Our global Catholic community on Ash Wednesday invited us to treat ourselves to those age-old exercises of prayer (or “heart-to-heart” conversation with God), fasting (doing without, e. g., negative attitudes and behaviors that can jeopardize our relationship with God and one another) and almsgiving (generously sharing what we have, e. g. our time, talent and treasure) so that we can deepen our friendship with God and our fellow human beings. I hope these exercises have re-invigorated us and deepened our faith in God.
Today, Palm Sunday, we begin Holy Week, the chief week of the Liturgical Year. We focus upon the Paschal mystery (the dying/rising of Jesus Christ). We contemplate the journey of Jesus from this earthly life through the mystery of death into a transfigured 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. Every year the Jewish community re-experiences this exodus or liberation in the so-called seder service, which they celebrate this year beginning at sunset on April
I came across a story that highlights for me the significance of our Holy Week. A high school teacher in an Iowa farm community gave her students an unusual assignment: She asked the students to bring to class a plastic bag and a sack of potatoes.
In class, she asked each student to take a potato for every person the student had refused to forgive or had treated badly. They were to write the name of the person and the date on the potato and put it in the plastic bag.
The teacher then told the students to carry their bags of potatoes with them for the day –putting the bag of potatoes next to their desk when they did their homework, next to their chair at the dinner table, next to their beds that night, and lugging them back to school the next day.
As you can imagine, carrying around that sack of potatoes became an embarrassing affair. The students definitely were happy to drop their sacks off the following day in school.
But it taught a valuable lesson about the time and energy we waste lugging around our anger and guilt. Too often, we think of forgiveness as a gift to another person: but it is clearly a gift to ourselves, as well. We have to throw away our anger about the way some people may have mistreated us, and we have to throw away our guilt about the way we may have mistreated other people.
Forgiveness and reconciliation is what Holy Week is all about.
On this day, Palm Sunday, we reflect upon a paradox: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (in the procession with palms) and the Gospel proclamation of the passion and death of Jesus. Triumph and tragedy. Yes, in the tragedy of Good Friday there is the triumph of Easter; in and through the death of Jesus there is resurrection. Life has many paradoxes, doesn’t it.
The word of God from Isaiah is a poem about a “servant” who suffers; Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Philippi quotes an early Christian hymn about God who became one of us so that we could become one with God; and the Gospel proclaims the passion and death of Jesus.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday is known as the triduum or “three days” from the latin “tres” and “dies.”
On Thursday we will commemorate the Lord’s Supper: there is the washing of feet (a symbol of service); and then a sacrificial meal where Jesus gives himself to us in the signs of bread and wine. The words of Jesus capture the significance of this sacrificial meal: “This is my body; this is my blood.” “Take and eat; take and drink.” “Do this in memory of me.”
On Good Friday, we meditate upon the passion and death of Jesus: the Garden of Gethsemane; the trial; the crucifixion; and the burial; the veneration of the cross; and then a simple communion service.
At the Easter vigil, we will reflect upon the passage of Jesus from this earthly life through death into a transfigured heavenly life; the resurrection of Jesus is a pledge of our own liberation from death or nothingness into a transfigured heavenly life.
The Vigil includes: fire (a symbol of Jesus as the light who illuminates the darkness around us); it includes: the proclamation of the story of our salvation in the Scriptures, the renewal of our baptismal promises and the Eucharistic or thanksgiving prayer.
Easter proclaims that Jesus is risen; alive among us, and especially alive in the sacramental life of our Catholic community.
This is indeed the chief week of the Catholic liturgical year. I pray that your participation in these services will inspire you to seek ever more enthusiastically the God who became flesh in Jesus of Nazareth, who by his dying/rising opened up to us a transfigured life beyond earthly life, and who by the power of the Spirit is alive among us especially in the sacramental life of the global Catholic community.
May the Lord bless you!