The first issue of Liturgy in 1980 carried articles by many eminent scholars on the meaning of the Holy Week liturgy. Offered here are reflections from Gordon Lathrop who identifies images of the story that culminates in the cross: the city of Jerusalem, a people defeated and brought back together, and life arising from death.
The despised city of Jerusalem becomes the center of the universe; the despised place of execution becomes the great place of gathering and pilgrimage.
By our common ecumenical keeping of this old feast of the dedication of the basilica at Jerusalem in A.D. 335––which feast subsequently became the feast of the Holy Cross––it is as if we were all together again in our longing both for all that vindicated Jerusalem meant, and, also, for a centered, whole church, itself all that ancient Jerusalem was hoped to be: the universal center and the joy for all peoples described in Jewish eschatological vision. We hope for a church that drinks from the liturgical strength of old Christian Jerusalem with its churches at the places of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Most profoundly, we pray for a church that finds its source, its center of gathering, and its unity in the cross that was raised in Jerusalem.
This prayer for the visible unity of the church is an implicit theme of the feast. . . .
Secondly, Lathrop reminds us that keeping the feast of Good Friday celebrates our hope for a world unified, in which poor and oppressed people are freed from suffering. We celebrate, in effect, our longing for that which bind us on this day.
The lords of this world also have a Lord and final judge––and he is among us as one who serves and suffers. For us the Constantinian imagery of the feast stands not for the triumph of the church but for the eschatological triumph of the cross and, with it, the final remembering and vindication of all the little and forgotten peoples of the world. . . .
The third image is of healing:
A dying old man sees the cross and lives; the death-giving cross now becomes the sign and gift of life. When three crosses were found in the excavation for the basilica in Jerusalem, the cross of Christ was identified, according to the legend, because by its touch a dying woman was restored to life.
The icon and the story mean to witness to the center of our faith: Christ’s death is for our life. In him the very stuff of our loss and death is transformed into the source of life. We are healed in our deepest illness, our chaos, our dissolution, our death. The bishop lifts the cross and the tree of life is proclaimed. The lectionary also includes many images of the stuff of bitterness and death made into the source of life. . .
All the reversals of the feast––despised Jerusalem become the joy and center of the universe; a persecuted people vindicated; one who is as good as dead made to live––are meant to bear witness to this central reversal: the cross is lifted for life. This image of the feast is simply a sign for what is at the heart of Christian faith, for the reversal to which and from which the whole tradition of biblical reversals flows: a crucified man is the source of life. The “exaltation of the cross” is a paradox and, at the same time, the sign and foretaste of the eschatological reversal God promises––the sorrowful shall rejoice, the barren shall bear, the poor shall reign, the hungry shall feast, and the dead shall live. It is thereby a sign of the core paradox and core reversal of Christian hope: this death is life. . . .
The figure of Jesus in Johannine Christology is like a revealer or redeemer of gnostic description, but only in a paradoxical way. He comes down from the light realm and he returns to glory, gathering with him in his return all the people of the light. But “go up,” “return to the Father,” and “glorify” are all used in John with the same ambiguity that we find in our hyposis: they all indicate Jesus’ death. All gnostic expectation (indeed, all religious hope) is thereby radically broken and remade. This redeemer returns, goes up, makes a place for his own, takes them to God, reveals the heavens, is glorified with the glory he had before in his death. For this one his “being lifted up” is his being lifted on a cross. . . .
And he draws to himself not just the light-people, but all people, all things. The place to which he draws them is not some place else; it is to himself. The truth he shows them is in himself. The resurrection narratives say the same thing. In the wounds that the crucified-risen one shows to the church are peace and life and the Spirit and forgiveness and the place of the meeting with God. This basic paradox––in the wounds are life; in the cross is glory––is the paradox to which the feast is faithful, and it is the paradox found in each of the central Johannine texts of the feast. . . .
The cross. . . invites all to gaze upon the central mystery. All are invited: desolate Jerusalem now made joyful, the dying woman now made alive, the whole disjointed world now given a center––and each of us who have known in little ways the passage out of devotion to death into the strong hope for life. The cross lifted draws us to him who is lifted. His lifting up, his death, draws us to himself, into the very stuff of death transformed, into life. . . .
Jewish and Christian speculation and poetry knew, in common with much of human religion, the image of the great tree, the world tree, the tree of life, Yggdrasil, giving a foundation to all things and a place for them to be at rest; binding together all contraries, forming all diversities of our human nature into a unity; providing fruit for eating and leaves for healing and oil for anointing to life and joy, shimmering with light; growing in the midst of paradise or on the great mountain or in the heart of the city beside the flowing water of life. . . .
Gordon Lathrop, “Tree of Death, Tree of Life,” Liturgy 1, no. 1 (1980): 2-9
Gordon Lathrop is emeritus professor of liturgy, author of the trilogy beginning with Holy Things (Fortress, 1993) and most recently The Four Gospels on Sunday: The New Testament and the Reform of Christian Worship (Fortress, 2012).