the American 1979, which was then carried over into the Canadian BAS and ACNA 2019 uncritically. The Reproaches in their authentic form is lengthy, and I won’t examine it at length here. But I will reproduce the first verse to show an element that I have found deeply striking. The Reproaches first begin:

℣. Popule meus, quid feci tibi? Aut in quo contristavi te? Responde mihi. (My people, what have I done unto thee? Or wherein have I wearied thee? Answer me.)
℟. Quia eduxi te de terra Ægypti: parasti Crucem Salvatori tuo. (I brought thee forth from the land of Egypt, but thou hast prepared a Cross for thy Saviour.)

After this is sung the Trisagion, an ancient hymn that will be immediately familiar to anyone who has attended the Divine Liturgy of the Byzantine Rite, alternating between Greek and Latin in this way:

℟. Hagios o Theos. (Holy God)
℟. Sanctus Deus. (Holy God)
℟. Hagios Ischyros. (Holy Almighty)
℟. Sanctus Fortis. (Holy Almighty)
℟. Hagios Athanatos, eleison hymas. (Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us)
℟. Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis. (Holy and Immortal, have mercy upon us)

This fascinating use of the Trisagion, tying in both the Greek East and the Latin West in this ancient liturgy, is repeated three times, with the rest of the Reproaches consisting of a reproach said in the representation of Christ followed by the verse, “Popule meus…”, which opened the Reproaches.

While the Reproaches are being sung, the priest alone first approaches the Cross. Leaving his seat, he first prostrates at the end of the purple carpet, rises, makes another prostration halfway across the carpet, rises, and finally makes another prostration immediately before the cross. The priest then kisses the feet of the corpus, rises, genuflects, and returns to his seat. There he will put back on his shoes and don his Eucharistic vestments again. This kind of prostration is something one also witnesses in the Byzantine Rite, which the Eastern faithful do on some of the most solemn occasions. After the priest, the deacon and subdeacon approach the Cross together, venerating it in the same manner as the priest before them. Afterwards they also put on their shoes and Eucharistic vestments, with the deacon retaining the “broad stole”. The attending clergy follow, and then the choir. The servers venerate the Cross after the choir.

The Cross is then brought outside the sanctuary, with the carpet and cushion, and laid upon the cushion and carpet at the entry of the choir in the same manner as before. The faithful there venerate the Cross. If the veneration of the Cross extends for some time due to the number of the faithful, the choir may sing the hymn, Pange lingua, with each verse of the hymn followed by the response “Crux fidelis, inter omnes; Arbor una nobilis…” (“Faithful Cross, above all other; one and only noble Tree…”).

Meanwhile, after all three sacred ministers have been fully vested again at their seats an acolyte brings the missal from the altar and holds it before them. The ministers then read the Reproaches, the priest saying the verses and the ministers answering appropriately as recounted above. When the ministers have finished, the acolyte returns the missal to the altar.

As the veneration of the Cross by the faithful is coming to a close, an acolyte lights the altar candles, and the candles of the servers. The deacon then spreads the corporal on the altar and lays the purificator on the Epistle side. During this time genuflections are not made to the altar, but to the Cross.

After all have venerated the Cross, the deacon retrieves it and puts it back on the altar. When the deacon kneels to pick up the Cross everyone in the choir also kneel and remaining kneeling as Cross passes before them on the way to the altar. After the Cross is placed back on the altar, the acolytes take away the cushion and carpet.  Then follows a procession to the Sacrament.

The Procession to the Altar of Repose

Similar to the day before, a solemn procession is made to the Altar of Repose to retrieve the Sacrament. There will be two thurifers, just like on Maundy Thursday, but no incense will be imposed on the way to the Altar of Repose. The altar party, attending clergy, and willing laity, all process to the Altar of Repose in silence. When they arrive at the altar all make a prostration. They all arise, and the ministers approach the altar and kneel on the lowest step, and everyone kneels with them.

The deacon first goes up to the altar and opens the urn, then returns to his place. The priest then imposes incense into the two thuribles without giving a blessing. As the priest returns to a kneeling posture the deacon hands him a thurible, and the priest censes the Sacrament as yesterday. After the censing the priest is fitted with a white humeral veil, and the deacon rises to retrieve the Chalice from the urn and gives it to the priest who receives it still kneeling. The sacred ministers then rise and everyone forms a procession in the same manner as the procession to the Altar of Repose yesterday, and processes back to the main sanctuary of the church. As the procession begins the choir sings the hymn, Vexilla Regis (“The Royal Banners”).

When they return before the High Altar the sacred ministers genuflect. The deacon then kneels before the priest and receives the Chalice. He then places the Chalice upon the altar and unties the veil, but leaves the Chalice covered. When the deacon receives the Chalice, the priest and subdeacon kneel on the lowest altar step, and the master of ceremonies relieves the priest of the humeral veil. The priest and subdeacon then rise, the deacon on the priest’s side. The thurible is brought to the priest, and the priest imposes incense again, without a blessing. The priest then censes the Sacrament again, and the Rite of the Presanctified properly begins.

The Rite of the Presanctified

The sacred ministers ascend the altar and genuflect before it. The deacon then unveils the Chalice, and takes off the paten and pall, and holds the paten over the corporal. The priest then takes the chalice and carefully lets the consecrated Host slide out of the chalice onto the paten. The Sacrament should not be touched, and if the priest does touch the Host he must purify his fingers. The priest places the empty chalice upon the corporal as usual, and receives the paten from the deacon. The priest then gently allows the Sacrament to slip from the paten unto the corporal, with no signs being made. The paten is then placed upon the corporal on his right.

An acolyte approaches the altar with the cruets, genuflecting before ascending the steps. The deacon then pours wine into the Chalice, and the subdeacon pours a little water in. All of this is done as at a normal Mass, but without blessings and prayers being said. The deacon then hands the Chalice to the priest, who then replaces it on the corporal. The deacon covers the Chalice with the pall.

Like at the Offertory of an ordinary Mass, the thurifer approaches with the thurible, who again imposes incense in silence and censes the Sacrament, Chalice, Cross, and altar as usual. Neither the priest nor anyone else is censed. His hands are ritually washed in silence. Genuflections are made according to the same principles at Benediction.

The ministers then return to the middle of the altar and the priest bows and says the Offertory prayer, “In spiritu humilitatis…” (“In a humble spirit…”). The priest then kisses the altar, genuflects, turns to the people and says the “Orate fratres…” (“Pray, brethren…”). The response, “Suscipiat Dominus…” (May the Lord recieve…”), is not given by the faithful as usual, nor does the priest turn in a circle as usual and instead turns back to the altar the same way. The usual parts that follow in the Mass are then omitted, the most glaring absence being the Canon. No Eucharistic prayer is said–there is no consecration. Instead, after facing the altar again the priest immediately moves to the “Oremus. Praeceptis salutaribus moniti….” (“Let us pray. Admonished by salutary precepts…”) and then sings the Lord’s Prayer and the “Libera nos” (“Deliver us…”) in a ferial tone. He says this prayer with his hands extended, but no other gestures or signs made. The faithful answer: Amen.

The ministers then genuflect, and the deacon and subdeacon kneel behind him. The priest passes the paten under the Host, and solemnly elevates the Presanctified Body for it to be seen by all.

presanctified elevation

After the elevation the deacon and subdeacon rise, and the deacon uncovers the chalice. The celebrant then performs the fraction of the Host over the chalice as usual, and mingles the fraction in the chalice. All of this is done in silence without signs. The priest then bows and says the prayer “Perceptio corporis tui…” (“Partaking thy Body…”) silently, genuflects, and says the the usual Mass prayers that follow: “Panem coelestem accipiam…” (“I will recieve the bread of heaven…”) and the threefold “Domine, non sum dignus” (“Lord, I am not worthy…”). He then receives the Holy Communion, making the sign of the cross with the Host, as usual. The subdeacon uncovers the Chalice, the ministers genuflect, then the priest gathers the fragments of the Sacrament on the corporal and places them into the Chalice. The priest then consumes from the Chalice in silence without signs. The ablutions are done as usual. Only the celebrating priest communes at the Mass of the Presanctified.

The subdeacon dries the Chalice and rebuilds it as usual. Meanwhile the deacon takes off the “broad stole” and wears the folded chasuble again. The ministers then return to the altar and the priest, bowing, says the prayer, “Quod ore sumpsimus Domine…” (“Into a pure heart, O Lord…”). The ministers then descend the altar steps, genuflect, and leave to the sacristy in silence with the altar party and the attending clergy.

After the altar party have exited, the choir recites Vespers in monotone, just as they did on Maundy Thursday. Meanwhile, servers strip the altar again, except for the Cross and candles. When the choir concludes Vespers, the altar candles are extinguished. The Altar of Repose is also stripped of all of its ornamentation before the final Tenebrae of Holy Saturday begins. The church thus is left utterly bereft, with the faithful left only to look upon the unveiled Cross on the empty altar.

Thus ends the ancient liturgy of Good Friday, which in my opinion is the most striking and astonishing liturgy of the Sacred Triduum. It is also this liturgy, moreso than any other part of the Sacred Triduum, that was utterly eviscerated and rendered unrecognizable by the Roman reforms of 1955.

A brief theological observation of the Mass of the Presanctified

The last parts of the Mass of the Presanctified, the procession to the Altar of Repose and the Rite of the Presanctified itself, emphasize the inseparable relationship between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and this liturgical expression unveils, perhaps in the clearest possible way, the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Sacrifice of the Crucifixion. The implication this has for the theology of the Eucharist is unmistakable: the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and the Mass of the Presanctified confess an intimate relationship between what happened in the Upper Room and Calvary; indeed, the Body broken and the Blood shed at the Last Supper was the very flesh of the Lord on the Cross the next day; indeed that flesh of Christ speared by Longinus is the bread that is broken, the blood and water that pours out from the Christ’s wound is the wine and water of the chalice. The Orthodox express this relationship symbolically in their use of a liturgical spear, which the priest uses to cut the Lamb (the bread that will be consecrated) from the larger prosphoron (the special leavened loaf that is prepared for use in the Liturgy) in preparation for the Eucharistic celebration.

Though there be no consecration at the Mass of the Presanctified it is unmistakably a Mass, carrying recognizable form and content of ordinary Masses. The lack of the Eucharistic prayer is shocking, given that the Canon is the very heart of the Mass, its very rule. But there is no need for the Canon on this day, no need for the holiest prayer of the Western Church to be said, no need for the most holy sacramental mystery to occur on the day of the Death of the Lord, for the Sacrifice of Calvary is the very same Sacrifice of the Mass.

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