Our neighborhood was almost exclusively Roman Catholic, mostly Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Italians. We were among the non-churchgoers and our holidays were thoroughly secularized. My mother muddled the messages – the right sort of religion kept at the right distance was good but not for us. Good Friday was notable: Between noon and 3 p.m. we were not to play army or make any disturbance that might offend the Mass-goers around us. I’m still not a churchgoer but my mother’s prohibition of raucous fun while neighbors remembered Christ’s suffering – and perhaps her sentimentality – remains fast among my instincts.
Among many poets, three 20th-century masters address Good Friday. Eliot does so in a passage from “East Coker,” the second of the Four Quartets (1943), in the section beginning “The wounded surgeon plies the steel…”:
“The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.”
Geoffrey Hill included “Canticle for Good Friday” in his first book, For the Unfallen (1959):
“The cross staggered him. At the cliff-top
Thomas, beneath its burden, stood
While the dulled wood
Spat on the stones each drop
Of deliberate blood.
“A clamping, cold-figured day
Thomas (not transfigured) stamped, crouched,
Smelt vinegar and blood. He,
As yet unsearched, unscratched,
“And suffered to remain
At such near distance
(A slight miracle might cleanse
Of all attachments, claw-roots of sense)
“In unaccountable darkness moved away,
The strange flesh untouched, carrion sustenance
Of staunchest love, choicest defiance,
Creation’s issue congealing (and one woman’s).”
Here’s a prose poem, “The Passion of Our Lord Painted by Anonymous from the Circle of Rhenish Masters,” by Zbigniew Herbert (from Inscription, 1969, translated by Alissa Valles):
“They have ugly mugs, but their hands are dexterous, accustomed to hammer and nail, iron and wood. They’re just now nailing Our Lord Jesus Christ to the cross. Loads of work to do; they have to hurry up so everything will be ready at noon.
“Knights on horseback as props for the drama. Their faces are impassive. Their long lances mimic trees without branches on that hill without trees.
“Able craftsmen are nailing – as was said – Our Lord to the cross. Ropes, nails, a stone for sharpening tools are laid out neatly on the sand. A bustle, but without excessive agitation.
“The sand is warm, painted meticulously, grain by grain. Here and there a tuft of grass protrudes stiffly and an innocent white daisy soothes the eye.”