This is what it’s all been for – those forty days of prayer and penance. We’ve been watching with Christ in the desert these weeks to be able to enter into His Passion with Him.
Holy Week offers us a set chronology from Palm Sunday to Easter, enabling us to walk step by step with Jesus through His Passion. The actions of Holy Week do not just symbolize what happened two thousand years ago, but through the mystical time of the liturgy enable us to enter into them and participate in the realities that present us. We enter into Holy Week primarily through the liturgy, but also by reading the Gospels and taking more time for silent prayer.
Beginning with Palm Sunday, we literally greet Christ in His procession into Jerusalem with palms. We greet Christ with the crowds and children, singing Hosanna and acclaiming Christ’s kingship. We recognize that the blessed one who comes in the name of the Lord has entered into our midst. We quickly, however, must also recognize that we are the same crowd that both acclaims Him and brings about His Crucifixion. Palm Sunday becomes Passion Sunday as we read the Gospel account of the Passion and literally shout: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Those dreadful words show that He truly died for our sins – our sins have brought our Savior to this moment.
Early in Holy Week Jesus enters Bethany, taking time to prepare with His friends, especially through the anointing of His feet. He reenters Jerusalem, cursing the fig tree, and cleanses the Temple as the high priest plots His death. Monday has been referred to as Fig Monday and Wednesday as Spy Wednesday, while Judas spies upon Jesus to prepare his betrayal. These events help us to place ourselves at Jesus’ feet with Mary Magdalene, seeking cleansing like the Temple, and to reflect on how we have betrayed Jesus.
Maundy Thursday, named for the mandate that Jesus gave His disciples at the Last Supper, begins the great liturgical drama of the Triduum. The fact that we name the day for Jesus’ new commandment to love others as He has loved us shows us the Holy Thursday’s deep theological meaning. Jesus invites us into His mission of self-gift for others, flowing from the Father’s love. It’s a day when priests are asked to renew their priestly promises at the Chrism Mass (though this is ordinarily moved earlier in the week). We commemorate the great gifts of the priesthood and the Eucharist, which are realities present to us sacramentally, but are portrayed to us in a more pronounced way at the Holy Thursday Mass.
At the end of the Holy Thursday Mass we begin our accompaniment of Jesus through His Passion. He is processed away from the altar, representing His captivity, as it is stripped, and conveyed through a solemn procession to the altar of repose. We chant the great hymn, Pange Lingua, that Thomas Aquinas composed for the first feast of Corpus Christi. The third verse brings us to the Lord’s Supper:
On the night of that Last Supper,
Seated with His chosen band,
He, the Paschal Victim eating,
First fulfils the Law’s command;
Then as Food to all his brethren
Gives Himself with His own Hand.
With Jesus at the altar of repose, we try to make good the failure of the Apostles in the Garden to keep watch even for one hour. It is a tradition to visit the altars of repose of at least three churches, as we keep watch with Jesus on this night of His abandonment.
Prayer, silence, and fasting make Good Friday a particularly powerful day for uniting ourselves to the Cross. The hours between twelve and three on Good Friday, when Jesus hung on the Cross, have been considered a sacred time for prayer and silence. I would encourage you to try to get off of work these hours and spend them in church or praying as a family. Watching the Passion of the Christ before or after those hours of silence can help our imagination to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ suffering. In the Stations of the Cross we can place ourselves in the place of so many of its figures, but especially Simon of Cyrene, as we reluctantly carry the cross of our lives with His Cross. The culmination of the day comes in another liturgical reading of the Passion and our veneration of the Cross.
There is a different kind of silence that settles over the world on Holy Saturday: God is dead and we await with sorrowful anticipation the triumph of Christ. Some continue the fast of Good Friday into this day to prepare for the Vigil. In the midst of the darkness of the suffering of the past days, and of the sinful world, the light of the Vigil fire breaks forth, representing the new life and the renewal of faith as it carries through the church. The Vigil brings new life to the initiated, while everyone embraces the fruits of the Resurrection as they renew their baptismal vows. The Vigil places our redemption in a cosmic perspective, recapitulating creation and the covenants God has made with His people.
And then comes the celebration!