“How do you square the circle?”

 Note:  I am doing a short series of postings about a few of the more memorable church services I have witnessed.  These entries took place years ago, and they are taken from my private journal.

This year, Good Friday falls on April 22.  What follows is a memorable Good Friday service I attended with a friend several years ago.

April 10, 2004 Good Friday

This evening we went to Good Friday service at Blessed Sacrament on North Davis in Arlington.  Judy and I call this the spaceship church because the abstract device above the altar – a highly stylized chalice that you have to stare at a while to figure out – looks like a spaceship.  High above the altar, at the very top of the vaulted ceiling, is a blue window with another spaceship looking figure sending down rays of some kind.  This is actually a white dove – the Holy Spirit – descending on Jerusalem.

The rest of the church building is more traditional.  12 blue windows – six on each side of the sanctuary, above the Stations of the Cross – depict the apostles.  The cross on the altar is draped with a red cloth, representing the blood of Christ.  The pulpit is also covered in red.  A piano sits stage left of the altar.

The service began with the altar party moving silently down the aisle, led by Father Joe Scantlin, a pleasant fellow who reminds me of the actor Tom Bosley only with thinning gray hair.  Father Joe is 71 and has been a priest for almost 45 years.  He was raised in Ft. Worth.  His dad did not come into the Catholic Church until Joe went off to seminary.  This evening, Father Joe wore red and was accompanied by a deacon dressed in a white robe with a red sash and two boys – altar servers – dressed in white robes tied with red cords.

The deacon, a strong-voiced man, read a Good Friday dialogue (the Passion) as narrator, with Father Joe as Jesus, a woman and another man taking various roles and the assembly responding at times.

When it came time for the homily, Father Joe stood at the front of the altar and spoke in a low-key, modest, but engaging style.  His theme was redemptive suffering.  He began by asking, “How do you square the circle?  How do you get any joy out of the cruel, unjust story of the crucifixion?  How do we get any good out of it?  We have trouble with redemptive suffering.  We avoid suffering at all cost.  But we have to deal with it.  We are forced to deal with it.”  He told about a young parishioner who has ALS.  Father Joe said, “I have never been around him when he doesn’t have something of faith.”  He said the young man is a real symbol of redemptive grace.  He even manages to tell jokes and bring laughter.  Father Joe said, “I’m sure we have all had things happen in our life that we cannot do anything about.  Those are the times when we have to get on our knees and call on our faith.”  He said that whenever there is suffering, God’s grace is there.  Without Good Friday, there is no Easter.  This is the mystery of faith.  Redemptive suffering is sometimes a circle within a square.

This is fine rhetoric, but as far as I understand it, as a practical matter, it only means making the best of a bad situation by having a positive attitude.  Difficult yes, but no great mystery.

After the homily, the altar party recessed up the aisle to the back of the church while the congregation sang Bach’s “O Sacred Head Surrounded” – other churches sing it as “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” – one of my favorite hymns.  You always learn something by reading the fine print in the hymnal.  In this case, I learned the Latin text is: Salve Caput Cruentatum.  Ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux.

There was a moment’s silence, then Father Joe and the others moved back down the aisle.  This time he held in front of him a wooden cross, something over 5 feet high.  As he moved down the aisle, the congregation turned to face the cross.  He paused three times along the aisle and sang a refrain: Behold the wood of the cross on which has hung our salvation.  Each time the congregation responded with the same refrain.  The two altar servers walked by his side, holding candles.  The deacon walked behind, carrying elements of the Eucharist.  When they reached the steps of the altar, Father Joe laid the cross on the steps.  He kneeled and kissed the cross.

Then the Eucharist.  As congregants moved to the altar to receive the elements, they sang “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”.

The entire service was powerful in its dignity and symbolism.  But the most moving part was at the very end when the congregation lined up in the aisle to venerate the cross.  As two ladies sang a beautiful, very short, Latin piece, Crucem Tuam, by Jacques Berthier, the altar servers lifted the cross and held it at an angle while one person at a time came forward.

Crucem tuam
Adoramus, domine.
Resurrectionem tuam
Cantate domine

What was striking was not only the reverence, but the equalizing effect it has on a diverse group of people.  People of all ages, shapes and colors, and, presumably, stations in life, lined up in total silence and waited their turn at the cross.  Most kissed the cross – with each kiss, one of the servers gently wiped the area with a white cloth – but others touched the cross and a few merely kneeled or bowed and crossed themselves.  But each one, of his or her own free will, took the time to venerate the cross.  One small boy kissed it hurriedly and moved on, the way he might kiss his sister.  One young couple knelt and kissed the cross in unison.  Most who kissed the cross did so on the lower portion, near where the knees or feet would be.  Some older, less limber folks, and a couple of big-bellied fellows who couldn’t manage a kneeling posture, settled for kissing one of the arms.  A burly guy with a crew-cut, an ear-stud and a wallet and keys chained to his belt – he looked like he could whip your ass after a few beers – was an incongruous figure kneeling and kissing the cross.  He was followed by a courtly old man with white hair, dressed in a coat and tie, walking with a cane, who did not let his age or his cane keep him from kneeling as far as he could and kissing.  Out of respect for Judy’s faith, I walked with her to the cross, but I stepped aside just before reaching it so as not to hinder the person behind me.

With that, the service ended and we headed home.

Please let us know what you think about what we see.