Things to watch for during the holiest of weeks

Pope Francis washes the feet of migrants and refugees during Holy Thursday Mass on March 24, 2016. Photo: L'Osservatore Romano

We who have been Catholic most of our lives tend to not expect any surprises during the week that begins with Palm Sunday. We know we’re going to do a lot of standing and kneeling, a bit of fasting, and then a lot of feasting. We know the responses we’re expected to shout out as members of the crowd at Jesus’ trial.

But is that attitude preventing us from getting even more out of the experience?

I’d like to suggest a few things to keep in mind as we attend the liturgies of Holy Week. Watch out for these details as your priests lead the Masses. If something catches your attention, let it become a source of personal meditation, or discuss it with your family at dinnertime.

Palm Sunday

This is the only day of the year when two Gospel readings are proclaimed — and the faithful take part in proclaiming one of them. It is also a Sunday when we hear powerful words from St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians. Rather than tell you what he says, I will let you listen yourself.

There is, of course, a large focus on palms, symbolic of the people of Jerusalem throwing palm branches on the ground for Christ’s triumphal entry. Most people bring their palms home to decorate a holy image or crucifix. At one time, a procession from church to cemetery would be part of the Palm Sunday liturgy. The tradition of decorating the graves of our loved ones with palms continues to this day. That seems appropriate for a week that is at the heart of our salvation history.

Holy Thursday

With the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Lent is over. But we maintain a spirit of quiet reverence over the next few days, during the period known as the Triduum. And yet, as we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist this night, we sing the Gloria, not heard since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and not again until the Easter Vigil.

One thing we might notice as we enter the church is that the tabernacle is open and empty. It is as if the Lord is already resigned to being taken away by the guards, even as he shares one last meal with his disciples, instructing them in charity (the Washing of Feet) and leaving the Church with the sacrament that will sustain her through the ages. The stripping of the altar at the end of Mass suggests the foreboding that Christ is about to be taken away and prefigures his own garments being humiliatingly torn off.

Good Friday

This is the one day of the year on which the Roman Catholic Church does not celebrate a Mass. Rather, this liturgy is known as the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion. The ministers enter, prostrating themselves flat on the floor before the crucifix. There is no Sign of the Cross to begin and no blessing for dismissal. There is no consecration, but there is a distribution of Communion — the consecrated hosts reserved from the previous night’s liturgy. As the apostles had to be sustained with the Body and Blood of Christ they received in the Upper Room, we too continue to receive grace from the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Holy Saturday and Easter 

Try to get to church early enough to get a seat for Saturday’s Easter Vigil Mass, and then wait in silence. There are few symbols more powerful than the darkened church — and the growing light that cuts through it as the flames fan out, candle by candle, from the “new fire” of Easter. The darkness is the perfect symbol of a world without Christ. With Jesus crucified and entombed, the apostles (and we) are without direction. But represented by the Paschal Candle being carried up the center aisle, the risen Christ leads us to the Father.

It is well and good to feel joy during this celebration, and the Exultet, sung by a deacon, beautifully expresses that joy. But may I suggest that we also try to recapture another emotion that the followers of Christ must have felt on that first Easter Sunday: the sense of surprise. It is the same emotion Mary Magdalene must have felt when she suddenly realized that the “gardener” was indeed the risen Lord. It’s the same emotion the two apostles felt when they broke bread with Jesus in Emmaus — and the emotion Peter felt when he was given a special commission from the Lord he had denied.

And we who thought we knew all that Holy Week and Easter had in store for us — in what ways are we surprised when we go deeper into this mystery?

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