Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 14th, 2017 by Joel Watts

4th century liturgy for Good Friday

The Journey of Egeria, Abbess and pilgrim to Jerusalem, late fourth century, Pilgrimage 37: SC 296, pp. 284–90, Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, tr. Gringras, pp. 110–3.

Egeria’s description shows how objects with sacred associations, and holy places, have helped to bring alive for Christians the historical events of Christ’s life and Passion from an early period of the Church’s life. As the Scriptures are read, the people, standing at the very place where Christ died, are deeply moved.

[On Good Friday,] following the dismissal from the cross, which occurs before sunrise, everyone … goes immediately to Sion to pray at the pillar where the Lord was whipped. Returning from there, everyone rests for a short time in his own house, and soon all are ready. A chair is set up for the bishop on Golgotha behind the cross, which now stands there. The bishop sits on his chair, a table covered with a linen cloth is set before him, and the deacons stand around the table. The gilded silver casket containing the sacred wood of the Cross is brought in and opened. Both the wood of the Cross and the inscription are taken out and placed on the table. As soon as they have been placed on the table, the bishop, remaining seated, grips the ends of the sacred wood with his hands, while the deacons, who are standing about, keep watch over it. There is a reason why it is guarded in this manner. It is the practice here for all the people to come forth one by one, the faithful as well as the catechumens, to bow down before the table, kiss the holy wood, and then move on. It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.

All the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross, they move on. No one, however, puts out his hand to touch the cross. As soon as they have kissed the cross and passed on through, a deacon, who is standing, holds out the ring of Solomon and the phial with which the kings were anointed. They kiss the phial and venerate the ring from more or less the second hour; and thus until the sixth hour all the people pass through, entering through one door, going out through another. All this occurs in the place where the day before, on Thursday, the Eucharist was offered. When the sixth hour is at hand, everyone goes before the cross, whether it is raining or whether it is hot. This place has no roof, for it is a sort of very large and beautiful courtyard lying between the Cross and the Anastasis. The people are so clustered together there that it is impossible for anything to be opened.

A chair is placed for the bishop before the cross, and from the sixth to the ninth hour nothing else is done except the reading of passages from Scripture. First, whichever Psalms speak of the Passion are read. Next, there are readings from the apostles, either from the Epistles of the apostles or the Acts, wherever they speak of the Passion of the Lord. Next, the texts of the Passion from the gospels are read. Then there are readings from the Prophets, where they said that the Lord would suffer; and then they read from the gospels, where the Passion is foretold. And so, from the sixth to the ninth hour, passages from Scripture are continuously read and hymns are sung, to show the people that whatever the Prophets had said would come to pass concerning the Passion of the Lord can be shown, both through the gospels and the writings of the apostles, to have taken place. And so, during those three hours, all the people are taught that nothing happened which was not first prophesied, and that nothing was prophesied which was not completely fulfilled. Prayers are continually interspersed, and the prayers themselves are proper to the day. At each reading and at every prayer, it is astonishing how much emotion and groaning there is from all the people. There is no one, young or old, who on this day does not sob more than can be imagined for the whole three hours, because the Lord suffered all this for us.

After this, when the ninth hour is at hand, the passage is read from the gospel according to St John where Christ gave up his spirit. After this reading, a prayer is said and the dismissal is given. As soon as the dismissal has been given from before the cross, everyone gathers together in the major church, the martyrium, and there everything which they have been doing regularly throughout this week from the ninth hour when they came together at the martyrium, until evening, is then done. After the dismissal from the martyrium, everyone comes to the Anastasis, and, after they have arrived there, the passage from the gospel is read where Joseph seeks from Pilate the body of the Lord and places it in a new tomb. After this reading a prayer is said, the catechumens are blessed, and the faithful as well; then the dismissal is given. On this day no one raises his voice to say the vigil will be continued at the Anastasis, because it is known that the people are tired. However, it is the custom that the vigil be held there. And so, those among the people who wish, or rather those who are able, to keep the vigil, do so until dawn; whereas those who are not able to do so, do not keep watch there. But those of the clergy who are either strong enough or young enough, keep watch there, and hymns and antiphons are sung there all through the night until morning. The greater part of the people keep watch, some from evening on, others from midnight, each one doing what he can.

SC Sources chrétiennes.

G. R. Evans and J. Robert Wright, The Anglican Tradition: A Handbook of Sources (London: SPCK, 1991), 35–37.

Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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