Our community carries its crosses on Good Friday

Christians carry a cross during a procession along Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City on Good Friday in 2014. (CNS/Reuters/Ammar Awad)

It was a subtle invitation, almost imperceptible really. I might have even missed it in the activity that swirled around the Triduum and Easter plans.

Yet, at 7 p.m., I was drawn back to church for the Good Friday liturgy. Yes, back to church. We had already spent a good portion of the day participating in the living Stations of the Cross in our community. But as the family settled into after-dinner routines, I realized I had a window of time that I wanted to fill by going back. That surprised me.

I certainly did not head back out of a sense of obligation. We had had a beautiful day thus far and the emotions of the living stations mingled with the anticipation of the Easter vigil did not make me feel I needed to show up again at church.

I did not head back out of a sense of tradition either. I grew up in a very Catholic family that never went to church on Good Friday. No, our way of reverencing Good Friday was to spend the afternoon listening to the entire production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." I love that music and was mesmerized by the songs, the details and its palpable sorrow. If tradition were my motivator, I would have dusted off my own copy of that CD and filled the house with those tones.

I wouldn't have pegged it as piety either -- I have never felt that comfortable with the veneration of the cross. The huge wooden cross is beautiful and earthy and intended to get us in touch with the vulnerability of Christ in this moment, but I never have felt really drawn to it. I think that is in part because the only time we ever see that cross in our parish is on Good Friday. The cross that hangs in the sanctuary or the cross we use in the weekly procession would probably have felt more symbolic to me, but the cross that gets hoisted out on Good Friday feels more like it is being paraded about rather than venerated.

Regardless of the reasons, I found myself driving back to church. As I headed into the parking lot, a good 15 minutes into the liturgy, I felt sheepish -- I didn't want anyone to notice me coming in so late.

But even that sheepishness didn't cause me to turn around. I realized that I didn't know exactly why I was back at church, and I didn't care who saw me come in late. There was a reason I was invited back at that moment and I was curious as to why. So I took a breath and headed in the doors.

Our community is a mix of beauty and imperfection. The music, the worship space, the lighting and the artwork are all points of grace in their own ways. And then there are the people. As I walked in, they had already started the procession up to the cross and I found myself frozen in the doorway watching their faces pass by.

First, I saw Lynn, the head usher for the evening liturgies. She takes her job seriously. But her frustration with other ushers or parishioners or visitors is so demonstrative that her role as subtle guide and hospitality feels more like a drill sergeant. She acknowledged my lateness with a little smile and then went on with her work wrangling reverent parishioners into line.

I noticed Kevin and Bob carrying the cross -- fathers of my children's classmates who have shared stories of kids and chaos.

Then there was Beth, a young woman with whom I journeyed through RCIA a few years ago. I had heard her chronic illness had gotten worse, but I didn't expect to see her so frail and using a cane.

And Barbara and her kids; this will be their first Easter without George.

I stayed at the back of the church, watching as people processed by. The husband of one of my best friends clasped my hand as he passed, both of us silently acknowledging her absence and how much we miss her, even though it has been several years since she died.

I noticed a young couple recently trained as eucharistic ministers holding their tiny newborn. There was Joseph and Jane and Jackie and the others who are at every daily liturgy and every Scripture study.

I realized in that quiet, solemn procession that I wasn't there to venerate the cross, but to venerate the crosses of our community.

The hushed darkness and slow music inched the rhythm of faces and hands and prayers silently past. More than once Lynn tried to get folks to venerate the cross two at a time, but no one was changing -- they came up individually and took their time.

My eyes moved across the crowd and saw our pastor in his seat on the altar. He was soaking in the slow movement, unprovoked by time. I could tell he, too, was reverencing each parishioner as they came forward.

The procession took nearly an hour and then the simple liturgy was over. I left quickly as if the heat of the flames were so close I feared being consumed by them.

With tears in my eyes, I sat in my car and thought: What does it mean to venerate or genuflect? I felt so strongly, that those words were all I could use to describe the experience of noticing and honoring and respecting the crosses that our community carried.

I came back to the word piety. What really is piety anyway? Although my initial thought was the usual definition that piety is "a belief accepted with unthinking conventional reverence," I have resisted that notion of piety as uncritical or uneducated. But my experience had nothing to do with unthinking and yet everything to do with getting out of my own thoughts to reverence God present in the community.

I sat in my car and searched the word piety. Google reminded me that piety is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesuit Fr. John Hardon defined piety as "the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service he deserves."

What does that mean -- disposed to render? Disposed, prompted to, by instinct or perhaps invitation.

The gift of piety is an invitation to respond, an invitation to follow and watch and notice and praise. Piety is the invitation to venerate. Imperceptible almost. But when we sense that surprising invitation and are curious enough to follow, we are invited to recognize God's nearness all around us. All we are asked for in return is ...

Well, I can't answer that one for you -- but how will you respond? How will you make sense of Good Friday?

[Christina R. Zaker is the director of field education at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. Her areas of research and interest include theological reflection and family spirituality.]

This story appeared in the Mar 25-Apr 7, 2016 print issue under the headline: Our community carries its crosses on Good Friday .

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