Perhaps the most startling thing to non-Catholics, new Catholics, or to those who have been away from the Church for a few years, is to come into the church on this Sunday, just two weeks before Easter, to find all of the statues and pictures in the sanctuary covered in purple cloth. Not many centuries ago, not just the statues, but the entire sanctuary was screened off from view by a veil that reached almost to the floor! Perhaps, by modern standards, the custom seems a bit extreme, but it does serve quite well to get our attention!
The idea is to take our attention away from the artistic quality of the furnishings of the church, and cause us to look more inwardly as we consider the painful nature of our Lord’s redemptive act on the Cross—to look inward and consider the consequences of our sins, which made the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ necessary for the redemption of mankind, and for the salvation of individual men and women. We must look beyond even the Crucifix itself—be it jewel encrusted, or a simple bit of metal on wood—so that we may apprehend not just the appearances, but the reality and the consequences of the Crucifixion.
If we accurately define the word “passion,” we know that it is the giving of one’s self up to the power of someone or something else. In the trashy novels, “passion” means giving one’s self over to the power of emotion. But the word “passion” is used so much more authentically to describe the giving over of Jesus Christ to the power of the Sanhedrin, the power of the mob, and the power of the Roman executioners. These next two weeks represent a deepening of the Lenten observance which the Church calls “passiontide,” during which we meditate carefully on the events of our Lord’s giving Himself over to the powers of the world . . . in order to defeat them. That is an important notion, for the evil intentions of the Jews and the Romans and the very Devil himself are ultimately defeated as the events of the next two weeks originally played out almost two thousand years ago.
I ask all of you—as many as possible, as often as possible—to attend the ceremonies of Holy Week, which will begin next Sunday and will extend through the following week (at least) to Easter Sunday. I am going to tell you a bit about them now, as I don’t intend to preach on Palm Sunday.
This very next Sunday will be Palm Sunday. The Mass will commemorate two separate but related events—in fact, centuries ago, there were two distinct Masses offered on Palm Sunday—if you pay careful attention you will see that the Blessing of the Palms contains most of the variable parts which were recited at the first Mass—an Epistle, Gospel, Preface, and so on. This first ceremony, conducted in red vestments, commemorates our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday of Holy Week. The second Mass (in modern times the only Mass) is celebrated in purple, and it centers around the reading of Saint Matthew’s Gospel—the chapters which describe the events of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.
Monday of Holy Week is much briefer. The Gospel depicts the anointing of Jesus at Bethany by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha—and the complaint of Judas about wasting the valuable ointment, which could have been sold; not of the poor, but for Judas who was a thief.
Tuesday we will read Saint Mark’s account of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. We are going in the traditional order; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; so on Wednesday we will read Saint Luke’s account. They are all a little different, and it is useful to compare one after the other.
Thursday, Holy Thursday, is of course the feast of the Last Supper, the first Mass, and the institution of the Blessed Sacrament and the priesthood. We will read a little of Saint John’s account of the Last Supper; the part where Jesus washes the Apostles’ feet, just after we read Saint Paul’s description of the institution of the Mass in his epistle to the Corinthians. In terms of the readings, Holy Thursday differs from the earlier days of the week in that it dwells only on the Last Supper and not the Crucifixion. In order to bridge the gap between the two, we will consecrate two large hosts on Thursday, and one will be reserved at the altar of repose until the liturgy of Good Friday.
And I use the word “liturgy” quite purposefully to describe the ceremonies of Good Friday. Friday was the day on which our Lord died on the Cross and was placed in the tomb. The Church considers it inappropriate to offer Mass on such a mournful occasion, so the ceremonies are quite different. We will read Saint John’s account of the Crucifixion, completing the series of four; we will offer solemn prayers for the Church and for all the people in and outside of the Church; we will venerate the cross; and finally, the priest (alone) will receive the Host consecrated the previous day, thus again linking the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. There will be no general Communion on Good Friday, but you will find the ceremonies inspirational enough that you will want to attend.
There is no Mass Saturday morning, for our Lord remained still in the tomb. But on Saturday night—almost into Sunday morning—we will celebrate the Vigil of Easter: the blessing of the new fire and the paschal candle; the readings which describe Creation and the Exodus from Egypt (the first Passover); the blessing of baptismal holy water; the Litany of the Saints; and finally the Vigil Mass of Easter.
The Vigil Mass will satisfy your Sunday obligation, but you are certainly welcome to return Sunday morning to celebrate the actual feast of Easter. You may receive Holy Communion at both Masses if you wish. Easter, of course, celebrates the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. As I said a few minutes ago, the events of Holy Week will demonstrate how our Lord triumphed over His human enemies, triumphed over the Devil, and ultimately triumphed over sin itself!
So please do make every effort to attend the Masses of Holy Week, This is the most important part of the entire liturgical year. Our Lord loves us to such a great degree that He was ready to lay down His life for us on the Cross and to take it up again on Easter Sunday. Let us demonstrate our love, in return, for Him, by being with Him at every step of the way of His journey through Holy Week.