Easter is the door, and Good Friday is the key

How I have come to know—truly know—the importance of the central image of Christians from the earliest days, and why we must not hide this truth from others or hide it from ourselves.

(us.fotolia.com | t0m15)
(us.fotolia.com | t0m15)

Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.” General Instructions on the Roman Missal (308)

Last November at the 11:00 o’clock Mass on the Solemnity of Christ the King, I sat in the south transept of my parish church, the church of my youth, in a chair tucked away for the lector. Just over the chair is the parish’s large, antique crucifix—the kind often found in old French-Canadian parishes, impressive in its realism and its witness to death.

Having been in an elevated, central location for generations, I’m told that a pastor in the 1970s had placed the old crucifix briefly in a dumpster and then (after it was spotted by a parishioner) in its current, off-to-the-side location. For decades hence, the sanctuary’s central image has been a less dramatic statue of the Risen Christ.

From my vantage as lector that Sunday, I studied the old crucifix’s lifeless expression of Jesus Christ with an understanding only recently gained—the kind that comes after accompanying a loved one in their journey of sickness and death. Two months to the day before that Mass, my 93-year-old mother took her last breaths as complications of Parkinson’s Disease stilled a once vibrant, athletic, and loving woman.

As she died, my brother and I held her hands, which also held a rosary. She was at home, alone with two of her sons on an otherwise promising September morning. I had been her caretaker for twenty-five years—a role that began after my father’s death and that expanded year by the year, then day by day, with various complications and then the Parkinson’s diagnosis—a brutal, debilitating, mind-altering disease—and then the loss of a brother, my mom’s second son, and then, a week after that, the lockdown of COVID-19.

It was then that I truthfully became her full-time caregiver, in every meaning of that word.

The complicated realities of my mom’s final years unleashed with her death an even more complicated mix of emotions that I am still unravelling. And because of all this, I have come to see—truly see—the wisdom of paragraph 308 in the General Instruction for the Roman Missal. I have come to know—truly know—the importance of the central image of Christians from the earliest days, and why we must not hide this truth from others or hide it from ourselves.

Finding comfort in a fallen world

My mom was unconscious for just over a week before her death. During this vigil, I prayed the Rosary often out loud while holding her hand. On one occasion, I was graced with the image of the Resurrected Christ looming over us both, His standard planted about where my mom’s hand grasped mine and my rosary. It was a moment that came unbidden. It was a vision that as a believer I understood and should even have expected, for it was surely a promise that my mom’s soul had been claimed by the Lord of Life.

And yet, with its counterintuitive comfort, it is my parish’s crucifix—not its plain statue of the Risen Christ—that helps me grasp the promise of the resurrection of the body.

Why should this be the case? Should not the promise of Easter and the gift granted to me on my mother’s death bed speak more to me about such matters than the passion and death of Christ?

Of course, they do. But I can tell you that at present—here, outside Eden—I understand more clearly the kenotic truth of the Cross.

And if my instincts are correct, I am not alone.

Easter is the door. Good Friday is the key.

Let me say this another way: when I found myself that Sunday morning of the Solemnity of Christ the King staring at my parish’s crucifix, I was comforted with how closely Christ’s expressionless face resembled the face of my mother just moments before and just after her death. Never had I seen in any crucifix, even that one, an experience so close to my own.

There’s a reason why St. Paul instructs us that our eyes have not seen, nor ears have heard, the glory that is promised (1 Cor. 2:9/Isaiah 64:3). Yes, our souls stir during the celebration of Easter Masses. They are, after all, oriented to the truth of the resurrection of the body. And yet, in our fallen state in this fallen world, we are more fully aware of the promise of Easter because Easter is connected backwards through Holy Saturday to the sorrowful and ugly realities of Good Friday, and then into shadows of the Garden of Gethsemane.

When I tell the story of my mom’s last years, I remind myself that compared to the isolation and loneliness suffered by so many of the elderly and their families in this age of COVID-19, her story and mine aren’t so bad. In fact, God’s blessings during her life were abundant and often not subtle. But even then, before the worst of what was to come, the crucifix has always been central in my catechesis as I help prepare adults for their Sacraments of Initiation. When I speak of God’s embrace of suffering, when I point to the Cross, the men and women in my classes seem to listen more closely, because, I would imagine, they too know suffering all too well.

Which makes me that much more certain that the General Instructions of the Roman Missal must be adhered to in spirit and in letter if we, the Church, truly wish to speak authentically to everyday people. The greatest, most honest means of catechesis and evangelization is the centrality of the Holy Cross.

This is not to say that powerful, artistic imagery of the Resurrected Christ do not belong in the sanctuary. Such images—and those of Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell—when done well enkindle within us the truths of Holy Week and all that comes from Christianity’s decisive proclamations. But for it all to work, the reality of the Holy Cross must be present in some equally powerful way—and it must be central.

One wonders if the current crisis of faith—of the documented numbers who do not believe in the true presence of the Eucharist, of the dropping numbers in Mass attendance or the reception of the sacraments—is the result of decades that focused on a truth that is as yet “not yet seen” rather than those that are.

The image of the Resurrected Christ that came on my mother’s death bed was a reality that I will cherish and for which words cannot express gratitude. It was (and remains) an image that no statue or even artwork can communicate.

But I’m willing to bet that for me anyway, the most comforting liturgical work of art will always be my parish’s crucifix—which, after so many necessary campus upgrades, our current pastor is planning to place font and center again in his efforts to maintain and beautify my old parish church—that longtime spiritual home of my grandparents, my dad, and my mom.


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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."

7 Comments

  1. As one who knows well the power of that Cross (and dumpsters full of beautiful religious symbols tossed in the 70’s),it is heartening to read of the Key to the Door that opens Resurrection to us!

  2. Good Friday is the key to our salvation and Easter is our reward to live with Almighty God, Jesus Christ and all the Angles and Saints in his Heavenly kingdom for ever and ever.

  3. The author has hit upon the Good News of sacramental Catholicism: WE ARE NOT ALONE. The Mass re- ‘presents’ Calvary and the Resurrection in HIS eternal PRESENT PRESENCE, here for us today.

    The sacrifice of Calvary is at every Mass, in the sacrament and the sacrifice of His Blood and Body given to us to drink and eat. The resurrection is also ours at the Mass, there in the Living Eucharist. It is only on Good Friday that we have no Eucharist, and no resurrection; it is, however, given to us as certain that it will follow. The Resurrection validates the good of Good Friday; had there been no Good Friday, Resurrection would be just another morning rising from sleep. As it is, in the Mass, we awake from death into life if we are in Christ, having left all (sin, having given it up to Jesus to bury), having picked up our cross and having followed Him into His Eternal Life.

    Happy Good Friday to All. WE ARE NOT ALONE.

  4. Too bad and sad so many Catholics stood by dumbly in May of 2009 for the Obama/Biden
    tag-team to force Notre Dame and Georgetown Universities to cover-up or remove from their sight all visages of our Lord. Before they came to pontificate on said premises.
    After all wasn’t the “Mob” screaming: “Obama is the one we’ve been waiting for”.What could be the harm?

  5. Thanks for an amazing article. I’ve been thinking lately, “No Easter without Good Friday”, and you’ve said it so well.

  6. G.Raff: Obama was the one we should not have been waiting for. He was the most pro-abortion President in American History. He is also the one that legalized same-sex marriage PRAY! PRAY! PRAY!

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