Holy Week and the journey from death to life

Republished with permission from GIA Quarterly.

In Western culture, sickness, suffering, and death are pathological. There is an innate revulsion and loathing that accompanies an experience of any of these situations in our lives, and we feel the more we can keep them to the margins of our daily routines, the better. It is perhaps fear and the great uncertainties of where such calamities might lead us that most prevent us from reconciling with these eventualities in human life.

And yet the journey that believers undertake each year through the liturgies of Holy Week places us squarely in the crosshairs of suffering and death, forcing to us to face them in all their monstrous and dehumanizing terror, seeking to undo all we hold dear. It is in journeying through and with the liturgies of these days that we rediscover and remember once again that the hand of God always brings life from death and suffering.

Celebrating the liturgies of Holy Week, particularly during a period of social and personal turmoil, unrest, and anxiety, accentuates our need to know not just that God cares, but that God can make sense out of suffering and death. And so, accompanied by our world’s and our own personal unresolved conflicts, we return once again to this last week in life of Jesus of Nazareth. By walking again this road of glory, we are challenged to embrace the sure and certain hope that defeats all the persuasive lies of sin, darkness, and death.

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, whose official name is “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.” The very title of the liturgy expresses its twofold character, one of praise and glory at its opening, and death and confusion at its conclusion. It is shocking how the cries of “Hosanna!” so quickly turn to cries of “Crucify him!” in the liturgy, within a matter of minutes, and we are left with a whiplash of emotion, unsettling and bewildering to say the least.

Amid this tumult the cry “Hosanna!” confronts us. The Hebrew word is not so much a cry of praise as it is a petition—“Save us, we pray! Please deliver us!” it exclaims. But save or deliver us from what? As the week unfolds, we realize the cry is to save us from everything that prevents us from living authentically what we believe and from realizing how authentic belief can transform our lives. “Save us!” we cry out: let our lives have meaning, let us see and know there is meaning to life even in the midst of pain, sorrow, and death.

Holy Thursday

The week swiftly moves to Thursday evening and the initiation of the Sacred Triduum. The liturgy for Holy Thursday does not simply focus on the institution of the Eucharist. Rather, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday leads us to focus on the impact that sharing in this “sacrifice new for all eternity, the banquet of [Christ’s] love” (Collect) has on our lives of faith.

The Entrance Antiphon directs us to focus to the Cross, through which Christ saves and delivers us—a continued echo of “Hosanna!” from Palm Sunday. The Prayer over the Offerings reminds us that “whenever the memorial of this sacrifice is celebrated the work of our redemption is accomplished.” And the Prayer after Communion proclaims that renewal here and now is a consequence of sharing in this meal, which readies us for the life to come.

Holy Thursday reminds us that in celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy we continually enact the type of meaning in human life that truly gives life, because it is life that finds its center in Christ. Surprisingly, the Washing of Feet (Mandatum) is an optional rite within the liturgy. While it demonstrates the need to be of service to one another, it is not service we do on our own, but it is service inspired and enlivened by Christ dwelling in us. It is service able to give life, particularly in times of anxiety and suffering, because it refuses anxiety and suffering to have the upper hand.

Good Friday

In a direction like the conclusion to the liturgy of Palm Sunday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper quietly fades into a period of watchful prayer until the assembly enters the liturgy of the Passion of the Lord. Strikingly, the liturgy is labelled as a “celebration.” What is celebrated is not the death of Christ, however, but rather the transformation Christ undergoes by facing the most monstrous act we can inflict upon each other and willingly submitting to it.

Here, it is Christ’s passion as passio—passage—and not passion primarily as suffering. Through Christ’s passage from death to life, it becomes possible for us to transform from “the image of the man of earth” to the “image of the Man of heaven” (Prayer that initiates the liturgy). Christ’s passage enables us to pray the ancient Solemn Intercessions, aware that transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection we are enabled to stand before God in prayer for one another.

We approach the Cross (not the Crucifix, for the Lord has been raised) with adoration grounded in the knowledge that the life-giving power of God has overcome the pain and separation of death. For this reason, the Cross is revealed as the wood upon which hung salvation for the world. Human meaning is found in suffering that breaks the cycles of dehumanization and despair, which prevent humanity from having a future.

The Prayer after Communion and the Final Blessing emphasize this future by proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ a source of restoration, hope, pardon, comfort, an increase in faith, and everlasting redemption.

Paschal Vigil/Easter Season

Silence leads the assembly from the conclusion of the Celebration of the Lord’s Passion into the remainder of Good Friday and the daytime portion of Holy Saturday. The Paschal Vigil releases a dramatic and glorious about-face of the march of time and history. To all the deficiencies and the consternations of the cosmos that seek the ruin of human destiny, the resurrection confidently declares a new beginning.

This beginning emerges when the paralyzing fear of suffering surrenders to trust that God knows what God is doing. This surrender reveals itself poignantly in the Entrance Antiphon (Introit) of Easter Sunday:

I have risen, and I am with you still, alleluia.

You have laid your hand upon me, alleluia.

Too wonderful for me, this knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.

These words of wonder and amazement are even more astounding when we realize that it is Christ who is speaking these words—the risen Christ, whose trust in God’s power to transform creation has brought him through suffering and death to a new and glorious reality, the fullness of what it means to become truly human. The whole of the Easter Season is a celebration of this reality.

Holy Week is the unitive event, yearly celebrated, of remembering that the whole of the Paschal mystery is the transformative journey from death to life, and the challenge to embrace this truth once again in our own lives as believers.