Prostration and Vestments on Good Friday

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Prostration and Vestments on Good Friday


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have a question concerning the liturgy of Good Friday. The sacramentary in use in the United States directs: "The priest and the deacon, wearing red vestments, go to the altar. There they make a reverence and prostrate themselves, or they may kneel" (Sacramentary, rev. 1985). 'Paschales Solemnitatis,' the Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts (Congregation for Divine Worship, 1988) directs "The priest and ministers make a reverence to the altar prostrating themselves. This act of prostration, which is proper to the rite of the day, should be strictly observed, for it signifies both the abasement of 'earthly man,' and also the grief and sorrow of the Church." These two directives seem to be contradictory to me. Do you find them contradictory? And, if so, which would take precedence? — M.E., New York.
Why is a chasuble prescribed instead of a cope for Good Friday? — J.C., Rochester, New York

A: The above mentioned circular letter itself clarifies the question of precedence in No. 5 of the document:

"[T]he Congregation for Divine Worship, after due consideration, thinks that it is a fitting moment to recall certain elements, doctrinal and pastoral, and various norms which have already been published concerning Holy Week. All those details which are given in the liturgical books concerning Lent, Holy Week, the Easter Triduum and paschal time retain their full force, unless otherwise stated in this document.

"It is the aim of this document that the great mystery of our redemption be celebrated in the best possible way so that the faithful may participate in it with ever greater spiritual advantage."

At first appearance there appears to be a contradiction as one document gives the option of kneeling while the other mentions only prostration.

The rubric in the new Latin Missal (2002), however, retains the option of kneeling albeit "pro opportunitate."

I would say, therefore, that rather than contradicting the Missal the circular letter wishes to stress that the two possibilities are not equal and that, from the liturgical and symbolic point of view, the preferred posture at this moment is prostration.

The option of kneeling is wisely retained as no small number of priests might find prostration to be a somewhat arduous or even hazardous task. In some cases the efforts required at getting down, and getting up again could be ungainly and distract from the overall somberness of the occasion.

With respect to the use of the chasuble: The liturgy for Good Friday prior to the reform of the Roman Missal prescribed a complex series of rites and changes of vesture.

The priest wore an alb and black stole for the entrance, prayers and Passion. He assumed a black cope for the universal prayers but left the cope aside for the Adoration of the Cross. At the time of Holy Communion he substituted the black stole for a violet one and donned a violet chasuble in order to distribute Communion.

When the rite was reformed the color red was preferred to the use of black and violet. And the rite was simplified with the use of only one kind of vestment, the chasuble, throughout the celebration. The priest removes the chasuble (and may also remove his shoes) only while kneeling to adore the Cross.

The chasuble was probably preferred to the cope as a more suitable vestment for the distribution of Communion and perhaps also for practical purposes as many poor parishes would find it difficult to purchase a red cope to be used perhaps once or twice a year. ZE06032122

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Follow-up: Prostration and Vestments [04-04-2006]

Interesting feedback arrived on our March 21 column on prostration and the use of the chasuble on Good Friday.

The original questioner mentioned that there may be another contradiction in the rubrics and the circular letter on the Easter celebrations: "The sacramentary refers to the action of the priest and deacon, while the circular letter refers to the action of the priest and ministers (plural). As you point out, though, the instructions in the letter take precedence."

There is a difficulty, however. While the circular letter stated that it had precedence over earlier documents, the new Latin Missal is more precise and more authoritative. Here the rubrics specify that only the priest and deacon prostrate themselves while all other kneel.

Several readers asked about the proper vesture for deacons and other clergy at this celebration.

Only the priest who presides at the celebration, and all officiating deacons, wear red chasuble or dalmatic as the case may be.

In cathedrals, seminaries and other situations were they are available, the deacons who sing or read the Passion may be distinct from the ones assisting the celebrant.

These deacons may wear dalmatics. Priests who assist in proclaiming the Passion wear either alb or surplice along with a red stole. Lay readers may wear an alb.

All other priests and deacons present wear either alb and red stole or choir dress and red stole.

Finally, a question came from an Indiana reader about a particular expression.

She writes: "I have a concern about the wording or action that takes place on Good Friday, that is, the 'Adoration of the Cross.' I was taught that we may only adore or worship the Trinity, not any other saint or angel, and certainly not an inanimate object. Is this, then, the proper term to be used for such a rite? I have also heard it referred to as 'Veneration of the Cross,' yet the song we sing states, 'Come let us adore.' Could you please clarify for me?"

The official title for this rite is "Veneration of the Cross” and the reply to the invocation "This is the wood of the cross on which hung the Savior of the World” is "Come let us worship" ("venite adoremus").

The word "worship" in modern English is usually, albeit not exclusively, reserved to the divine.

It is true that the Church does not offer an act of adoration to a figure of wood but to Christ. All the same, the veneration of the crucifix on Good Friday is vested with a special intensity that is different from the respect shown toward the crucifix during the rest of the year.

For example, from the celebration of the Passion and on Holy Saturday until the Easter Vigil, one genuflects before the crucifix used in the celebration.

Historically, the reason for the use of this special gesture of veneration is probably because the rite of veneration of the cross originated in Jerusalem toward the end of the fourth century and in Rome in the seventh and were directed toward the principal relics of the True Cross kept in these cities.

Only later, when the rite became common, was the sign of veneration usually reserved to the True Cross extended to the crucifix used in the celebration.

While the object of adoration or worship is always Christ, the special veneration of the cross on these days seems to say that although the tabernacle is empty, all other images covered, and the Church silently awaits the resurrection, his divine presence is symbolized by the image of the cross through which he saved us from our sins.

By concentrating on the image of the cross the Church, as Louis Bouyer says, "causes us to realize what could not be discovered by the 'powers' who crucified the Lord of Glory, that in his cross is our glorification." ZE06040422

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