There is no doubt that Holy Week is the most sacred time of the year. Even the secular media will adjust their programming to include some religious favorites, including three that I enjoy: “The King of Kings,” Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments” (Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh) and “Jesus of Nazareth.” Unfortunately, these movies will be the closest that many will come to celebrating the very nature of Holy Week.
For the Christian, the celebration of Holy Week is not a commemoration of an historical event of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus but rather participation, an entry into the mystery of his life.
Throughout Lent we have journeyed with Christ toward Jerusalem, his ultimate destination, where he will submit himself to the Father’s will. Now we stand by the side of Jesus as he endures the suffering, death and resurrection which will be the source of our salvation.
The beauty of the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil) is that it captures the paschal mystery in its special liturgies. Although each of the days possesses its own liturgical integrity, the three days are meant to be celebrated as a whole, engaging the participants to reflect on the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ.
We begin with Holy Thursday and Christ with his disciples in the upper room. The service presents to us the institution of the Eucharist. What greater gift could we possibly receive than Jesus offering himself as food and drink to sustain us in our pilgrimage through life.
The washing of the feet is a highly symbolic moment that draws attention to the Lord, who models what it means to be a servant. This humble act will demonstrate his ultimate humility in accepting the cross. We are to receive his life and share that life with others.
I can’t tell you how difficult it is to convince people to participate in the foot washing. Maybe there’s a hint about Peter’s reluctance, convinced only after our Lord stated: “Unless I wash you, you shall have no inheritance with me.” In baptism we submitted to a washing which could only be accomplished through the action of Christ.
The Holy Thursday service ends with a gesture of emptiness. The Eucharist is then taken in procession and placed in a separate location for adoration. It reminds us of Jesus going into the garden where he confronts the pending agony. His disciples would tire and sleep, prompting Jesus to ask, “Could you not keep watch for one hour?”
The only day the holy sacrifice of the Mass is not offered is Good Friday. There is an eerie feel as one walks into the church. The church is barren – no altar cloth, often the crucifix and statues are covered and the tabernacle light is extinguished. I personally feel the emptiness of this day.
The three parts to the Good Friday liturgy are: the proclamation of the Passion, the adoration of the cross and Communion. We are touched by the Passion story, contemplating again the suffering that Christ endured for us.
It’s difficult to separate the crucifixion, his pain and death, from our responsibility for this action through our sin. When the cross is processed into the church and the priest or deacon chants, “This is the wood of the cross on which is the Savior of the world,” we indeed worship the power of the cross to save.
Having held the cross for the purpose of veneration, I am always impressed by the sincere and heartfelt approach that individuals manifest when they come to venerate the cross. There is a distinct gentility that is demonstrated in the kissing, touching or bowing before the image of the crucified Lord. Often the hymn “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” is played – a stark reminder of the price paid for our redemption. A Communion service shares the real presence of our Lord with those attending the Good Friday liturgy. The Eucharist was consecrated the day before at the Holy Thursday Mass in anticipation of Communion on Good Friday. The service ends in silence as we contemplate the suffering and death of Jesus.
The Holy Saturday vigil begins with the lighting of the Easter candle; the light of Christ emerges into a darkened church. This is the light the world has waited for since the sin of Adam. The Exsultet is sung – “This is the night” in which God conquered death. The readings that are proclaimed trace salvation history fulfilled in this moment. The Gloria seemingly breaks the silence of the past day and lights fill the church. After the homily, the elect are brought forward to be received into the church.
We are reminded of our own baptism through the pouring of the water. In baptism we die with Christ so that we now live with Christ. Confirmation and the Eucharist are administered, bringing the new Catholic into full communion in the church. In renewing our baptismal promises we are reminded of the power of baptism. As St. Paul states, “If we die with him, we also rise with him.” The use of Alleluia ends the dismissal rite; the promise has been fulfilled as sin and death have been defeated.
Easter Sunday morning our churches are filled. People are dressed in their spring best. There is a sense, even with those who do not fully practice their faith, that Jesus has given us a second chance. We dare not miss the mystery of the new life that is given to us through Jesus because “Life is Christ.” Alleluia! He has risen as he said. See you at Mass!