On Ash Wednesday, we began the Lenten season with an invitation to enter into those age-old exercises of prayer, fasting (or doing without so needy people can have) and almsgiving (sharing our time, talent and treasure with others). These disciplines help us take stock of our lives and live a God-centered, other-centered life. I hope Lent has re-invigorated our life with God and our relationships with one another,
Today we begin Holy Week, the chief week of the Liturgical Year.
We focus in particular upon the Paschal mystery: the dying and rising of Jesus Christ. Yes, the journey of Jesus from this earthly life through the mystery of death into a transformative heavenly life.
The word “paschal” derives from the Hebrew “pesach” or the “passing” of the angel of death over the homes of the Hebrews in ancient Egypt centuries ago (a “passing over” that spared their first-born child from death). In a larger sense, the Passover refers to the exodus or liberation of the Hebrews from their oppressors. The Jewish community re-experiences this liberation in their annual Seder service which they will begin to celebrate March 31 this year.
This weekend, Palm Sunday, we reflect upon a paradox of triumph and tragedy: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, and the Gospel proclamation of his passion and death. In this paradox, even in the tragedy of Good Friday there is the triumph of Easter: Jesus crucified, risen, and alive.
The word of God from Isaiah is a poem about a “servant” who suffers for us. The early Christian community saw Jesus in this servant.
Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi quotes an early Christian hymn about God who became one of us. He was obedient, even to death on the cross. And because of this, God greatly exalted him.
And the Gospel according to Mark proclaims the passion and death of Jesus.
This coming Thursday, Friday and Saturday are known as the triduum (from a Latin word meaning a period of three days).
Thursday we will commemorate the Lord’s Supper: there is the washing of feet (a symbol of service); and then the eating of a meal—a sacrificial meal in which Jesus gives himself to us in the signs of bread and wine (a symbol of our oneness not only with God but also our oneness with our fellow human beings).
On Good Friday we meditate upon the passion and death of Jesus: the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial, the crucifixion, the burial, veneration of the cross, and then a simple communion service.
At the Easter vigil Saturday evening, we will reflect upon the passage of Jesus from this earthly life through death into a transformative heavenly life. The resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of our own future, from death or nothingness into a glorious heavenly life.
The Vigil includes fire/candles as a symbol of Jesus as the light who illuminates the darkness around us. It also includes the proclamation of the story of our salvation in the Scriptures; the renewal of our baptismal promises; and the Eucharist or thanksgiving prayer to God for our salvation.
Easter proclaims that Jesus is risen; alive among us, and especially alive in the sacramental life of our global Catholic community. This is indeed the chief week of the Catholic liturgical year, and I urge all of us to participate in these services as much as we can.
Let me conclude with a favorite story of mine about a ship by the name of Deutschland. That ship ran aground off the coast of England in 1875. The Deutschland had enough lifeboats and life preservers. But that didn’t help, as fierce gale winds swamped the lifeboats.
The passengers were told to go to the deck. They could see the lights of the shore. But no one saw the ship’s distress signals.
Among the 157 passengers who perished were five German Franciscan nuns traveling to Missouri for a new teaching ministry. The nuns stayed below deck because there wasn’t enough room on deck.
They were immortalized in a poem. The writer, an English Jesuit by the name of Gerard Manley Hopkins, was profoundly moved by the newspaper accounts of this tragedy and dedicated The Wreck of the Deutschland to these five nuns. He saw in their deaths a parallel to the sufferings of Jesus for the sake of the many.
The poem reads: As the water rose around them, the nuns clasped hands and were heard saying, “O Christus, O Christus, komm schnell” or “O Christ, O Christ, come quickly!” Hopkins concludes the poem with this line referring to Christ: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us …”
As used in this poem, the word “easter” is a nautical term. It means steering toward the east, into the light. And that light is Jesus Christ.
Yes, “Let Christ easter in us” so that he may grace us to reflect his virtues in our daily lives, e.g., compassion, peacemaking, justice, truth and forgiveness.
“Let Christ easter in us” so that he may empower us to be healers, teachers and foot washers like him.
“Let Christ easter in us” so that he may give us courage to bear our crosses as he bore his cross for us.
“Let him easter in us” so that at the end of our earthly voyage Christ may carry us away within himself forever.
Throughout Lent, we have been trying to steer our lives toward the light of Jesus Christ, trying to shake off attitudes and behaviors that pull us away from the light and draw us into the darkness.
I pray that this Holy Week will inspire us to seek even more enthusiastically the God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, and who by his death and resurrection opened up to all humankind a transformative eternal life beyond this earthly life.
And then in the moment of our own dying, we, like those five nuns in the poem, will be able to pray,
O Christ, O Christ, come quickly so that you can “easter”/live in us, as our light forever. Amen.