There are few sights like a church on fire. The fire which raged from the roof of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris on the evening of April 15, 2019 was different: thanks be to God that it (at this time of writing) does not appear to be caused by anything more than renovation negligence and that no one was killed in the blaze. The evening of the fire, the attention of the world focused on the smoke billowing above the Parisian skyline as first responders battled the flames to save the most iconic church in France. In the scenes broadcast from the River Seine, I not only saw the intensity of the fire that toppled the historic spire, but I also observed the more subtle fanning of the embers of a faith long thought to be extinguished in the hearts of the French people.
Watching a tragedy stirs up strong emotions within even the most hardened of hearts. Many scenes of prayers being offered or sacred hymns being sung—despite perhaps intense feelings of helplessness—were reported by passers-by, pilgrims, and tourists alike. Furthermore, support was expressed around the world for the Church and her members in France. The sight of the beautiful cathedral of the capital city apparently being irreparably damaged was a very sad one indeed, especially during Holy Week. The many treasures at risk included the Most Holy Eucharist and relics of Christ’s Passion. Different people took different meanings from that incredible sight: many were shaking their heads and crying at the destruction of a landmark cultural icon, others mourned the apparent loss of a grand local spiritual refuge, and some saw a Church which has long suffered against secularism appear in danger of collapse.
Here’s what I observed: seeing a church burning on live television is indeed a heart-stopping scene, but I am—and dare I say God is—more interested in seeing hearts burn within a person! Seeing a man fully alive and in touch with his values, faith, or beliefs rather than suppressing them when inconvenient or unpopular is inspiring and a great witness. The voices of the people in Paris were publically lifted in singing ancient hymns and prayers for the salvation of the physical church building and the Catholic Church overall. Secularism has long been taking root in France, so seeing this active and public embrace of faith was incredibly touching. In times of despair or tragedy, people have been historically observed to seek sanctuary and emotional healing in churches and places of worship. Just think of cities in Europe, at risk of invasion or disease, in which people flocked to pray together for deliverance or divine mercy. Even in the United States after 9/11 and other heinous acts of violence, the churches with formerly empty pews were crowded with voices raised together in hopeful prayer to counter bowed heads of sorrow. As Christians we do not mourn like those who have no hope, but even in our sadness we can lift our eyes to God, breathe to calm ourselves, and confidently pray, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
From these collective acts of faith, the hope of spiritual renewal can be strong. The seeds of faith instilled in youth but unnourished later in life may suddenly be rediscovered and re-cultivated by God’s grace and perhaps the shock of the sudden end of the status quo. Intense personal reflection and the reevaluation of priorities may ensue to further sustain spiritual growth and comfort. Imagine the state of the Church had the apostles not been inflamed with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as those followers of Christ rediscovered God in the Upper Room thousands of years ago, so too can we encounter the fire of the Holy Spirit to bring light to the confused, healing to the broken, and peace to the conflicted. The fires of faith have not been extinguished, as we have beautifully seen, but rather the embers are still hot and glowing, just needing to be stirred up again to blaze towards Heaven. As Pope Francis tweeted, let us “unite in prayer with the people of France, as we wait for the sorrow inflicted by the serious damage to be transformed into hope with reconstruction. Holy Mary, Our Lady, pray for us.”
May Notre-Dame, our Blessed Mother, pray for us!
Holy Week can be the most emotionally intense period of the liturgical year. Beginning with Palm Sunday, we notice some changes to the usual liturgy, namely: the opening reading, the much longer narrated Gospel, the red vestments, and the presence of blessed palms. As the week continues, our anticipation may be building towards an emotional peak, probably the commemoration of Christ’s death on Good Friday or His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. We may be tempted to take it all in stride and grimace at the raw details of Jesus’s sacred Passion while holding on for the joys of the Easter proclamation. We are, after all, the “Easter people and Alleluia is our song,” according to St. John Paul the Great. I have found myself guilty of this detachment sometimes and now propose, as we have already entered Holy Week, that we immerse ourselves into the intense details—that raw, human emotion—of the Triduum in order to accompany Christ more closely during the most significant moments of His earthly ministry and the fulfillment of salvific history.
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the entrance of the Savior into Jerusalem, that sacred capital of the Jewish nation then occupied by the Roman Empire. The joys and uproars that Jesus’s entrance brings facilitate the events at the end of the week, when we observe the frenzied crowd turning against the One they now hail as the long-awaited Messiah. Of course, Jesus knows fully what will come to pass in the next days before the Passover.
Do we stand among the crowds welcoming Jesus into our hearts and wanting Him to rule over us as the eternal Heavenly King, or are we like the jealous plotting authorities who resent Jesus over His exposure of our hypocrisy and prideful nature?
The days between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday are filled with anticipation. An observer of the times could tell something big was about to happen in Jerusalem. The holy city would soon be embroiled in the rancor sowed by the authorities against Jesus rather than preparing to celebrate the annual Passover meal.
Are we spending this time of calm in prayer and preparation in the presence of the Lord, or are we going about our daily routine until we face the ugliness that has been fermenting against Jesus and that forces us to decide if we will stand against the crowds for the sake of the Savior?
Holy Thursday arrives and already the focus may be towards the one evening Mass scheduled at the parish. Many dioceses celebrate the annual Chrism Mass earlier in the day, during which the sacred oils of ministry are blessed by the bishop and distributed among the parishes from the cathedral. In the evening, the Last Supper and the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane are commemorated with liturgical richness: the humble washing of feet, solemn processions, chanting, the use of candles, Eucharistic adoration after the tabernacle is emptied, and then… silence. There is so much to unpack. We can ask ourselves:
Am I heeding the Lord’s request to “Keep watch and pray”? Am I remaining vigilant and faithfully at the side of our Lord as he leads the Passover meal, praying with Him in the garden, or not abandoning Him during His arrest?
We, of course, cannot celebrate Easter Sunday without recalling Good Friday. This year, I invite you to place yourself at the foot of the cross and gaze upon Christ crucified. With the Blessed Mother and St. John beside you, behold the sight of the suffering Savior, scourged and dying. Listen to His seven final words and feel their intensity. Here the cruelest injustices have been heaped upon Jesus; He bears them willingly and lovingly. Recall your own failings, which have driven nails and scourged the sacred flesh of our Lord. This can be a true time of repentance and faith.
Do I offer even a fraction of the love being poured out from the cross this day?
The darkness of Good Friday recedes, Holy Saturday arrives and there is…more silence. Our Beloved Lord has died and there is a sudden emptiness as we come to terms with the reality that the departed is gone. We must not gloss over this period before Easter Sunday: take time to mourn for our Lord and the human acts of sin which buried Him in the tomb. It had to occur, but it is not the end. We do not mourn for the dead as if we have no hope— because of the Resurrection, Christians do not fear death or even despise suffering. Jesus bore the worst in humanity with love and died to accomplish salvation for all who seek it.
In the holy silence of Holy Saturday, am I reflecting on the events that have passed, long foretold by the biblical prophets, as Mary and the disciples did in the Upper Room?
On Saturday evening, we experience the Easter Vigil. This extraordinary Mass begins in darkness outside the Church with the Service of Light in which a “blazing fire” is used to light the Paschal candle. This candle processes through the church and is used to light the unlit candles of all present. Nine readings from the Old and New Testament are read, recounting significant moments of salvation history. It is during this Mass that the Church also welcomes new members from the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults into the Body of Christ. The congregation joins in the renewal of baptismal promises and recalls their own Sacraments of Initiation.
In the wonder of this Easter Vigil, are we joining wholeheartedly in the joy and celebration of the Resurrection? Do we marvel at the re-telling of the mighty acts of God throughout human history? Do we rejoice in welcoming new members to the Church?
Finally Easter Sunday, the world rejoices with the proclamation, Christus vincit! Christus regnat! Christus imperat! Christ conquers! Christ reigns! Christ commands! We proclaim Christ’s great salvific act but do not shy away from what He endured to accomplish that eternal victory. We glorify Christ who has ascended from the depths of death to rescue humanity and deliver them to the throne of God. Nothing like this has happened before. The world celebrates God’s great love!
Do we joyfully proclaim Christ to those who have no hope in their lives, who yearn for meaning and purpose?
By taking the time each day of Holy Week to reflect upon the nuances and details of these great events in Scripture, we can better prepare for the emotional gravitas of the liturgies this week and accompany Christ himself. The graces of standing firm and being witnesses to His Passion can yield the same reward first achieved by the good thief crucified next to Jesus, to whom Christ declared, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
For more resources to accompany you in your Lenten and Easter journeys, please click here.
Holy Week is one of my favorite weeks of the year; each of the days builds with anticipation and I get excited just by the thought of Easter Sunday. Lent is almost through and it’s almost time to be joyful in the Risen Lord. When I was little, I felt this anticipation and excitement too. I would spend Holy Week letting people know that Easter was only a couple short days away—it felt like spring would officially be here as soon as we woke up on Easter Sunday! “The very best holiday of the year” was coming, and I had to get ready for it! Did I fully understand it was Christ that I was waiting for or did I just want to wear my new white shoes for church? Looking back, although it could have been the new Easter shoes, I think my 10 year-old-self would have agreed that I really was waiting for Holy Week as the final stretch to the finish line on a journey that began on Ash Wednesday.
In today’s Gospel reading, we read about moments of betrayal and loyalty. Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus while Peter in his humanity says that he will never deny him. I find it to be one of the most powerful Gospels of Holy Week. Here’s why: Like Peter, we are called to be disciples whose repentance leads to an experience of God’s forgiveness. Jesus knows that his friends will betray him and that he has limited time left on Earth. On one hand, Judas tries not to be obvious about his deception as he leaves the table, and on the other hand, Peter publicly tells Christ that he will stand by him and never fail him. Ultimately, both men betray Jesus, but it’s Peter who seeks forgiveness and allows himself a second chance. Judas, on the other hand, is overcome with guilt and despairs that his sin is beyond the reach of God’s mercy--
eventually taking his own life.
We are like Peter in so many ways! We say we love Christ and that we could never deny him, but at the first sign of pressure we sin and turn our backs on him. How often have we chosen to do something that pulls our hearts from Jesus? It is during Lent—especially during Holy Week—that we recall the pain we’ve caused Christ. This week and each day, Jesus gives us another chance to say to him, “Forgive me; I have sinned.” When Christ meets his disciples after his Resurrection, he asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Let us respond with Peter this Easter, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you!” As Easter approaches, we remember how much we are loved by Christ in his Passion, death on the Cross, and soon to be Resurrection. In these next few days, I challenge you not to say, “Lord I could never deny you!” but instead, “Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned.”
Last year on Good Friday, Pope Francis said, “Lord Jesus, always grant us the grace of holy repentance...the spark of hope is lit in the darkness of our despair, because we know that your only measure for loving us is to love us without measure.” This Holy Week, in this time for “holy repentance,” let us make sure to spend these last days in Lent with our hearts preparing for Easter. May we use these remaining days in the desert as a time for forgiveness and allow our hearts to be loved by Christ. May all of our hearts gleam with anticipation for Holy Week and better knowledge of the Risen Lord!
On the evening of our wedding, after the ceremony and reception, my husband and I knelt down and washed each other’s feet. It was an act of love and humility that we wanted to be the foundation of our marriage. We had a beautiful example: A King who washed the feet of peasants; a Savior who washed the feet of sinners; a Friend who washed the feet of betrayers.
The washing of the disciples’ feet was the act of a dying man. With the last few moments of his precious life, Jesus knelt down. In the last hours with his closest friends, he served. This was the manifestation of the new commandment he was to give moments later at the Last Supper: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.”
Love. This is what it is all about—the meaning of the Christian life. Jesus models love by washing not only the feet of his beloved friends, but of those who will betray him. He knows not only of Judas’ betrayal, but also of Peter’s—which probably stung him even more. He knows Peter, James, and John will fall asleep with him in the Garden. He knows that almost all of his disciples will flee during his torture and crucifixion. And yet he removes his outer garments and kneels to wash their dusty feet.
It would not have been a pleasant affair; their feet would have been caked in dirt and bathed in dust. Perhaps their toenails were long. The feet of these gruff men would have stunk. But I do not imagine that Christ poured just a few drops of water on their feet ceremoniously and then moved on. I believe he spent a few quiet moments with each Apostle, truly washing their feet clean of dirt and grime, and making each feel like the only person in the room. I imagine him drying them tenderly, and looking up with eyes that said, “I do all of this for you.”
Were the Apostles embarrassed by such a vulnerable display of affection? Scripture tells us that Peter recoils and says, “You will never wash my feet.”
For one man to kneel down and wash the feet of another required vulnerability. For the King of Kings to kneel down and wash the feet of sinners required sacrificial, humble, earth-shattering love. This love culminates for us this week on Good Friday, when we commemorate the crucifixion and death of Christ.
While the Church remembers the washing of the disciple’s feet on Holy Thursday, my husband and I have started a tradition of washing each other’s feet on our anniversary. Most recently, we did this on Valentine’s Day. On the day our culture celebrates love, it seemed appropriate to once again remind ourselves of what love actually looks like.
Has anyone ever washed your feet? Perhaps it was part of a Holy Week service at your church or school. Perhaps it was part of a retreat you went on. To have your feet washed is an intimate experience. I think it is often more uncomfortable for the one getting their feet washed than it is for the one doing the washing. In my case, I’m usually worried my feet smell or that my nails aren’t groomed. I’m so worried about what my feet will reveal about me and what the other person is thinking that it’s hard for me to enjoy and appreciate the solemnity and beauty of this moment. Perhaps my thoughts echo Peter: “You will never wash my feet.”
As we draw nearer and nearer to the pinnacle of our faith celebrated in the Triduum, we are probably coming to the end of Lent with dusty feet. We’ve trampled for about forty days in the desert and have probably stumbled in our Lenten observances a few times. Our feet may be caked in inadequacy, sin, or weakness. Maybe you, like me, are thinking so much about what’s on your feet that you’re unable to look Christ in the eye and allow him to thoroughly wash you.
As we enter into Holy Week, I invite you to pray about what keeps you from allowing Christ’s gaze to meet your own. What causes you to join Peter in saying, “You will never wash my feet”? As Pope Francis said during his Apostolic Visit to Cuba, Jesus “came precisely to seek out all those who feel unworthy of God, unworthy of others. Let us allow Jesus to look at us. Let us allow his gaze to run over our streets. Let us allow that look to become our joy, our hope.”
Christ’s response to Peter’s hesitancy is: “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me.” Perhaps he is saying that we will be unable to live a life of discipleship if we have not experienced his gaze—the sacrificial love of God. It is this encounter with Christ, with his gaze, that transforms us. We love because we have first been loved—this is our joy, our hope.
This Easter season, may you experience Christ’s life-changing gaze as you allow him to wash your feet.
Questions for Reflection: What keeps you from allowing Christ’s gaze to meet your own? What causes you to join Peter in saying, “You will never wash my feet”?
For more resources to accompany you during the Lenten and Easter seasons, please click here.
From the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper until Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday, the Church celebrates a very special period called the Paschal Triduum. As the USCCB explains, the Easter Triduum is the summit of the Liturgical Year which “marks the end of the Lenten season.” Because of this important spiritual shift, there are some symbols used during this liturgical season that are unique to the Paschal Triduum, and I hope that you might find and reflect on these symbols this year as we commemorate the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ.
The Holy Oils that are used by the Church throughout the year (Oil of the Sick, Oil of the Catechumens, and Holy chrism) may be presented during the entrance procession of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. These oils are blessed by the Bishop during the Chrism Mass—which can happen on Holy Thursday or another time during Holy Week—with the priests of the diocese gathered at the local cathedral. During this celebration, all of the priests present renew their priestly vows.
Ringing of the Bells
During the “Gloria” which is sung on Holy Thursday, we hear the altar bells ringing! We are celebrating the Mass for the last time until the Easter Vigil, and the Church is in mourning so the bells will remain silent until we sing the “Gloria” again.
Washing of the Feet
As Jesus did at the Last Supper (John 14:1-17), the Church is called to wash the feet of the members of the Body of Christ during the celebration of the Institution of the Eucharist. This symbol of humility is a wonderful connection with the service of Christ.
It is rare that the Church prescribes a specific hymn to be sung other than those prescribed for the Proper of the Mass, yet on Holy Thursday the Roman Missal says that we should sing the ancient song “Ubi Caritas” during the Offertory. A very simple song, the lyrics are very meaningful, especially for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Translated, they mean "Where charity is, God is there."
Eucharistic Procession and Reposition
The Church’s tabernacle, while normally filled with the Blessed Sacrament and reserved hosts, is emptied and brought to the Altar of Repose where the faithful are invited to join in Adoration. This procession is meant to be of great importance for the community and reminds us of the walk that Christ is about to take the following day on the Via Dolorosa, but instead of being nailed to a cross, we place our King in a place of honor.
After the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, churches are supposed to empty their Holy Water fonts “in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).” (EWTN)
On Good Friday, the Church is mourning the death of Christ and is full of sorrow. In response to this sorrow, the priest (and deacon, if present) prostates himself in front of a stark, barren altar. There is no music and none of the regular pomp and circumstance that comes with the beginning of a liturgical celebration. No sacraments are to be celebrated but that of penance and the anointing of the sick. The earth has gone quiet.
Normally, when a priest begins Mass, he invites us all to pray along with him, saying, “Let us pray.” During the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion (Good Friday), no such invitation is made. The priest just begins his invocation.
You may find that the prayers of the faithful may take longer than normal. Your church may sing them or have them chanted, with some kneeling and standing interspersed.
Adoration of the Holy Cross
There are many ways in which the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion is different from other liturgical celebrations, and the adoration of the Cross is certainly one of them. We are invited to come forward and spend time in veneration and adoration of the Cross on this most solemn of days – the day on which Christ perished while hanging from the very cross which we venerate. You may notice people genuflecting to the cross – this is something reserved specifically for Good Friday, out of veneration and sorrow for the blood which was shed and soaked up by the wood of the cross.
The Celebration of the Lord’s Supper is not a Mass. It is the one day out of the year in which no Mass is celebrated anywhere on Earth. Therefore, when we come to the celebration, there is no Eucharistic Prayer or any prayer related until, after the Adoration of the Holy Cross, the priest or deacon brings out the Blessed Sacrament and begins praying the Agnus Dei as it is normally done at Mass, which follows with himself and others receiving the Blessed Sacrament.
Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil
When one walks into the church for the Easter Vigil, they will notice a big change from the celebrations of Lent and Holy Week – the church should be decorated with lilies, white and gold, and a joyful décor! While the lights should be turned down as well, we are anticipating the Resurrection and the excitement is palpable!
The Light of Christ
From the fire used to light the Easter Candle, the inscriptions on the Easter Candle, and the procession into the Church, light is integral to the Easter Vigil due to its representation of the "light of Christ, rising in glory," scattering the "darkness of our hearts and minds." We process into the Church with the Easter Candle, “just as the children of Israel were guided at night by the pillar of fire, so Christians follow the risen Christ” as we proclaim The Light of Christ while singing praises of thanksgiving! (USCCB)
Instead of the standard 3 readings at a Sunday Mass, at the Easter Vigil we generally hear anywhere between 5 and 9 readings.
As we prepare to celebrate some of the holiest days in our Church, I invite you to observe the different rituals, customs, and symbols present during the Triduum. May you have a blessed and joyous Easter season!
Question for Reflection: What changes do you notice from the Lent to Easter season?
For more resources to guide you throughout the Triduum into the Easter season, please click here.
The last full week of Lent, before Holy Week begins, has always been a bit of a struggle for me. Usually by this time, I’ve already slipped up on my voluntary Lenten penances once or several times, I’m ready for the Triduum to just be here already, and I’m completely over the color purple. My husband and I jokingly call this spiritual sluggishness or restlessness “the end-of-Lent slog.” It seems like these particular days before Holy Week ramps up are when we are tempted the most to go back to the things we’re fasting from or to just throw in the towel on Lent because we’re “basically done.”
My husband and I pray Evening Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours together, and one of the readings that has resonated with me this Lent comes from St. Paul. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he encourages his readers to imitate well-trained athletes and to “run so as to win.” He continues: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.” When I was a teenager, I viewed Lent as a sprint: choose some really intense or difficult penances, struggle to maintain an unrealistically high level of spiritual rigor, and then after Easter gleefully go right back to doing and eating all the things I had given up while tossing out all the spiritual growth I’d supposedly just undergone. As I matured in my faith, I came to understand that Lent is not meant to be a temporary, intense lifestyle challenge; rather, it is the start of a marathon. It’s a specific time to motivate ourselves to grow deeper in our relationship with God by letting go of the things that keep us from Him and by doing more difficult penances for our sins and vices—preferably by abstaining from them and thus breaking our addictions to or reliance on them.
Like St. Paul says, we ought to treat our spiritual lives the way that athletes treat their sport: they dedicate themselves to it, setting higher and higher goals, training their bodies, denying themselves in order to maintain peak physical performance. And all of this to win a crown of leaves! How much more important, then, are the things we take on during Lent? We are training and preparing our souls for an eternity in Heaven with God, not for gold medals or accolades here on earth. Do we approach Lent as something that we need to win right now, this year? Or as something that trains us and jumpstarts us for the rest of the year—and the rest of our lives? Do we find ourselves fasting from the same things every year because we couldn’t maintain virtuous habits once the Easter bells started to ring? Or have our old Lenten penances and prayers become so incorporated into our daily lives that we can build upon them with each new Lenten season?
Once I realized these things about Lent, all those times I “failed” in my Lenten practices didn’t seem so terrible anymore. I no longer want to “quit” Lent when I accidentally slip up on my penances or when I find myself giving in to temptation. If Lent is meant to jumpstart us on spiritual practices that we continue for months and years afterward, then we have to acknowledge and move past the stumbles and crashes when they come. Our failures to live up to our promises to God are still regrettable, certainly, but when we are in it for the long haul, our stumbles are also much more forgettable. St. Paul shows us that in “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” we must continue in our “pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” We must acknowledge and repent of our broken pasts and our sinfulness, but we also must look with hope toward the future that Christ has made possible for us. If we allow ourselves to dwell too much on our failures, our concupiscence, our weakness as mortal men, then we can lose sight of the ultimate goal for which we strive: to be with Christ in Heaven. As Lent moves into Holy Week and Eastertide, let us strive to be like Paul’s well-disciplined athletes, winning the marathon of life by training our souls for the eternal prize of Jesus Christ.
For more resources to accompany you throughout the Lenten season, please click here.
Question for Reflection: How can you build on your Lenten practices throughout the liturgical year?
I am out of practice. Although I spend what feels like hours and hours each week writing papers, I am out of the habit of writing for pleasure. As a seminarian in my first years of theology studies, I am not yet crafting homilies. What was once an enjoyable and relatively easy undertaking now feels rather rigid and forced.
Our spiritual lives also ebb and flow. At times, perhaps our prayer life or growth in virtue seems enjoyable and relatively easy. At other points, it can feel rigid and forced. As we enter into Holy Week, I am reminded of the continuing conversion that must happen in my own life. What has the task of this now-past Lenten journey taught me? It has taught me that nothing in the spiritual life should be forced. Discipline is important, and hopefully the forty days of Lent have strengthened each of us in our resolve to turn to the Lord in prayer during the course of each day. Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, wrote, “We must pray without ceasing, in every occurrence and employment of our lives—that prayer which is rather a habit of lifting up the heart to God as in a constant communication with Him.” Hopefully this season of preparation has strengthened our habit of prayer in the way that Saint Elizabeth spoke of.
When we pause to recognize the stirrings in our heart that come from a genuine encounter with the Lord in times of prayer, it can often be surprising to take stock of the promptings of the Holy Spirit. “Here is the true gift of the Father,” said our Holy Father Pope Francis. “Man knocks with prayer at the door of God to ask for grace. And he, who is Father, gives me that and more: a gift, the Holy Spirit.… We must learn to knock on the heart of God! And we learn to do it courageously.” When we are bold and courageous in our prayer, we draw even closer to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As we look ahead to the remainder of Holy Week, how can we enter more fully into the great mysteries and events that the Church commemorates this week? First and foremost, we should not forget to pray! The time of preparation for Easter is still upon us; we pray with a real and sincere Christian hope. “To come to know God—the true God—means to receive hope,” wrote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Spe Salvi. We should pray with fervent hope to come to know the living and true God during these final days of preparation for Easter.
For more Lenten and Easter resources, please click here.
For more resources on prayer, please click here.
In the small German village of Oberammergau, every ten years since 1634, roughly two thousand townspeople from all walks of life come together to stage the world’s most famous “Passion Play,” a dramatic re-enactment of Holy Week from Palm Sunday to the Resurrection. What that one town literally does every ten years, all Christians perform every Holy Week—and it is every bit as real.
The liturgies of Holy Week teach us that we are not merely passive spectators but living participants and actors in the ongoing story of the “Paschal Mystery,” the saving life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our celebrations, we remember not just something that happened, but something that is happening, namely, the redemption of the world through the work Jesus Christ accomplished by His Cross and Resurrection. We are not playing someone else’s role in an entirely scripted fiction, but discovering our own part and contribution within a story that God is still writing.
The basic structure of Christian existence, as a drama and extended experience of Holy Week, was one of the great lessons and insights shared throughout the life of Pope St. John Paul II, himself an actor and playwright. One of John Paul II’s biographers described the pope’s core vision of, “the cosmic drama of divine love being played out in the human quest for a true and pure love” (The End and the Beginning, 413). John Paul II received this vision primarily through his nourishment from Sacred Scripture. He interpreted life in light of the Gospel story of Jesus. The Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John, which some and dark, symbolizing the tension of love and sin that function almost like stage directions.
I think we experience much of our life of discipleship as a drama, which is much different from experiencing all times and aspects of life as dramatic. The drama of life is often slow, ordinary, and unremarkable. There are long periods of waiting, working, growing, and hoping, punctuated by divine breakthroughs that remind us that He has been directing and giving commands all along. I find that I need Holy Week for its power to provide context for every frustrated hope, betrayal to those I love, loss of friends and family, and struggle to stand for what is true and just.
On Holy Saturday, when things seem darkest, Jesus descends into those dark places of our world and our souls and shines a light, giving us the courage to hope that when Jesus says, “It is finished,” it actually means God is not done with us yet. Just when we think it’s over, the veil is torn and the curtain is raised—Christ is resurrected, and invites us not only on Easter Sunday, but anew each day, to live in the hope and joy of his victory over sin and death.
Question for Reflection: What part or contribution is God calling you to in the ongoing story of salvation?
As we enter into Holy Week, I invite you to reflect on the week that changed the world as understood in the Christian context: the celebration of the salvific event of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. Let us contemplate that great exemplification of Christianity in the symbol lifted upon Golgotha on Good Friday for the world to gaze upon: the Cross.
“Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world,” we hear on Good Friday. It’s a strange symbol, isn’t it? An instrument of ignominious death, the Cross is for Christians not a sign of defeat but of certain victory! Rare is the Catholic home or school that does not have at least one prominently displayed in it somewhere—but perhaps rarer still are Catholics who pray while actually holding not a cross, but a crucifix. Upon seeing the Crucifix, however, a person must decide whether to accept Christ’s death— including the truth of all He revealed—or to reject Him. For the faithful, it remains a powerful prayer tool, one that does not require elegant words to be meaningful. In holding a Crucifix, one is offering a very powerful prayer. The Crucifix invites us to more deeply meditate upon the precious wounds of Christ. Indeed, one is reminded of our Lord’s words to St. Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,” while tracing one’s fingers over the tiny replica of His wounded hands, feet, side, and the crown of thorns upon His head.
Each of us is called to take up our cross and follow Christ (cf Mt 16:24). Our lives should model the Way of the Cross, which St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad hailed as “the most beautiful of all because on this path I have met and known my Lord and Savior.” St. Josemaría Escrivá, however, urges:
Don’t drag the Cross... Carry it squarely on your shoulder, because your Cross, if you carry it so, will not be just any Cross: it will be... the Holy Cross. Don’t bear your Cross with resignation: resignation is not a generous word. Love the Cross. When you really love it, your Cross will be... a Cross, without a Cross. And surely you, like Him, will find Mary on the way. (St. Josemaría Escrivá, The Way of the Cross (New York: Scepter, 1990), n.p.)
Whenever we are weak, how surely will our Mother at once fly to our aid when we faithfully call upon her name!
When bearing our crosses, we may be tempted to cry out, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” This utterance of Christ from the cross, however, was not merely a lamentation but Him offering Psalm 22 to His Father. Let our every word, then, be a prayer, let our every action be an act of faith, our every thought be of kindness, and our every deed, one of love, the same kind offered upon the Cross. And, Pope Francis gently offers, “When everything seems too much, when it seems that the world is crashing down on you, embrace Christ’s Cross, draw close to him, and please, never let go of his hand.”
Question for Reflection: How can you pick up your cross more diligently in these last few days of Lent?
Exult greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
Behold: your king is coming to you,
a just savior is he,
Humble, and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
So begins the first liturgy of Holy Week on Palm Sunday. We hear these words referenced in the first of an unusual two Gospel readings during the procession into the church. We start our celebration of Palm Sunday, appropriately, by proclaiming and then reenacting the story in Matthew’s Gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, a moment of great joy and excitement for the inhabitants of the city. Those in the congregation welcome the priest, who enters the church in persona Christi, as we echo the words of the people of Jerusalem, “Hosanna in the highest!” What a happy occasion! The Messiah, the One whom the prophets foretold, has come!
How fickle this joy seems, though, when we get to the Passion narrative. In a matter of minutes, we go from crying, “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” One minute, we’re giving Jesus a king’s welcome. The next, we’re condemning Him to death. I know I’m not the only one who feels a dagger through his heart every time we say—loudly—that refrain of condemnation. How dare I welcome Christ with such exuberance, knowing what I’m about to do to Him? Quite the emotional roller coaster, with Mass only halfway over!
Holy Week is exhausting. I find it the most taxing part of the liturgical year. Starting with Palm Sunday, I’m attending Masses, praying the Stations of the Cross, and singing with the choir for days on end, practically turning the Triduum into a 3-day long vigil. In recent years, I’ve taken to spending Good Friday on pilgrimage to the National Shrine in Washington, D.C., to place myself in an intentional state of prayer and reflection.
So why do I do this to myself? Why get on this roller coaster and make myself so physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained by the time Easter morning arrives? Quite simply, it’s because I love it. It’s the most rewarding experience of prayer that I have all year.
On Palm Sunday, we’re reminded of what we’ll bear witness to in the days to come. We’re invited to reflect on what’s about to be re-presented in a real-time reenactment of the focal point of Christ’s entire earthly life.
At the Chrism Mass on the morning of Holy Thursday, we bear witness to the consecration of holy oils for use in the upcoming year’s sacraments. We also see the gathering of all our diocesan priests, who renew their vows and participate in probably the largest concelebration of the year. It’s a moving and impressive sight.
Later on Holy Thursday, we see the reenactment of the Last Supper, the very institution of the Eucharist we celebrate to this day. We’re reminded, too, of the great humility we’re called to emulate: “If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
On Good Friday, we once again take up the cries of, “Crucify him!” as we see the events of Christ’s Passion and death unfold before our eyes. We’re called toward the sanctuary to kiss the gruesome device of our salvation, the ancient instrument of punishment used to redeem all of mankind. And after an unceremonious Communion service, the liturgy suddenly pauses and we just go home. The Church holds its breath as we wait.
And then, finally, the Easter Vigil—the happiest day of the year, of all history! We hear the no longer fickle, but truly joyous words of the Exsultet, the Easter Proclamation:
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
If I arrive at Easter morning feeling exhausted but strengthened, it means that I've truly entered into Holy Week, walking with Christ as He always walks with me. This Holy Week, may we walk more closely with Christ on His journey towards the cross, knowing that this journey continues with His resurrection. It is Christ's resurrection, His triumph over sin and death, that gives our Lenten journey meaning and enables us to exult with the Church and be glad!
Question for Reflection: How can you enter more deeply into Holy Week in order to better celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday?
For more resources to prepare you for Holy Week and Easter, please click here.