Lent is coming to an end. Beginning with Ash Wednesday we directed our attention to a program of on-going conversion through prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Now, beginning on Palm Sunday and continuing until Easter Sunday, we will follow Christ’s final days as He enters Jerusalem, celebrates the Passover with His disciples, endures the betrayal of Judas and embraces the cross and dies for us.
Each year as we celebrate Holy Week, or any feast and season of the Church year, we are invited to enter more deeply into the mysteries that are being celebrated. The annual celebration of Holy Week is not simply a reenactment of the closing events of Christ’s life. During these days, we are asked to enter personally into these events by being alert to the actions that unfold, by listening attentively to the words spoken, by savoring in silence the mystery as it is revealed and yes, by standing with Christ in these events opening ourselves to the graces that will be offered to us. Remember, Lent is not only about what we have done, the sacrifices we have made and the works of charity we have performed during these forty days. It is about what God has done for us.
What will we see and hear this Holy Week? Palm Sunday commemorates the triumphal entrance of Christ into Jerusalem when palm branches were placed in His path. We know this triumph is momentary, however. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem where triumph is replaced by rejection. In accepting the palm branches we join the procession to Jerusalem. We pray for the grace to walk faithfully with Jesus into the events of the week knowing full well that many who rejoiced at His arrival in Jerusalem and acclaimed Him a king would call for His death on Good Friday — a powerful reminder of our own weakness and the sinfulness that causes us to reject Christ.
The first reading at Mass for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week is taken from the prophet Isaiah. When we listen to these “Suffering Servant” songs, the last of which will be read on Good Friday, we think of Jesus. He was the faithful servant who suffered for others. “Yes, it was our infirmities he bore, our sufferings he endured … upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we are healed” (Is 53:4-5). The suffering servant songs set the tone for what is to come as we continue to walk with Christ during His final days and hours.
From the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday, we celebrate a three-day feast, the Easter Triduum. During these days we enter into the great mystery of our redemption: the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is so much to see and to hear.
On Holy Thursday we are in the upper room to celebrate the Passover. Jesus’ departures from the Jewish ritual reveal the characteristics of the new covenant. He washes the disciples’ feet and tells them they must do likewise. He takes bread and wine and changes it into His Body and Blood. He instructs the Apostles to “Do this in memory of me” thus assuring that His saving action will be made present for all generations.
In many of our churches, after the Mass on Holy Thursday, the Blessed Sacrament will be moved to an altar of repose and we are invited to pray silently at this quiet and removed place. We commemorate so much on Holy Thursday: the Mass, the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ given for and to us as food for our journey and the priesthood. Prayerful silence before these mysteries allows us to savor their meaning and their beauty.
The Chrism Mass is also associated with Holy Thursday. However, to enable priests to travel to the Cathedral to join the bishop for this celebration and to ensure that they are in their parishes for Holy Thursday, it has become common for dioceses to hold this celebration on a day other than Holy Thursday. Priests from across our diocese will join me on Tuesday of Holy Week for the Chrism Mass. In this liturgy, the oil of catechumens used at Baptism and the oil of the sick used in the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick are blessed and the sacred chrism used throughout the year for the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders and for the dedication of churches and altars is consecrated. The Chrism Mass which dates back to the fifth century receives its name from a mixture of oil and balm, consecrated by the bishop at this Mass. The priests of the diocese also reaffirm their commitment to the priestly life and the service of the people of the diocese at this Mass. For me personally it is one of the great highlights of the year as the priests united with their bishop pledge anew their love and service to the people we are called to serve and promise to be faithful ministers of the mysteries of God.
As we continue our journey with Christ this week we arrive at Good Friday. I am reminded of the phrase we recite when we make the Stations of the Cross. “We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your Holy Cross you have redeemed the world.” The day on which Christ died is for us a “good day.” It is the day of our salvation. We stand beneath the cross and look at Christ, disfigured and suffering. We try to grasp the mystery of His love for each of us and all of us through all generations. We listen attentively to His last words, “Father forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:33) and “Father into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). We pray that our hearts will be seized by God’s grace to accept the mystery of the Cross as it plays out in our lives. We venerate the cross embracing the wood upon which Christ died and redeemed the world.
Holy Saturday is a quiet day. “Something strange is happening — there is great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep” (Office of Readings, Holy Saturday). We know that Good Friday is not the end of the story, but the Church gives us a day to contemplate Christ’s death and wait in expectation for the end of the journey. We keep watch for the rising sun of a new day and the unbelievably good news that the eternal Son of the Father will rise on the third day. Holy Saturday concludes with the celebration of the Easter Vigil welcoming our catechumens to the reception of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist and our candidates to full incorporation into the Church.
We complete our walk through Holy Week. “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad” (Responsorial Psalm, Easter Sunday). Easter has arrived! The paschal mystery is complete. Life not death is the final victor. The resurrection is about many things. It celebrates God’s power to overcome sin and death; it celebrates new life and renewed hope; it enlivens our faith and strengthens our resolve to proclaim the good news … the Lord has risen, Alleluia! I encourage you to walk through Holy Week by attending Mass and participating in the liturgy each day during the sacred triduum. If possible do this as a family. The liturgy is our greatest source of grace but it is also the place where we are taught and experience the wonderful mysteries of our faith. Be assured that during Holy Week I will pray for you and all those you hold dear. May you experience the gift of renewed life and abiding joy on Easter and during all the days which follow.
If you have an intention that you would like me to remember in prayer, please send it to me at 240 East Onondoga Street, Syracuse, N.Y. 13202.