While these days the Church speaks of Good Friday’s afternoon Liturgy as the Solemn Commemoration of the Passion, and, in older times, named it (when held in the morning) the Mass of the Presanctified, after the last part of its fourfold structure, the English mediæval tradition, as late as Bad King Henry, referred to it instead as the Creeping to the Cross – a ritual that Henry VIII, even in his bloated, raddled old age insisted on performing, a vestige of his full-blooded Catholicism that all the Zwinglian plottings of Cranmer his heresiarch had not yet extirpated, just as he maintained the Mass until his death, whatever of his break from Rome.
It will therefore be unsurprising to find such eager adherents of traditional practices as the Canons Regular of the Dormition do maintain precisely this title for their early evening capitular worship in the stript, bare choirs of their secluded oratories: for, remaining prostrate in mournful, penitent adoration, if not yet quite entirely reposing in the Lord, they do creep unto the Cross, hardly daring even to rise to their knees, such penitent sinners do they in their continual compunction accuse themselves of being!
Of course, the first part of their Good Friday service begins identically to that practiced immemorially in the West, save for that peculiarity whereby (like certain Franciscans) their conventual Mass is always Low, without song or note. The celebrant advances to the altar, then prostrates himself to the ground, as do all the canons in choir; he alone, however, presently rises, as he must needs do to fulfil his duty, rather wishing that, if not the servant of his brethren for the moment, he too could rest in peace as they will throughout this most solemn act, as on all days in their Dorter or Dormitory.
He reads the traditional Lessons, Tracts and St John’s Passion; he reads the Solemn Intercessions; then comes the Creeping to the Cross. The brethren, in imitation of the once-slumbering disciples, have rested for an hour; now, they will creep unto Calvary’s Tree, in mystery to kiss as repentant Magdalene did the Blood, as it were, streaming down that bitter wood. Ecce lignum Crucis!
As in the Carthusian Rite, the Creeping begins with the antiphon Nos autem gloriari oportet – “But it behooveth us to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world is crucified to us and we to the world”. Indeed, the procumbent brethren, each canon regular stretched forth in modo Crucis, already represent this deep wish, this truth. The priest having brought forth the Crucifix, and laid it upon the altar steps, he throwing himself down before it then crawled unto its foot and kissed it, saying secretly what each succeeding adorer shall likewise repeat: Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi, quia per crucem tuam redemisti mundum.
The brethren then having at length (indeed, given all their prostrate creeping, at great length) completed their most humble Creeping to the Cross on hands and knees – a ceremony all the more impressive for the greatly yawning silence in which it transpires – it remaineth for their solemn adoration to be consummated in the Missa Præsanctificatorum, in the manner proper to the Order.
First, repairing to the sacristy, the canon celebrant attireth himself in chasuble; then, the server meanwhile arranging and lighting the candles, he brings in the chalice to the altar, and mixes wine and water therein without (however) any blessing thereof, before returning to the lowest step and there bowing low (the brethren remaining as if already dead in Christ, he praying for a like grace) and says the usual ancient apologia, Deus qui non mortem. In like manner, at Paris, and in the priories of the Carmelites and Dominicans of old, the Confiteor and other preparatory prayers were said ere the Mass of the Presanctified was embarked upon.
The Blessed Sacrament has been kept in the usual tabernacle, as is also the Carthusian practice, and therefore there is no lugubrious funereal procession to the altar of repose to fetch It forth. Instead, an Offertory anthem is recited – Hoc est corpus meum, quod pro vobis datur, dicit Dñs: hoc facite in meam commemorationem (St Luke xxii, 19b)– and forthwith, the Host is brought forth and laid upon the corporal, the priest making a double genuflection on this most sacred day.
There is prayed as usual Dirigatur Domine, In spiritu humilitatis, and Orate fratres, but of course no Veni sanctificator omnium; just as there is no Secret nor Preface on Good Friday, nor is the Canon read. Instead, having first washed his hands saying the usual Dele Dñe (“Delete, Lord, all my iniquities, that I may be able worthily to handle Thy mysteries”), the priest thereupon elevates the Sanctissimum, praying – as do all Dormitionists – Pie Jesu Domine, dona nobis requiem.
This done, the Lord’s Prayer, with its usual preface and following oration (this, the Libera, still silent, as amongst the Premonstratensians), is read, but without any Pax nor Agnus Dei; the Host is broken into three, figuring forth the Death of the Lord, and a particle thereof dropt into the chalice (sanctifying, but not consecrating the watered wine therein, as the Summa Triviæ rightly notes) without form of words. Immediately he communicates himself with the Host and drains the chalice, saying Corpus D.N.J.C. custodiat me in requiem æternam. Amen. O most fervent petition!
Performing the ablutions as is customary, reciting secretly the Order’s proper prayer of the Nunc dimittis, without the doxology, the celebrant completes the Mass of the Presanctified and retires from the altar – there being, as is traditional, no general communion on this day, whenas only faithful Mary and John stood ’neath the Cross, types of the Church and the Priest, while all the apostles (here represented by the procumbent Canons) hid themselves for fear of the Jews.
Having crept to the Cross, meanwhile, the assembled brethren rest as if dead, recalling ever the words of the Risen and Glorious Christ to that same Apostle John, who “fell at His feet as if dead”: “Fear not, I am the First and the Last, and the Living One: I died, and behold, I am alive for ever more, and I have the keys of Death and of Hell.” (Apoc. i, 17f.)
Let this be our own recollection, as we return in our imagination from the oratories of the Dormitionist Order, and now rejoice this Eastertide.