Saturday, April 23, 2011

What's good about "Good Friday?"

What’s good about “Good Friday?” It is my least favorite day of the liturgical year. I suppose it should be, considering the magnitude of what occurred over 2000 years ago. I struggle each year with how I should honor this holy yet somber day.

I know what I am called to do. This is one of the two high holy days of the year when Catholics fast—which permits two small meals and one full meal. We are to abstain from meat. I believe most Catholics, myself included, are total wimps when it comes to this traditional spiritual practice. Muslims fast for nearly a month during the high holy season of Ramadan. I will forever thank Hakeem Olajuwon for his strict observance of it, which occurred during virtually every season of his NBA career. It is a serious challenge for me, and I’m not even a professional athlete. His example inspires me.Liturgically the Church offers no shortage of ways to celebrate the Lord’s Passion. My parish, St. Dominic’s began the day with Tenebrae. It also held Stations of the Cross, Seven Last Words, Confessions and concluded the day with the Liturgy of the Word, veneration of the Cross, and a Communion service. Each practice is colored by the burden of Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Each one evokes the reality of Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross. We leave in silence.

Whether or not I am at church mid-day, I try to be in silence from noon to three. I don’t spend the evening of Good Friday like other Fridays—no happy hour, no going out to dinner with friends. I hate to admit it, but it’s almost a relief when Good Friday has passed! So again, what’s good about Good Friday?

Lorne Hanley Duquin of Catholic San Francisco writes "In the English language the term “Good Friday” probably evolved from God’s Friday in the same way that “Good-bye” evolved from God be with you." I challenged myself to make this year’s Good Friday, God’s Friday.I began the day working at Martin de Porres House of Hospitality. As I served hot steaming bowls of oatmeal I was delighted to hear “It’s Good Friday” more than I expected. To hear “Happy Good Friday” from our brothers and sisters on the street was a humbling experience. Many days are Good Fridays for them.

I went from Martin’s to Tenebrae, I fasted as best I could and concluded the day by joining a friend to see the documentary film, Bill Cunningham: New York. The New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, a Catholic, has been obsessively and inventively chronicled fashion trends and high society charity soirĂ©es for the Times Style section in his columns “On the Street” and “Evening Hours.” The film was a portrait of "a dedicated artist whose only wealth is his own humanity and unassuming grace." And the irony is that it was a tremendously poignant way to conclude Good Friday.

What could the story of a man who has dedicated his life to fashion possibly have to do with the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus? What could be more distant from our Lord's passion and death?

Cunningham’s success is largely because of what his eye can see. He sees clearly because he has eliminated most distractions from his life. He is not weighed down by cell phone, iPad or laptop. He navigates his bicycle through Manhattan as if it were a residential park. He is unaffected by wealth, class or privilege. His body of work bears witness to his belief "He who seeks beauty will find it."

And in a small way, I think this mantra applies to Good Friday. I feel challenged to seek the truth this day reveals, but also the beauty in it.

Some beauty is overt and easy to capture. For example, I was enamored with the gold lettered jerseys the San Francisco Giants wore on Opening Day. These special uniforms were to honor the World Series Championship and the accolades that continued into the 2011 season—the ring ceremony, raising of the Championship pennant, even the presentation of the “Rookie of the Year” award. But beauty can also be found in unlikely people and places, as Cunningham proves.Martin de Porres at 6:15 a.m. is one of those unlikely places. On Good Friday, I found it as an African American man in his mid 20s asked me for his second bowl of oatmeal. Here before me was a man who had spent the night either in a shelter or on a street. He arrived cold, tired and hungry and yet he came for breakfast wearing the most striking yellow headband. For some reason, I paused and looked twice at him. His handsome face, his beard, this canary yellow headband. It served as tremendous visual reminder that the dignity of the human person is truly inherent. Life events and people may compromise it, but as my faith professes, it cannot and should not ever be taken away.

And that subtle truth reminds me of Christ on the cross. Crucifixion was so horrific a punishment, that the Romans ordered it to non-Romans alone. It sought to the eliminate the dignity of God made man, but Jesus triumphed.

Jesus hung in agony and despair for three hours and yet, he had the strength to forgive the “good thief.” With his own mother at the foot of the cross, He was able to order her future care and well-being to His beloved disciple John. He even had the ability to utter seven final words not of hate, but of surrender and grace. He said “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

The beauty of the cross is in a great many things, but I came to realize this Good Friday, that it rests particularly in the revelation of Christ’s human dignity until the very end. This year, Easter will only be that much more beautiful.

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