Who is hanging on the Cross today? Who is it? An innocent man, wrongly condemned? A great man, put to death by the small-minded? A radical free thinker, cornered by conservatives? The Incarnate Word of God, suffering for us?
How we identify Jesus Christ entirely determines our experience of Good Friday. For a Catholic, standing in the heart of the Church, the identity of Jesus is clear. In fact, it’s proclaimed every Sunday: ‘I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father’.
If what we say in the Creed is true, whom are we looking at on the Cross? We’re looking at one of the Trinity, the Creator of all things, who holds all things in being, including all of us, including those who crucified him. In all of literature no greater irony has ever been imagined: the almighty God-man is overcome by mere humans, who themselves receive all their power from him. The One who ought to be ‘adored and glorified’ and set on a throne is instead stuck to a piece of wood and bleeds to death. The Liberator is bound. The Source of all life and colour and energy in the universe breathes his last, and leaves behind a grey corpse.
If we look at the Cross through the lenses of Christian orthodoxy, we see an unbelievably, unimaginable event, a theo-drama which renders us awestruck. Humanity has never seen anything like this. In all our religious and philosophical imaginings, we have never conceived of anything like this.
In the liturgies of the Church, East and West, the extraordinary nature of the crucifixion is powerfully expressed, nowhere more so than in the 15th antiphon of Good Friday matins (held on Holy Thursday evening) in the Byzantine liturgy. This is the song which introduces the veneration of the Cross, and it places the crucifixion in the full context of Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy. In the video above, you will hear the Arabic version of the antiphon, sung in the Melkite Church. With equal parts sorrow and amazement, the cantor intones:
Today he was hung upon a tree, He who hung the earth upon waters,
A crown of thorns was placed on the king of the angels,
He who wrapped the heavens with clouds was wrapped in a purple robe of mockery,
He who freed Adam in the Jordan was struck,
The bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails,
And the Son of the Virgin was pierced with a spear.
The antiphon concludes, ‘We kneel before your Passion, O Christ’. In the face of the Cross, this is all the awestruck Christian believer can do.