Triduum #3 – The Three Hours

St Mary’s is actually the first church that I’ve worked in which has had the tradition of three hour devotions on Good Friday, so I know well enough that its not the only thing to do on Good Friday. However, its a very particular devotion and one that I’ve grown to love. Indeed, its hard to imagine not keeping it.

The idea is that the church marks the time between 12 and 3 pm on Good Friday – the time at which Jesus was on the cross.

Here in Glasgow, the time is usually spent with readings from the Passion, preaching, music for meditation and above all silence. I’m usually amazed at how the time passes and like quite a lot of people, I’m always there for the whole thing. However, some come and go. Its always a hard thing to judge how many people come to church for this part of the triduum because of the coming and going.

The music tends to be solemn and beautiful. I often don’t know until the last minute quite what it will be. The default position is organ music for meditation but usually there are other offerings from Cathedral musicians, some of them stepping forward in Holy Week itself to volunteer something for this service.

The preaching is thoughtful, calm and measured today. Sometimes one person preaches the whole thing and sometimes (like today) its shared. I’ve done the whole thing a couple of times and its a marathon. Those who are more disciplined than I am write an address each week during Lent so that by the time Holy Week comes around all is more or less ready.

The tradition is seven sermons during the three hours. If its one voice, its a real test of a preacher to keep people focused and involved by the end. Sometimes people base it on the seven last words from the cross – the things that Jesus actually said on the cross that are recorded in the gospels. Sometimes its simply preaching on the Passion texts. (That’s what we’re doing today). I’ve known other schemes though too. I’ve heard a whole three hours devoted to the senses – including a wonderful sermon on the smell at the cross. I’ve also heard it done by preaching in the voice of the different participants – Peter, Mary, Pilate, the Centurian and so on.

Sometimes in St Mary’s the Cathedral Choir sing a service at night. If not, like today, when the St Mary’s Chorale is singing in the evening then the choir come for the last hour of the three.

The devotion ends with the singing of the Reproaches – a strange text which captures the bewilderment of the crucified one. “O My people, My people what have I done to you, how have I offended you answer me!” These are not words that Jesus said from the cross at all but an attempt to get inside his experience and to sing something from his perspective on what has happened. They describe the various ways in which God tried to save people in the Old Testament only to be rejected and spurned and see the cross as a continuation of that experience.

Its a long devotion. Its a worthy devotion. Its a holy devotion. And it is worth keeping well.

Triduum #2 – Veneration of the Cross

At St Mary’s we have a service of Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday morning at 0930. Its a very simple service – a few prayers and an opportunity again to reflect on the Passion readings. Here we use the Passion from the gospel of the year on Palm Sunday and John’s Passion on Good Friday.

There are two distinctive things about this service. The first is that the church is bare and stripped after the Thursday night’s events. The second is that there is an opportunity to venerate the cross at the end of the service.

The bare, sparse feel of the church on Good Friday is like no other point in the year. The yawning space at the front seems to gape open. There is no sacrament reserved on the High Altar. The font will be closed. Jesus is taken from us and there will be no sacraments now until Easter Day, if such a Day should happen. It always feels unlikely to me on Good Friday that joy will ever come back. There is beauty to be found on Good Friday but it is stark beauty, harsh beauty, hard fought beauty.

The veneration of the cross is simply an opportunity to do something physical. There’s no sermon at this service (which takes just about half an hour) but rather, a chance to come close to a simple cross and say a prayer. Some people will kiss the cross, some will touch it and hold it whilst they pray, some will bow deeply before it. It is a physical act that connects us with the wood of the cross. (There’s a lot of physical touch involved in the triduum – feet, cross, even the cleaning that will come tomorrow – its far from cerebral religion).

The building always seems hushed and quiet at this time. The removal of so many things the night before somehow seems to make it feel achingly quiet. The prayers from the night before seem to linger and meld with the confusion of what it can mean for Christ to have been taken by civil authority and put to death. In some ways there is no sense to be made of today but there is no sense to be made out of most violence.

Sometime today whilst things are quiet, along with one of the servers I’ll wash down the High Altar with vinegar and bitter herbs. It is a gentle and calm act which few people see, symbolising the laying out of Jesus’s body for burial. The smell of the vingegar and the herbs lingers on through the day – a combination of strangeness, cleanliness and bitterness.