Palms, Passion and Progress: Holy Week is a Continuing Call to a New Life in Christ
Holy Week invites us to let go of self and embrace the Lord anew through continuing conversion. How desperately we all need to hear the Good news that we can begin again! The question is not whether we will mark time but how we will do so? For the Christian time is not meant to be a tyrant ruling over us with impunity. Rather, it is a teacher, inviting and instructing us to choose to enter more fully into our relationship with the Lord and in Him to make progress on the Path of Life.
The week we call Holy (Great Week for Eastern Christians) began for me with proclaiming contrasting Gospel readings during the Liturgy of Palm or Passion Sunday. Before we enter the Church in a Procession waving Palm branches, we listen to the Gospel narrative and are invited to identify with the jubilant crowds welcoming the Master into Jerusalem.
Once inside the sanctuary, the Liturgy of the Word begins. Before long, some of those same people shouted “Crucify Him” as the Passion Gospel is proclaimed. As I grow older the connection between the two gospels and the frailties of life have become clearer to me.
Only by grace can I make progress in the path that leads to eternal life. What those contrasting Gospel accounts reveal draws me into this week called Holy and its numerous times of prayer and reflection. It draws me to an honest admission of my weakness and an ever deepening appreciation of the “Amazing Grace” given in Jesus Christ. The Passion narrative is filled with biblical characters with whom we can all identify. Each year we are called to reflectively prepare ourselves for the Holy Week services by doing just that. On Sunday, my friend and pastor asked us all, “who were you on Calvary?”
He hit the nail on the head. This has been a difficult year for me. This has been one of the most difficult Lents I have ever experienced. I know this Holy Week is an invitation to be made new again, to progress on the path that leads to life. The only question is, will I respond fully? In the 1977 film “Jesus of Nazareth” Franco Zefferrelli ended the original version with words spoken by a character not found in the biblical accounts’ named Zerah. The name literally means “Brilliance”. He enters the empty crypt and seeing the burial cloth lying on the empty slab because Jesus has been raised says, “Now it begins; now it all begins.” It is these words which come to my mind every year as we begin the High Holy Days of the Christian faith during this “Holy Week” or “Great Week”. The Liturgy of Palm or Passion Sunday, with its re-presentation of the triumphal entry of the Master into Jerusalem leading into the first Passion Narrative sets the Liturgical framework for a week which is filled with invitations of grace. However, it is up to each of us to choose to receive them or not. That is part of the mystery of human freedom. To be “Holy” is to be set aside for God. Entering fully into the Liturgical celebrations of this week can actually change us – that is what it means to be converted. “Now it begins; now it all begins”. There is no better book to assist Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and lay men and women charged with the task of preparing truly good liturgies in the Modern Roman Rite than Monsignor Peter J. Elliott’s “Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year” . Monsignor Elliott writes in his Introduction: “Christians understand time in a different way from other people because of the Liturgical Year. We are drawn into a cycle that can become such a part of our lives that it determines how we understand the structure of each passing year.” “In the mind of the Christian, each passing year takes shape, not so much around the cycle of natural seasons, the financial or sporting year or academic semesters, but around the feasts, fasts and seasons of the Catholic Church. Without thinking much about it, from early childhood, we gradually learn to see time itself, past, present and future, in a new way. All of the great moments of the Liturgical Year look back to the salvific events of Jesus Christ, the Lord of History.” “Those events are made present here and now as offers of grace. This week is Holy not only because of what we remember but because of what it can accomplish within each one of us as we give our voluntary “Yes” to its’ invitation. To put it another way, in Christ time takes on a sacramental dimension. The Liturgical Year bears this sacramental quality of memorial, actuation and prophecy.” “Time becomes a re-enactment of Christ’s saving events, His being born in our flesh, His dying and rising for us in that human flesh. Time thus becomes a pressing sign of salvation, the “day of the Lord”, His ever present “hour of salvation”, the kairos. Time on earth then becomes our pilgrimage through and beyond death toward the future Kingdom. The Liturgical Year is best understood both in its origins and current form in the way we experience time: in the light of the past, present and future.” “The Liturgical Year thus suggests the sovereignty of the grace of Christ. We say that we “follow” or “observe” the Liturgical Year, but this Year of Grace also carries us along. Once we enter it faithfully we must allow it to determine the shape of our daily lives. It sets up a series of “appointments” with the Lord. We know there are set days, moments, occasions when He expects us. Within this framework of obligation, duty and covenant, we are part of something greater than ourselves.”
“We can detect a sense of being sustained or borne forward by the power and pace of a sacred cycle that is beyond our control. It will run its course whether we like it or not. This should give us an awareness of the divine dimension of the Liturgical Year as an expression the power and authority of Jesus who is the Lord of History. As the blessing of the Paschal Candle recalls, “all time belongs to Him and all the ages”. The sacred cycle thus becomes a sacrament of God’s time. Salvation history is among us here and now… “my time” rests in God’s hands (and)is a call to trust, to faith, to letting go of self.” Holy Week invites us to let go of self and embrace the Lord anew. It holds out that wonderful promise that we can begin again! How desperately we need to hear this Good news that we can begin again! Life is a path of progress and time is a field of choice. The real question is not whether we will mark time but how we will do so? For the Christian time is not meant to be a tyrant ruling over us with impunity. Rather, it is a teacher, inviting and instructing us to choose to enter more fully into our relationship with the Lord and follow Him on the Way that leads to life. Time is not our enemy, but our friend. It is a part of the redemptive loving plan of a timeless God who, in His Son, the Timeless One, came into time to transform it from within. He now gives us time as a gift and intends it to become a field of choice and a path to holiness in this life – and the window into life eternal. Through time the Lord offers us the privilege of discovering His plan for our own life pilgrimage. Through time He invites us to participate in His ongoing redemptive plan, through His Son Jesus Christ who has been raised, by living in the full communion of His Church. That plan will in its final fulfillment recreate the entire cosmos in Christ. Time is the road along which this loving plan of redemption and re-creation proceeds. We who have been baptized into Christ are invited to co-operate in this Divine Plan. The Christian understanding of time as having a redemptive purpose is why Catholic Christians mark time by the great events of the faith in our Church calendar. At the very epicenter of that Calendar is the great Three days we will celebrate this Holy Week, the “Triduum” of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Resurrection of the Lord.
As we learn to live the liturgical calendar, entering into the great celebrations of this week, we experience an ever-deepening call to conversion. We perceive more fully the deeper mystery and meaning of life and the real purpose of time. Christians believe in a linear timeline in history. There is a beginning and an end, a fulfillment which is a new beginning. Time is heading somewhere. That is as true of the history of the world as it is our own personal histories. Christians mark time by the great event which forever redeemed it, the saving Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Good Liturgy is not a re-enactment of something that happened 2000 years ago but an actual participation in the events themselves, through living faith. They are outside of time and made present in our Liturgical celebrations and in our reception of the Sacraments. Every Liturgy is an invitation to enter into the sacrifice of Calvary which occurred once and for all. That one Sacrifice is re-presented at every Altar in every Holy Mass. Our Holy Week invites us to participate in the timeless Paschal Mystery, the saving life, suffering, passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over the course of this Holy Week we attend the Last Supper and receive the gift of the Holy Eucharist, the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We enter into the deep meaning of the Holy priesthood and are invited to pour ourselves out like the water in the basins used to wash feet on Holy Thursday. We are asked with the disciples in the Gospel accounts we hear proclaimed to watch with the Lord and to enter with him into his anguish by imitating His Holy surrender in his Sacred Humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane. Through the stark and solemn Liturgy of the Friday we call “Good”, we stand at the Altar of the Cross where heaven is rejoined to earth and earth to heaven, along with the Mother of the Lord. We enter into the moment that forever changed – and still changes – all human History, the great self gift of the Son of God who did for us what we could never do for ourselves by in the words of the ancient Exultet, “trampling on death by death”. We wait at the tomb and witness the Glory of the Resurrection and the beginning of the New Creation. At the Great Easter Vigil we will be invited to join the new members of the Body of Christ and affirm once again that we believe what we profess in that great Creed, the symbol of our ancient and ever new faith. We can be Catholic, as I like to say – by choice- by exercising our human freedom and choosing what is true. The Liturgical year in the words of Monsignor Peter Elliott “transforms our time into a sacrament of eternity.” Let us enter fully into this Great and Holy Week by reaching out to receive all of the graces offered to us in these wonderful Holy Week Liturgies. The new Catholics who join us in the Easter Vigil understand something that perhaps many of us may have forgotten. Liturgy is not mere external compliance with some “custom” or tradition. It is an invitation of the Holy Spirit into the Mystery of the Christian faith. Palms, Passion and Progress: Holy Week is a continuing call to New Life in Christ
Now it begins; now it all begins” said Zerah in the film Jesus of Nazareth. What begins? Life itself begins anew – and so can we, once again. The Christian proclamation is that every man, woman and child on the face of the earth can be made new in and through Jesus Christ. We make progress and then we fall down. The only important question is do we get back up again? We can all begin again and again and again and again and again.