I know that several of you, like me, enjoyed watching the recent Netflix miniseries, The Crown. For me, one of the most moving scenes was Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey at the close of the fifth episode, an event whose planning had consumed a good deal of the dramatic tension in the several episodes preceding it. The Netflix series faithfully rendered the grand music, solemn ritual and stunning costumes of the ceremony.
It also showed part of the homage, the ancient ceremony that follows the anointing and crowning of the monarch. The senior nobles of the kingdom, the “lords of the realm,” (Prince Philip notably among them) knelt before the new queen to speak an oath and kiss her hand. The words of the oath at the homage (not includes in the series script, if I remember correctly), are these: “I do become your liege man of life and limb, and of earthly worship; and faith and truth I will bear unto you, to live and die, against all manner of folks. So help me God.”
The oath is a promise of deep loyalty. The act of kneeling expresses respect, even a kind of reverence for the monarchy and its place in the life of the nation. And the kiss is a token of affection, a sign that the promise is made freely, with the whole heart.
Anglican theologian Roger Greenacre, in his seminal study of the rites of Lent and Holy Week, The Sacrament of Easter (1965), points out that the royal homage is remarkably similar to the rite of venerating the Cross in the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. When the faithful come forward to kneel before the image of Christ crucified, he notes, “we pay our homage not to a corpse but to a reigning sovereign…The Cross is a throne, and we are taking part in the Homage at a Coronation (69).”
The ritual probably developed originally in the Church of Jerusalem. Its famous fourth century bishop Cyril (314-386). The most precious relic in ancient Jerusalem was the true cross, which had been discovered by the Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena in the late 320’s. The relic was brought out for the faithful to venerate on Good Friday, and Cyril designed a simple ceremony around this became the center of the day’s observance. Pilgrims, deeply moved by the experience, carried the practice back to Europe. The practice of bowing before a cross and kissing it soon came to be cherished widely as a way for the faithful to show their loyalty, reverence and love for Christ crucified
In the Good Friday Liturgy of The Book of Common Prayer, the veneration of the cross follows the Solemn Collects, a series of prayers that appeal to Christ for the needs of the world, particularly for the spread of the Gospel among those who do not know and love Him. The celebrant then brings forward a cross, often a crucifix, where Christ’s sufferings for us are vividly represented. The celebrant then removes his or her shoes, bends the knee three times, and then kneels before the cross and kisses it. The choir then sings an ancient chant, the Reproaches, which call us to repentance for our disloyalty and indifference to He who has given so much for us. As the reproaches are sung, all are welcome to come forward and make their own expression of loyalty, reverence and affection.
All of you who attend the Good Friday liturgy at Saint Francis this year will be welcome to participate in the veneration of the cross. We will venerate the cross at Saint Francis in front of the Altar steps, at a prayer desk. I’ve been a priest for over a decade now, and for me, this ceremony has always been among the most moving experiences of the liturgical year. It gives me a window into how deeply Christ is loved by His people, how grateful they are for His mercy, how determined they are to serve Him with courage. One may participate fully in the Good Friday without venerating the cross. One may come forward without choosing to either kneel or kiss the cross. The love and respect we show for the crucifix is, of course, offered to Christ, and not to the wooden image of Him.
As Fr. Greenacre writes, the liturgy of Good Friday consistently stresses that the One who gave His life for us now reigns in glory with the Father whose will He came to fulfill. The hymns and prayers do express our profound sorrow for the sufferings He endured, but they also acknowledge, with wonder and reverence, that His passion has been fruitful in reconciling the world to God and defeating the power of sin, death and the devil. He who died for us is the eternal king, before whom every knee will ultimately bow. To me, there is no more fitting way to express these truths than the ancient ceremony of the veneration of His cross.