Archive for the ‘Holy Week’ Category

We often approach Lent as the opportunity for a fresh start, a time to make changes in our lives, to let go of bad habits, to grow spiritually. And we approach it sort of like a liturgical marathon, with the final push to Easter taking place during Holy Week. But Easter is more than a goal or a destination. It’s a new way of life.

Today we begin a fifty-day celebration and unfolding of the great mystery of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection may have happened in a flash, but it took his closest followers a long time to understand the implications of that event.

Over two millennia later, we are still growing in this same understanding. In the early days of the church, Lent and Easter traditions grew up around the experience of those who were just being baptized into the Christian faith. In our own time, the revival of the Rite of Christian Initiation has returned to this experience. The days and weeks following Easter are a time to reflect on the experience of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

Our liturgical year follows a cycle of birth, death, resurrection, discipleship. We have seasons of penance and seasons of rejoicing. Our faith tells us that both are celebrations. What we come to realize in our own spiritual journeys, however, is that these cycles are neither mechanical nor predetermined. Like the seasons of nature, the seasons of the church year flow into one another in a swirling mix of life and death.

Father Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, shows us how the paschal mystery is not just something we celebrate at the Sunday Eucharist and in the great feast of Easter, but something that governs the very rhythm of our lives. He uses these phrases to describe the events from Good Friday to Pentecost:
1) Name your deaths;
2) Claim your births
3) Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality
4) Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing,
5) Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living.

This struck a chord with me when I first read it. It made sense to me. And it helped to make sense of things that I’d experienced in my own life and relationships. In his rephrasing, I discovered a way to connect the story of Jesus with my own story.

We are all called to do this, and maybe Easter is a good time to begin. Over the course of the past week, we’ve heard all the great stories of our faith tradition, from the very dawn of creation through the dawn of a new world on the first Easter morning. Now it’s time to discover our own story. Whether we have recently been baptized or whether we have lived all our lives in the embrace of the church, that experience shapes us.

Take some time in the next seven weeks to reflect on your faith life. You might want to use Father Rolheiser’s five steps as a starting point. What comes to mind when you think about death? About birth? What causes you to cling to the old? What scares you about trying something new? Learn to recognize the power of the Spirit blowing through your life.

Easter is not an end, but a beginning. As a community and as individuals we have much to celebrate in the coming months. Promise yourself that you will live this new life to the full.


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The next week marks the high point of our Church year. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no sun without shadow. It is essential that we know the night.” Christians know that there can be no resurrection without the cross.

We hear two different versions of Jesus’ Passion this week. On Palm Sunday we hear Matthew’s account, sprinkled with references to the Old Testament and the way that Jesus fulfilled the words of the great Hebrew prophets. On Good Friday, we hear the Passion according to John, the same story but told from the other side of the resurrection, when there’s no doubt about the outcome, no question of who is in control of everything that takes place. It reminds us that faith is often a question of perspective. God’s truth shows itself in our lives in different ways.

It’s not quite 40 days since we were signed with the ashes of last year’s palms, praying that this time we wouldn’t run from the cross. The cross is before us now with its wordless challenge to love beyond death.

We gather at church on Palm Sunday and wave our palm fronds in the entrance procession. During the reading of the passion, we may take the parts of the crowd, shouting almost in spite of ourselves, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

We might think this is merely a bit of liturgical playacting. It may be that we come to church because it’s what we’ve always done or because someone is telling us that we have to. We may not give much thought to why we gather here for these holy days.

Like the Jewish celebration of Passover, which not only remembers the historical event that changed forever their lives at the chosen people of God but makes that saving event a reality in the lives of those who celebrate it down through time, the events of Holy Week are far more than a dramatization of the last days of Jesus’ life. We enter into the saving mysteries of the passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood at the Last Supper takes place each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

Our actions here at Mass may give us a deeper insight into our relationship with God. How often do we turn on God when things don’t go the way we had so carefully planned? How often do we stand waiting for a glorious celebration of victory, only to find ourselves staring in confusion at a cross? The palm branches drop from our hands and we raise our firsts to heaven, hoping to hide deep disappointment in self-righteous defiance.

A long-standing tradition among Catholics has been to braid palms into crosses. There are many different methods for doing this. I was surprised to find a variety of patterns and instructions on the internet. Crosses take many different shapes. Whether or not you take part in this folk tradition, it’s a metaphor of the way this day begins with a palm and ends with a cross.

Take some time this week to think about events in your own life that have given you an experience of Jesus’ command to pick up your cross and follow him. You might find that something you always wanted has turned to bitter disappointment. See beyond that disappointment to the God who is in control even in the blackness of death.

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Sometimes when we put everything we have into anticipating a great event—planning, preparing, hoping, dreaming—the event itself can sometimes seem almost anticlimactic, as though it couldn’t live up to the hype. Brides and grooms have said this of their wedding days, when after months and months of planning every perfect detail, they have little recollection of the day itself. Easter can be a little bit like this, especially if we celebrate the great feasts of the Triduum, the three days before Easter. Holy Thursday with its commemoration of the Last Supper, Good Friday’s account of Jesus finest hour, reigning from the cross, and the Easter Vigil, recounting all of salvation history, culminating in Jesus’ great gift.

We know in our minds that we are celebrating the greatest single event in God’s covenant with his people, the triumph over death itself. But somehow we can’t wrap our understanding and emotions around something so intense, so unique, so utterly beyond our human experience. Ironically, this letdown is almost built into the Easter readings. At the heart of the Easter story is the empty tomb. The stories of the appearances will come later, unfolding the mystery of the resurrection. But the first message to the apostles is that the tomb is empty.

Somewhere in the darkness of our Easter Vigil, we must confront the empty tomb individually in fear and trembling. Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb in the early hours of the morning. John and Peter go together to the tomb but each enters separately. We must do likewise. But our belief that the Christ has risen will draw us together once again into an experience of community, an experience of Church. Our response to our individual conversion is to gather with those who can share that experience and then together go out to tell our story of the Christ.

Throughout the Gospels, the apostles appear in shifting groups or more often as individuals, following Jesus and relying on his leadership to hold them together and settle their disputes. It is only the fear of the crucifixion and then confrontation of the empty tomb that gathers them together into a single group, relying on each other for protection, reassurance and support. The empty tomb compels them to rely on their faith in the stories Jesus told of the resurrection, stories they may not have heard or understood because of their individual preoccupation with success and advancement. Now they must rediscover his presence by retelling those stories and centering on him rather than on themselves. Alone none of them is able to fully comprehend the experience; together they discover new insights in a shared belief. From Easter to Pentecost, they are most often referred to as the Eleven, a sign that their identity is as a cohesive group rather than a collection of individuals. Any personal experience of the Risen Lord is marked by the command or the impulse to “go and tell the others.” Our vision of church today and into the future can take its form and character from this early community.

Just as a wedding day is followed by years of marriage, the day-to-day life of learning to live and love in a committed relationship, so Easter Sunday stretches first to the Easter Octave, then throughout the fifty days of the Easter season and into each expression of the paschal mystery in our weekly Eucharists and in our lives.

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I went to the Tenebrae service at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral last night. This has become my personal tradition for entering into the Triduum. I first experienced it back in the late 1980s at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, where it was sung after the Mass on the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

The centerpiece of the service is the chanting of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, in this case in English, but each verse introduced by its proper Hebrew letter. These three sections were interspersed by congregational psalms (Pss 80, 69, 22, 4) classical motets (Poulenc, Victoria, Casals, Bruckner), the Bach passion chorale and scripture readings from Hebrews, Romans, the Gospels of Mark and John. The other piece I wait for each year is an exquisite performance of Allegri’s Miserere, complete with traditional countertenor.

What struck me this year is that this is a very theological reflection on the upcoming passion. Rooted in the prophets, in the world’s need for salvation, it offer some of the finest scriptural reflections on the fulfillment of the messianic promise. Even the reading from Mark is the gathering at Caesarea Philipi, when Jesus asks that question we each must answer: “Who do you say that I am?” The commemoration of Jesus’ last hours lies ahead; this service reminds me why that commemoration is important.

On a much more primal level, it’s an incredibly stirring ritual. Quiet, solemn, stripped to basics in many ways: a simple procession, music, scripture, candlelight. As the fifteen candles are quietly extinguished one at a time after each psalm or reading, the focus deepens. With the single candle burning in a completely dark cathedral, I find myself aware at a very deep level of the most basic struggle between the darkness of chaos and the light of Christ. The moment of being plunged into complete darkness (for the space of an Our Father) makes me realize like nothing else I’ve ever experienced what the darkness would be like without the Light that came into the world for our salvation.

Masterful ritual, indeed. This is not overheated, even maudlin emotional reflecting on a tragic death. This is the very core of our faith experience. As John puts it so well, “The light came into the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

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Perhaps you’ve seen these Nationwide Insurance commercials: the partying college student is suddenly a balding man with a mortgage; the baby in a car seat is a teenager by the next intersection, the father pushing a toddler on a swing is suddenly knocked down by the swing now occupied by a hefty adolescent. Their slogan is, “Life comes at you fast.”

This might be a good slogan for the Palm Sunday liturgy. We begin the liturgy with the Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The citizens welcome him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David.” It seems to be his finest hour, the popular recognition of who he is as the long-awaited Messiah. But we know from elsewhere in the Gospels that a popular idea of the messiah was rarely the role that Jesus was destined to fill. All too soon the fickle crowds will be turned by some of their leaders to condemn this very person they greet so enthusiastically. The disciples’ heads must have been spinning at the sudden reversal of fortune.

Our own liturgy moves quickly from the procession with palms into the reading of the Passion. One campus parish tried to separate these two different moods by a solemn reading of the passion at the end of Mass, a foreshadowing of and entrance into the events of Holy Week. While it had a dramatic effect, it misses the fact that in this holiest of weeks, we are not spectators at a dramatic recreation of the final week of Jesus’ life. Too often we get cast in the role of the crowd, extras playing bit parts in an epic movie. But we are in fact participating in a most solemn commemoration of the paschal mystery—the death and resurrection of our Lord.

Reflecting on this movement from triumph to tragedy to the ultimate triumph during Holy Week can help us understand the way the paschal mystery manifests itself in our own lives. As members of the body of Christ, we, too, experience the death and resurrection that Jesus did. We all have experiences of life coming at us fast and leaving us gasping for breath and searching for meaning. We find it not in the financial security of a life insurance policy but in the spiritual awareness that everything in our lives—the heights of joy and triumph, the depths of suffering and death—is united with the life of Christ.

St. Luke gives us many memorable scenes unique to his account of the Passion. Only from Luke do we hear the story of the two thieves crucified with Jesus, men who knew that they deserved the punishment they received, and who knew, too, that this man between them did not. In the depths of his despair, the one we know as Dismas, the good thief, asks Jesus, “Remember me when you enter into your kingdom.” Jesus promises him, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke also tells us that Jesus says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” We might find comfort in these words when we find ourselves acting out of anger or frustration and hurting those we love.

Jesus’ last words in Luke’s passion are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” These words are perhaps our best response to our sense that life comes at us way too fast at times. Our lives are in God’s hands. Knowing this in the depths of our beings gives us all the assurance we need.

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