Bishop Joseph E. Strickland
I was pleased to be invited to reflect on Holy Week, the week of weeks for us as Catholics. Beginning with Passion, or Palm, Sunday, and continuing until the Lord’s Resurrection on Easter Sunday, these days are truly sacred to us in the Roman Catholic Tradition. It is important to note that, as with the season of Lent, Holy Week is a liturgical practice which grows out of the witness of Sacred Scripture. As Catholics, it is important to underscore the connections between Scripture and our liturgical celebrations. Lent is forty days because Our Lord Jesus Christ spent forty days in the desert as recorded in the Gospels. This also harkens back to the Israelites’ forty years in the desert recorded in the Book of Exodus. Holy Week as the culmination of the Lent is fittingly the last week of Our Lord’s life, the last week of his public ministry before his resurrection appearances.
Holy Week also resonates with the Catholic idea of sacred time. From her earliest times the Church has noted certain days, certain moments in time, as sacred. Once again, this flows organically out of the traditions of the people of Israel. Long before the Son of God was incarnate among us, the people of Israel had celebrations and feasts on specific days. The Feast of Passover itself is one of those sacred days highlighted in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is deeply embedded in the meaning of Holy Week. This liturgical focus reminds us that time significantly demarcates our human journey. God is timeless but he acts in our time and so affects our history. The Incarnation of God’s Divine Son which occurs as he is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary at a specific moment in time is a prime example of divine action in time. God intervened in human history and sent us his only begotten Son as our redeemer. Human time, human history, was forever changed when God entered into time.
The significance of sacred time is underscored by the liturgies of Holy Week. I would urge every household of faith, every domestic church, to make these holiest of days unique and significant for their family. This is counter cultural in our society, and it takes real effort for individuals and families to embrace the meaning of Holy Week. When I was growing up here in East Texas it was easier to celebrate and embrace the liturgies of Holy Week as special. The challenge of keeping Holy Week also reminds me of the ongoing challenge we all face of keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Our culture promotes a model where Sunday is barely different from any other day of the week. Our tendency to lose this focus on the Lord’s Day as a day of rest, a day of worship, a day of family and a day of care for others begins also to undermine our experience of Holy Week as holy days. As people of faith, we have the joyful challenge of bringing the holiness of these days into our lives and of modeling this holiness for the culture.
In this regard, I believe it is beneficial to reflect on each of the high points of the week. These begin with Passion Sunday, include the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and conclude with Easter Sunday. “Triduum” is a Latin term rooted in the idea of three days, which again is rooted in the gospel narrative, when the Lord tells his disciples that he will be raised on the third day. Only five of the seven days of the week are marked with specific liturgical celebrations. In this diocese, as in many others, Tuesday of Holy Week has been the traditional day of the Chrism Mass. There the bishop, in union with the priests and deacons of the diocese, blesses and consecrates the Holy Oils for the coming year. While this leaves Monday of Holy Week with no specific liturgical focus, I would encourage the faithful to look for household traditions that will help them to keep the focus of Holy Week on all seven days. Many parishes support this with para-liturgical celebrations that help to enhance the idea of seven days of holiness and sacred focus. This emphasis is helpful because as we embrace the Holy Week of seven days it naturally brings us to Easter Sunday, which is the eighth day. This underscores the importance of the eight day, when the new creation is ushered in with the resurrection of the Lord.
Having reflected on the basics of Holy Week and the importance of sacred time, I would like to briefly examine each of the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week. Each day has its own focus and is an opportunity to nurture our faith as we are taken from Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, to his death on the cross, and finally to his Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The week allows us to journey with the Lord and gives us a chance to reflect on the ways in which our journey parallels his. It also enhances our appreciation of the great mystery of Jesus Christ and his Saving Passion and the significance of this mystery for us all. We can describe the journey of Holy Week as the drama of dramas, the greatest story ever told.
The week begins with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The tradition of waving palms on Passion Sunday is rooted in the gospel story, and the arc of palms reminds us of the arc of dramatic events that the Lord is entering into. In this liturgy, we are called to prayerfully join him in the journey of his Passion, as the Gospel of the Passion is proclaimed. So in the first liturgy of Holy Week we cover the spectrum of events and emotions that the week will plunge us into more deeply. It is a week of contrasts, with the Lord Himself walking a path of triumph and destruction. It is good for us to prayerfully and intentionally enter into this drama. The Lord admonishes his disciples to take up their own cross and follow him and as we take up the journey of his Passion we too take up his Cross and his Resurrection.
Next we move to Holy Thursday. The two liturgies of this first day of the Triduum are the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and, sometimes, the Mass of Holy Chrism, where the sacred oils to be used throughout the coming year are prepared. This is a beautiful reminder of the message of Holy Week. We celebrate these pivotal moments of the Lord’s journey during Holy Week, and these moments echo through the coming year, just as the sacred oils carry the perfume of the Sacred Chrism into the year. This Mass, the great commemoration of the Lord’s Supper is the principal liturgy of the day and must be celebrated on Holy Thursday. The institution of the sacraments of Holy Orders and the Holy Eucharist are both highlighted at this beautiful liturgy. The image of Jesus Christ as servant Lord is underscored by the washing of the feet, which is often celebrated in parishes. Once again it is worth highlighting that the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper is a liturgical celebration of the gospel narrative of Jesus’ actions. He washed feet, he took bread and wine and he called his disciples to do the same in his memory.
The poignant moment of the Lord’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane is the bridge from Holy Thursday to Good Friday. The Gospel moves us from Jesus’ model of servant sacrifice offered at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper to his living model of sacrifice on Good Friday. This solemn liturgy appropriately reminds us of the reality of the Lord’s sacrifice for us all. The proclamation of the Passion Gospel, the Adoration of the Holy Cross and Holy Communion are the three principle parts of the Good Friday liturgy. They capture with profundity what the death of the Son of God on a cross truly means for the world. The movement of the liturgy of Good Friday reminds us that suffering is meaningful when connected to the redemptive suffering of Jesus Christ.
I have great memories of these liturgies at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, witnessing the faithful coming forward to venerate the cross of Jesus, often embodying their own cross of suffering as they came forward. The end of the liturgy, which offers the Body of Christ to the faithful in a simple rite of Holy Communion, reminds us of the food of his sacrifice that nurtures us always.
The impact of Holy Saturday is found in the silence of the day as we commemorate the Lord’s repose in the tomb. This silence is broken by a raging new fire with which the liturgy of liturgies, the Easter Vigil, begins. This lengthy yet beautiful liturgy communicates salvation history in miniature, especially when there are individuals who are baptized. The word of God is once again woven inextricably into this liturgy, not only with the imagery that echoes so many passages of sacred Scripture but profoundly through the proclamation of seven readings of Old and New Testament passages. The grand sweep of salvation history is captured, from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation, as we journey from sin and death to salvation in Jesus Christ. The culmination of this beautiful liturgy is fittingly the reception of the Body of Christ for the first time by newly initiated members of His Body the Church.
We finally move to the eighth day with the celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord on Easter Sunday. Holy Week brings us to the memorial of the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection, all of which is present in the Holy Mass, which we are called to celebrate on the Lord’s Day throughout the year. Let us pray that as we approach Holy Week this year, we may do so with a deep faith and an abundant joy in the Lord.