Please note: I'll be on the Son Rise Morning Show this morning to discuss St. Margaret Clitherow, whose execution was on Good Friday, March 25, 1586--470 years ago. The show is live today but tomorrow they'll run "best of" programming. Listen live here a little after 7:45 a.m. Eastern/6:45 a.m. Central. The National Catholic Register will publish my article on St. Margaret Clitherow tomorrow too! Since Margaret Middleton Clitherow was born just two years before Elizabeth I became queen and established the rituals of the Church of England as law, she probably had no memory and may never have heard of the Sarum Use rituals of Holy Week: the stripping of the altars, the creeping to the Cross, the Easter Sepulchre--although "stubborn" Catholics still crept to the Cross on Good Friday in spite of the fact it was not part of The Book of Common Prayer ritual and was indeed condemned as popish superstition.
The “Maundy” of Maundy Thursday comes from the Mandatum, the new commandment Jesus gave his Apostles after washing their feet at the Last Supper--love one another as I have loved you. The ceremonial re-enactment of Jesus' humility was not part of the parish celebration of Holy Thursday in Pre-Reformation England. It was performed at monasteries and abbeys, and the monarchs of England used to wash the feet of twelve poor people and then give them money and food. The last monarch to perform this ceremony of humility was King James II. William and Mary turned the duty over to their Almoner, the official in charge of charity, and now Queen Elizabeth II hands out “Maundy Money” designed by the Royal Mint.
But the Sarum Use had another great ceremony: after Mass on Maundy Thursday, all the altars were stripped, washed with water and wine, and scrubbed with sticks--certainly gestures filled with meaning. Jesus was stripped before the Crucifixion; water and blood, representing the Eucharistic water and wine, poured from His side when pierced by the lance; the sticks surely represented the scourges used to whip Him before He carried the cross. The section on the celebration of Holy Week in Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars is, to me, an entirely convincing demonstration of the focus of Catholics in England before the destruction of these ceremonies on the reality of Redemption and devotion to Jesus Christ. It was part of peoples' lives--every gesture, every ritual meant something and made the events of that Holy Week present to them.
Good Friday was a solemn day of fasting, just as it is today. The sacramental reality of Jesus’ redemptive suffering and death were commemorated by the ritual of "Creeping to the Cross" which compares to our current form of Venerating the Cross as one of the four parts of the Good Friday service. Henry VIII allowed the performance of this ritual throughout his "rule" as Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England, but wanted to make sure that no one celebrated it, and other observances, out of superstition, as this narrative indicates:
"Holy water, holy bread, the use of vestments, Candlemas candles, ashes, palms, creeping to the Cross, sepulchres, hallowing of the font, and “all other like laudable customs, rites, and ceremonies” were allowed by the Ten Articles of 1536 “as good and laudable things to put us in memory of what they signify.” On February 26, 1539 (Wilkins, III, 842), Henry issued a proclamation in which holy water, holy bread, kneeling and creeping to the Cross on Good Friday, setting up lights before the Corpus Christi on Easter Day, bearing candles at the Purification were allowed since “as yet” they had not being abolished. But they were to be used without superstition. “Let the minister on each day instruct the people on the right and godly use of every ceremony. On every Sunday let him declare that holy water is sprinkled in remembrance of our baptism and of the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. On every Sunday let holy bread be given, to remind men of the housel, or Eucharist, which in the beginning of the Christian Church was received more often than now, and in sign of unity, for as the bread is made of many grains so are all Christian men one mystical body of Christ. Let candles be borne at Candlemas, but in memory of Christ, the spiritual light. On Ash Wednesday let ashes be given to every Christian man to remind him that he is dust and ashes. On Palm Sunday let palms be borne, but let it be declared that it is in memory of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Let it be declared on Good Friday, that creeping to the Cross and kissing the Cross signify humility and the memory of our redemption.”
During the reign of Edward VI, Archbishop Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer omitted the ceremony and Parliament forbade it. Mary I's restoration of Catholicism revived the practice which then was forbidden again under Elizabeth I. The people, however, did not want to give it up and Anglican bishops complained that some still "creeped" on their knees to the Cross on Good Friday well into Elizabeth's reign.
After the ceremonies of the pre-sanctified Communion (which only the priest received) on Good Friday, the priest took off his vestments and placed a pyx containing a consecrated Host with the Cross that had just been venerated, wrapped in linen cloths, in a sepulchre on the north side of the church. This was the Easter Sepulchre and candles were kept lit before it while the parish guarded it in vigil until Easter Sunday morning. Parish accounts document the expenses for candles and for food and drink supplied to those who remained on guard through the night of Good Friday, all day Holy Saturday and through the vigil of that night until dawn. (The Triduum did not include a nighttime Easter Vigil; the Great Service of Light was restored in 1955 in the Roman Rite.)
Then early Easter morning, the parish clergy would place the consecrated Host in the hanging pyx by the high altar and carry the cross in procession after it was solemnly removed from the Sepulchre, risen and acclaimed, with the church bells ringing and the choir chanting "Christus Resurgens" (Christ, risen from the dead, dieth now no more). The cross was then placed on a side altar and the people again venerated it throughout the octave of Easter.You can hear a sixteenth century version of the chant set by the English Catholic exile, Peter Phillips, here.
Eamon Duffy's essential and seminal The Stripping of the Altars again is our source for understanding how deeply this devotion and ritual had taken root in medieval English Catholicism before the Reformation. As he says, these actions were "designed to inculcate and give dramatic expression to orthodox teaching, not merely on the saving power of Christ's cross and Passion but on the doctrine of the Eucharist." (p. 31)
The Easter Sepulchre was part of the furniture of the parish church, either as a freestanding wooden frame or as a niche or table tomb in the structure of the wall. Images of the sleeping soldiers, St. Mary Magdalen, the Risen Christ and adoring angels adorned the sepulchre.
The ritual was condemned by Archbishop Cranmer and the reformers especially during the reign of Edward VI, when it was forbidden. It was restored during Mary I's reign and church records document the expenses for the candles and the guards' supplies again--and then the sepulchres were destroyed and the ritual was forbidden again during Elizabeth's reign.
As we celebrate the Latin Rite services of Holy Week and the Holy Triduum, this background on the Sarum Use in Medieval England may inform our devotion to Jesus Christ, Our Savior, as we recall His suffering, death and glorious Resurrection from the Dead.