Holy Week Today -
by Fr. John G. Vrana -
I love Holy Week. As a Catholic priest I love to become immersed with my congregation in the liturgical celebrations of this week. Christians, in general are fascinated by the last days of Jesus and have sought to recreate them in film, documentaries, or religious pageants. While the Catholic Church celebrates the liturgies of this week with an array of rituals designed to capture the senses, mind, and heart of its members, they are never meant to take the assembly back so as to relive the events. The liturgical prayers, Scripture readings and rituals are, rather, meant to bring the meaning and the power of those events forward into the present day and to address themselves to our lives and circumstances today. We are brought into the presence of Jesus, the Christ, who, like us, struggles to deal with the presence of evil in our world and in our personal lives.
On Palm Sunday we begin, if possible, outside the church with a glorious procession, waving palms and singing hymns of praise and exaltation for Christ, the King. But once we are gathered in the church we hear the narrative of the Lord?s passion and the shouts of ?Crucify him? from those who days before had praised him. We may want to criticize the duplicity of that crowd, their hollow praise and fickle devotion, but the liturgy forces us to face the duplicity within ourselves and the word around us. How often we hurt others and are hurt by such duplicity.
In the evening hours of Thursday of Holy Week the Liturgy of the Lord?s Supper is celebrated. Here begins an immersion in the culmination of Jesus? life, the summation of his life?s teachings in word and action, his contending with evil so that we might be free from it. What we believe took place centuries ago has lost none of its relevance for today. The impact of this event is needed more today than ever before. On the surface we are presented with friends gathered for a sacred festive meal, Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine, speaking words of farewell flowing from an aching heart. Through the liturgical celebration of the event, Jesus asks us again to attend to His message and to confront with Him, as he did, the evils which surround us. He assures us that humility trumps pride and arrogance, that service to others brings a joy and satisfaction that self-seeking, materialism, and greed can never know, and that genuine intimacy in friendship and love can only be experienced to the extent that we are willing to lay down our life for another. ?Do this in memory of me. Love one another as I have loved you.?
The Liturgy of the Lord?s Passion on Good Friday continues to bring Jesus? actions and words to bear on two great sources of evil for us personally and for our world. The first is self-willfulness. As Jesus embraces the cross he shows us that the obedience needed to sacrifice our will so as to conform to the will of His Father is possible. The second is the failure to forgive. Even in the midst of tremendous physical pain and mental anguish over those who would rather destroy Him than accept his message, he extends mercy and forgiveness. ?Father, forgive them.? Recent or centuries old hurts and animosities on a personal, gang, tribal, ethnic, or national level continue to feed so much of today?s violence, war, and bloodshed. Was it really as easy for Jesus to forgive as we may believe?
We come finally to the night of Holy Saturday as the church keeps vigil. We gather in total darkness that seems to mock the life and teaching of Jesus. His death and burial seem to be the triumphal cry of evil proclaiming its power over all that Jesus stands for. We are forced to face times of darkness and doubt in our own lives, wondering if Jesus and His followers today are just naive and impractical dreamers. But, as we sit in the darkness a single light from a magnificent candle enters and the darkness begins to lift. From the light of the one candle others are lit until the whole church is bathed in light. Hearts begin to stir and there is heard a hymn and Scripture passages recalling God?s faithful and relentless effort to draw humanity from the clutches of evil. The liturgy proceeds and the gospel proclaims that Christ is not dead but risen. Men and women, young and old from all backgrounds and histories are then called forth. They share one thing in common, their desire to be joined to Christ and His church as His disciples. They are led to the waters of baptism where they die and rise with Christ. They are anointed with the Holy Spirit and brought to the table of the Lord where they are fed with the divine person of the Christ under the appearances of bread and wine. The church rings out with hymns of joy and Alleluia and the assembly spills out into a new day. It is Easter Sunday. Buoyed up with liturgical experiences of Holy Week and the witness of its newest members, the church goes out to meet tomorrow with all its challenges. Believing that what we have seen and heard is real and true, we know that Christ is victor over evil, and united with Him, so are we.
Father John G. Vrana is Administrator of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Parma.