Imagine you’re in a movie theater watching the latest blockbuster, thoroughly captivated by the plots and subplots, the beautiful faces and lush scenery as the movie progresses inexorably toward its climax. Your cell phone alerts you to an incoming call. (Of course, you silenced the ringer before the movie began.) Much as you hate the interruption, it’s an important call and you have to take it. After a long time in the lobby, you return to your seat only to catch the last few minutes of the film. You see how the story ends, but you’ve missed so much of it that the ending doesn’t quite make sense. You cannot understand it as fully as those who watched the story from start to finish. Not only that, but you didn’t get your full ticket’s worth.
Something like that scenario will happen this week in the lives of many Catholics. The holiest week of the year begins this Sunday, popularly called Palm Sunday because we bless and process with palms in commemoration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Holy Week is a grace-filled time enriched by beautiful liturgies that commemorate the last days and hours of Jesus’ earthly life. Yet many Catholics, including those who would never dream of missing Sunday Mass, do not attend the Holy Week services. That’s a pity. Just as we cannot fully appreciate the outcome of a movie if we’ve missed the key events leading to it, so we cannot really appreciate Easter’s light if we shun the darkness of this week.
The words of the Epistle of Palm Sunday’s Mass (in both forms of the Roman Rite) are the key to understanding Holy Week: “[Christ] emptied himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him…” (Phil. 2:8-9). Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection form a unified whole, and that whole is the mystery of our redemption.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday will be quiet days of foreboding and betrayal. Then come the three holiest days of the year, the Paschal Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, the first celebration of which occurs at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night. The word “paschal,” from the Greek pascha (derived from the Hebrew pesaḥ), means passage, and refers to the mystery of Jesus’ passage from death to life, from humiliation to glory, from this world into the kingdom of his Father. By our participation in the liturgy—and especially the rites of Holy Week—we enter into that mystery. The Lord’s passage becomes our passage too—provided we suffer with Him.
Lent ends and the Paschal Triduum begins with the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday because of Christ’s command (mandatum in Latin) that we should love one another with a demanding, even a demeaning love—as in crouching to wash the feet of faithless friends who will abandon you in your darkest hour. On that bittersweet day, at the Passover meal with His Apostles, Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist by changing bread and wine into His own Body and Blood. Then, by saying to His Apostles, “Do this in memory of me,” He instituted the ministerial priesthood, without which there can be no Eucharist. Now, Jesus is the paschal lamb, to be sacrificed the following day on the cross. The celebration of the Eucharist literally re-presents—that is, makes present again and again,—in a sacramental way, the sin-forgiving and life-giving Sacrifice of Christ, consummated on Calvary; hence we speak of the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.” Come to church on Holy Thursday to thank God for the inseparable gifts of Eucharist and priesthood. Adore our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as He is carried in solemn procession from the altar to the place of reposition. Unite yourself spiritually with Peter, James and John in the garden at Gethsemane. Hear the Lord say to you, as He said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me” (Mt. 26:28). Spend time with Him, truly present in the tabernacle, on the eve of His Passion and sacrificial Death.
Come back the next day, the Friday we call good. Nowhere is the Sacrifice of the Mass offered on Good Friday. The Church is so vividly impressed with the remembrance of Christ’s historical Sacrifice on Calvary that she refrains from sacramentally renewing that Sacrifice on her altars. Instead of Mass, we have a liturgy consisting of, first, Scripture readings; next, general intercessions; third, the unveiling and adoration of the cross; and finally, a Communion service. The altar is then stripped, the sanctuary unadorned, and the tabernacle left empty. The liturgy begins and ends in silence. Everything bespeaks mournfulness and desolation. Let your heart be broken by the unparalleled bad of this Good Friday. There will be plenty of time for Easter; for now, stay with the dying. As you hear, or perhaps take part in, the reading of the Passion according to St. John, offer up the discomfort that comes from standing so long. Stand beside the Beloved Disciple and the Mother of Sorrows at the foot of the cross. Pray with the Church for her needs and the needs of the whole world. Approach and kiss the cross on which hung the Savior of the world. If you consume the sacred Host in Holy Communion, recall that “host” comes from the Latin hostia, meaning “victim.” Communion is the fruit of the Sacrifice: no sacrifice, no sacrament. Ponder that as you observe the stripping of the altar and the empty tabernacle.
Finally, return on Holy Saturday night to celebrate what St. Augustine called the “Mother of all Vigils.” The Easter Vigil is the Church’s most splendid liturgy: it is not just the climax of Holy Week, but the concentration of all that week into one night. We could do without Holy Week but we couldn’t do without the Easter Vigil. Holy Week exists only to expand and develop what the Easter Vigil celebrates: the triumph of the cross that changed apparent defeat into glorious victory.
The Easter Vigil begins with the blessing of the Easter fire and the solemn carrying of the Paschal Candle into the dark church, which is slowly brightened as the light of Jesus Christ is passed from taper to taper. Listen to the chanting of the thrilling Exsultet and learn the joys that await us on this wonderful night. Hear salvation foretold and its history unfold in the prophecies of the Old Testament. Welcome the return of the bells and the Gloria and Alleluia, announcing the triumph of the risen Savior. Share the joy of those who will be baptized, confirmed, and given their first Holy Communion on this night; then, renew your own baptismal promises with a determination never to take the Faith for granted.
Lent has given us plenty of opportunity to die with Jesus, so to rise with Him to new life: fasting and abstaining, forgoing pleasures in a spirit of self-denial, giving to the needy out of Christian charity, devoting more time to prayer and spiritual renewal, renouncing our sins and receiving God’s pardon through sacramental confession. By going the extra mile and participating devoutly in the peerless rites of Holy Week, you will be better disposed to experience Easter joy. During this holiest of weeks we do not only commemorate the past; we celebrate a present reality. The events and actions that accomplished God’s plan of salvation are now contained in the Church’s liturgy. Holy Week is part of the liturgy, indeed the very heart and center of the liturgical year. The Holy Week rites are the means through which Christ dies and rises mystically in us. Each annual celebration of the mystery of our redemption increases both our devotion and our salvation, because it contributes to forming Christ in us. And Christ is the ticket of entry into the transfiguring glory of the Kingdom.
The greatest drama of all, the drama of the love by which our every day is sustained, is about to unfold, and you are invited to enter into it, to relive the saving events of your redemption and make them your own. But first, turn off your cell phone.
Originally published on March 28, 2015.