Today we begin Holy Week. For almost 40 days we’ve been trying to grow in charity and holiness through Christ’s grace and our Lenten penances and resolutions. Most of us have met with mixed results. But we have one more week: let’s resolve to make it a truly “holy” week centered on Christ and His ineffable love.
To do this I propose we follow the ancient practice of allowing each day to be permeated with the passion of Christ. That is, to constantly be aware and thoughtful of what He was thinking, doing, saying and suffering in those last days and hours, and how all this He endured because of our sins and out of love for us.
The Church gives us multiple gifts to help us do this, in particular the unique liturgies of Holy Week. We begin today, Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, as we have the blessing of the Palms, and (at several Masses) either the Procession with Palms or the Solemn entry into the church, reminding us of the Lord’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem. We combine this with the reading of the Passion from Mark’s Gospel, using the form of a narrative and dialogue; is there any more painful moment for each of us than when we cry out together “Crucify him”?
Each day of Holy Week then proceeds with ample opportunities for going to Mass and confession, as well as visiting churches to adore our Eucharistic Lord, to meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary, or, especially, to pray the Stations of the Cross.
On Holy Thursday things become even more focused and intense. No Masses are said during the day, except the Chrism Mass at the Cathedral, where all the priests gather with the Bishop to celebrate the day when Christ instituted the ordained priesthood, and renew their ordination promises.
In the evening Mass is finally said in the parishes: The Mass of The Lord’s Supper, commemorating the institution of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Priesthood (Holy Orders). Here we find ourselves in the upper room at the Passover meal with Christ and the first priests, His apostles. We commemorate the Lord’s example of service and charity, as the priest washes the feet of certain men (here, altar boys) representing the apostles. (This also recalls the purification of the priests in the Temple during the Passover sacrifice). As Mass ends, just as the Lord led the apostles to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, the priest leads the people in procession with the Blessed Sacrament to a place of repose (in the Parish Hall) where the faithful are invited to remain with our Eucharistic Lord as late as midnight, remembering Jesus’ words: “remain here, and watch with me…watch and pray.”
The next day is Good Friday, in a certain way the holiest day of the year. The whole Church throughout the world observes a day of fasting and abstinence (see the rules below), to share a taste of the suffering and sacrifice the Lord. The day should be marked by quiet reflection, and charity, even as we go about our necessary regular routine—even at work—especially from noon to three.
Mass is not offered on Good Friday. Instead we gather in the church at 3:00 in the afternoon, the hour of our Lord’s death, for the solemn Celebration of the Passion of the Lord (a powerful liturgy; don’t miss it, even if it means leaving work early). We begin as the priest silently enters the bare sanctuary (all decoration is removed and the tabernacle is empty) and prostrates himself before the altar, and all join him by kneeling. We then read the Passion in narrative/dialogue form, from the Gospel of John. After the readings, the priest prays ten ancient ritual intercessions, calling down our Lord’s mercy on the Church and the world.
Then the priest brings a large crucifix to the sanctuary, and the people come forward to personally venerate the Cross, by a genuflection, a kiss, or some other gesture. For the last several decades the Church in America had permission to use up to three crosses for this ritual (three crosses, three lines). With the introduction of new Roman Missal, however, the American Bishops decided to follow to the more universal practice, the practice of the Pope himself: we may now us only one cross for veneration. While this will certainly slow things down, the one cross has a powerful symbolic meaning. Besides, slowing things down is not a bad thing on this holiest of days—if you grow impatient, imagine yourself next to the Blessed Mother, St. John and St. Mary Magdalene waiting for three hours at the foot of the Cross.
(To make things go a little smoother, however, we will use a much larger cross this year, and instead of approaching the cross one at a time, we will approach two at a time: one person venerating the right arm, the other the left. Instead of three lines, there will be two).
After veneration, the priests brings the Blessed Sacrament from the sacristy and the faithful receive Holy Communion. Afterwards the Cross is left in the sanctuary for those who wish to venerate it later in the day. Stations of the Cross are prayed at 7:00 pm.
On Holy Saturday the Church continues it’s somber reflective mood. This day is not a day of celebration; in fact, the Church encourages us to voluntarily fast and abstain from meat as we do on Good Friday.
Mass is never offered on Holy Saturday, but at 8:30pm (after sunset) Saturday officially ends and the celebration of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil Mass. We begin with the blessing of the Easter Fire and the Easter Candle outside the doors of the Church. The Easter Candle is brought into the darkened church, representing the Risen Christ, the Light of the world; and as the Easter Proclamation (the Exsultet) is chanted the lights of the Church come on. This is followed by four readings from the Old Testament, four psalms, a magnificent sung Gloria, an Epistle, and the Gospel account of the Resurrection. After the homily new Catholics (from RCIA) are baptized, or received into the Church, and confirmed. The members of congregation also renew their baptismal vows. It is a glorious Mass, and I encourage all to attend. (However, lasting two hours, it can be tough for little ones).
This is a wondrous week, filled with grace and prayer, and accentuated by awe-inspiring liturgies. Let’s not miss this opportunity to have a truly Holy Week, that can be the beginning of a holier life for each one of us.
Oremus pro invicem. Fr. De Celles