The Corner

Life on a Friday Afternoon


At the Good Friday service at St. Mary the Virgin Episcopal Church — the historic Anglo-Catholic parish near Times Square affectionately known as “Smoky Mary’s,” owing to its generous clouds of billowing incense — the Passion According to St. John was chanted twice today. Different parts were taken by a narrator, by men and women of the choir, and by the congregation. I grew up Roman Catholic, and the custom in RC churches was (and is, I think) for the priest/celebrant to play the role of Jesus, and the congregation to say the lines of the mob condemning him. At St. Mary’s today, the choir played the role of the angry mob, and the congregation that of Jesus. This was new to me, but makes a point equally valid to the one made in the RC practice. In the latter, more familiar (to me) practice, the congregation is reminded that it is guilty of the sins that condemned Christ to the Cross on that Friday long ago. But when the congregation chants the words of Jesus, it is reminded that it, today, is part of the Body of Christ, the very same Christ who voluntarily underwent that suffering and rose on the third day. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “We are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son.” We sent him to the Cross; but we also died with him and rise with him.

Another Good Friday highlight in New York today was the Three Hours’ preaching on the Seven Last Words from the Cross at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue. This, too, is an Anglo-Catholic church, but in this case with perhaps a little more stress on the “Anglo”: Its world-famous choir is justly renowned for its conservation of the English choral tradition. The church is best known, in fact, for its music; but today the preaching there was stellar. (I did not attend the service, but listened to parts of it on the church’s live webcast.) Canon Andrew Dietsche rendered the message of the Cross in all its radical, devastating, counter-cultural power, reminding hearers that when Christ said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he did not first demand of them repentance, or contrition, or reparation: They were in the “white-hot” fury of their sin, and “would do it again in a heartbeat.” That was the moment in which Christ forgave them. When the typical person — I am speaking of myself here — is willing to forgive, it’s usually after his anger at the sinner has become wearisome to him. The life to which Christ calls us is different: challenging and indeed terrifying. But we receive, today, glimpses of the joy that is available to us, in and through it. One day, we pray, it will be as easy to us as breathing is now; may that day hasten.

IMPORTANT P.S. I see that Canon Dietsche’s whole presentation can be listened to on demand on the St. Thomas Church website. I intend myself to revisit the parts I heard earlier today, and listen to the parts I missed. If you are looking for some wonderful meditations for this holy weekend, I strongly urge you to listen to this.

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