How are Holy Week and Shakespeare alike?
Most of us had an encounter with Shakespeare in our high school experience. Between the florid and antiquated language, the unfamiliar nouns and the cultural differences, it was hard work to begin to understand and appreciate “the Bard of Avon". In the end, most of us found it worth the effort. Holy Week can be similar.
Four major ceremonies mark the parish experience: Palm or Passion Sunday, Holy Thursday or the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. For the clergy there is a fifth: the Chrism Mass.
Palm or Passion Sunday recalls our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is followed, in short order, by his arrest, torture and crucifixion. Like Shakespeare’s works, these long and complicated liturgies take their drama and meaning from the complicated nature of our human relationships and our relationship with our God. Our nastiest crimes are crimes of passion acted out with the persons with whom we are closest.
I have always liked the first part of Palm Sunday because it is joyous, and we get free souvenirs. Being a dexterous hand crafter, I enjoy receiving the palms and then weaving them into pretty little crosses. I prefer to remain oblivious to the meaning of the cross which is torture and death.
The reading of the passion narrative can seem tedious and long. The pith of the narrative is the darkest side of our hearts. Who crucified Christ? We all did, and we all do. There is not a one of us who has not spat in his face and called for his death. We would be peculiar people if we enjoyed recalling our failures. We are shallow people if we refuse to do so.
On Holy Thursday we celebrate the “Mass of the Lord’s Supper.” At its best it is a more richly elaborated version of our regular Eucharistic Liturgy. Holy Thursday, with the reenactment of the washing of the disciples’ feet, is a sort of passing of the torch. “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet; ye ought also to wash one another's feet:” The real presence of our Lord is in the Eucharist and the real presence of the Eucharist is in the church.
After this drama that so exalts the disciples, we walk with our Lord to a symbolic Gethsemane, a garden of olives, and we wait with him. When we are suffering it is comforting to have someone with us, even if they do nothing and say nothing, just being there is a gift.
Good Friday, with its odd name in modern English, is the day on which we recall the death of Jesus. The liturgy begins with a profound sign of humility and then continues with the readings of which the Passion Narrative takes primacy. Elaborate intercessions are followed by the showing of the cross and its veneration. We are invited to come and honor the instrument of Christ´s tortuous death because had Christ not been sacrificed, we would not be saved.
We receive Holy Communion from hosts consecrated the previous night. Good Friday is the only day on which Mass may not be celebrated. The Easter Vigil is the mother of all vigils. It commemorates the central event of our Christian Faith: that Christ is risen, truly he is risen, from the dead.
We begin in darkness like the book of Genesis, and celebrate Christ, the light of the world. From a raging Easter fire, we light the “Pillar of Fire”, which is the Pascal Candle, and we share that light with the community gathered. We process with that light into the center of the worship space and hear the Easter Proclamation sung. This is the light by which we proclaim the history of salvation in a series of readings ending with the Deacon proclaiming the Gospel narrative of the resurrection.
The Christian church began with a small group of believers but by their joyous proclamation of the Good News of Christ risen from the dead, the church grew despite fierce opposition. Our members continue the tradition of proclaiming the good news and of inviting others to the rebirth of baptism and the sacramental life. Each Easter we welcome new members and we rejoice with those who are completing their three sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.
The community, enriched by our newly Baptized and those who have been confirmed and who have recieved their First Holy Communion, share in the Eucharistic Liturgy, rejoicing in the growth of the Church and in the goodness of God.
The Masses of Easter Sunday continue the joy of the Easter Vigil and the joy of Christ risen from the dead.
Monsignor Dan Stack