THERE is a starkness about the collect for Good Friday, especially as it stands in the Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross. . .”
It is the “behold” which I find so unexpected. The imperative hangs loose, as though it has lost any content it might once have had. This sets up a strange suspense, which is weakened in Common Worship, where we ask God to “look with mercy on this your family”.
In the Prayer Book we are not ready to ask for mercy: we are simply asking God not to turn away his face, without making any assumptions about what that face might reveal by way of love, sorrow, and judgement. All we are asking is that God does not completely give up on us. Our only plea is that we are that “family” for which Christ endures the three parts of his Passion: his betrayal by Judas, his being handed over to sinners, and his death on the cross. This is the fate that our Lord was “contented” to endure.
“Contented”, again, makes us pause. It hints at willing acceptance, not stoic resignation. It hints at a decision made in peace of mind, in spite of the mental torment that Christ would suffer. In the collect, we acknowledge ourselves as “thy family”. Not here as the “church” family that would be too cosy and congregational; more the dysfunctional family of those who find themselves at war with themselves and each other and God; the “familiar” and complicated human family that we actually are, made up of fools and liars, the violent and their victims, as well as the patient and the good.
The collect has its origin in the Gregorian Sacramentary. In the Sarum liturgy, it became a post-communion collect for the Wednesday of Holy Week, where it is linked to the Gospel of that day (Mark 14.10ff), which recounts the betrayal of Christ. In that context, it is clearly a prayer of preparation for the Triduum, inviting us to get ready to enter into the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection.
The collect was also used in the medieval Church on Good Friday, when it undergoes a subtle shift of meaning. Here, we are passive before the Lord’s Passion; we are as helpless as he is. All we can ask is for God to look on us, watching us and not turning away. God’s faithfulness to us is, then, the condition of our faithfulness to him.
We can come through the horror of Good Friday only if we are contented to remain within the gaze of God.