The Drama of Holy Week

If the Church’s liturgical calendar were a temple of time consecrated to God, what we are fast approaching is that temple’s Holy of Holies. The Church sanctifies every week of the year, but only one, by virtue of excellence, does she call “Holy Week.”

I would like to offer a few considerations of a doctrinal and liturgical nature for this holiest of all times.

I. “There is one God, and one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5). It is for this reason that only those efficaciously united to Jesus by faith, charity, and sacrament — the members of His Mystical Body, the Church — are saved. We must always look upon Jesus, our mystic Head. Especially now, though, we need to clear the eyes of our faith and fix the gaze of our charity upon Him. “Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2). Saint Teresa of Avila, in her Autobiography, faults herself very much for having neglected the sacred Humanity of Our Lord. She had been confused into thinking that true mysticism consisted in ascending so far beyond the material and created, that a penetration into the sheer mystery of the Trinity was alone the sign of authentic contemplation. When she realized that Jesus was, as He Himself said, “the Way,” she came to a better mind. In so doing, she changed not only her own prayer, but the very course of Spanish mysticism. The Missal, the Rosary, and the Stations of the Cross will help each of us consider “the man Christ Jesus” — who “loved me, and delivered himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20).

II. “Therefore, my brethren, you also are become dead to the law, by the body of Christ; that you may belong to another, who is risen again from the dead, that we may bring forth fruit to God” (Rom. 7:4). Next week, we will watch the Mosaic Law die a holy death. That Law, ordained of God, is now both dead and deadly. It has been superseded. Therefore, it is a mortal sin for a Catholic to celebrate the ritual of a Seder meal. Yes, that meal was celebrated on Holy Thursday, but afterward, a new rite, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, was instituted. We must put away the “shadow of the good things to come,” since we now have “the very image of the things” (Heb 10:1): Christ, who is the image of the invisible God.

III. “With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer” (Luke 22:15). The Sacred Heart of Jesus ached to institute the rite of Holy Thursday. The High Priest of the New Law wanted to leave ministerial priests in His Church to extend His own doctrinal, juridical, and sanctifying power of mediation. The “one mediator” would have us go to Him through the “ministers of Christ, and the dispensers of the mysteries of God” (I Cor. 4:1), all of whom trace their lineage to that Thursday night in the upper room. Thus is perpetuated in the Catholic Church the power of Orders. And with this power comes the Holy Mass, and the Holy Eucharist.

IV. “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). The tree of life in the primeval garden was a shadow of the Holy Cross. Upon this new tree of life, Jesus laid down His life in a sacrifice of expiation for men, and of love for His eternal Father. Those who worthily and perseveringly partake of its fruit will “live forever” (Gen. 3:22). It is fitting, then, that we should “glory” in the Cross. In the desert, the sinning Israelites were smitten with a pestilence of serpents. God’s cure was the brazen serpent, that the wounded only had to look at to be cured: “whosoever being struck shall look on it, shall live” (Num. 21:8). All those struck by sin (that would be all of us!), who look on Jesus with faith, hope, and charity, will be cured and find salvation. We cannot have Jesus without the Cross. We cannot have salvation without Jesus.

V. “He humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). This is the mystery of Good Friday, that the Eternal Word of God would descend to the depths of what our Eastern brethren call “extreme humility” — a common subject in their iconography. All week long, the Church’s liturgy has us meditating on the ancient Christian hymn from Philippians 2, beginning on Palm Sunday, when we genuflect at the Holy Name of Jesus. Dom Guéranger comments on the passage:

“In obedience to the wishes of the Church, we have knelt down at those words of the apostle, where he says that every knee should bow at the holy name of Jesus. If there be one time of the year rather than another, when the Son of God has a right to our fervent adorations, it is this week, when we see Him insulted in His Passion. Not only should His sufferings excite us to tender compassion; we should also keenly resent the insults that are heaped upon our Jesus, the God of infinite majesty. Let us strive, by our humble homage, to make Him amends for the indignities He suffered in atonement for our pride. Let us unite with the holy angels, who, witnessing what He has gone though for the love of man, prostrate themselves, in profoundest adoration, at the sight of His humiliations.” (Guéranger, Dom Prosper, O.S.B., The Liturgical Year, Vol. 6: Passiontide and Holy Week, translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. [Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, 2000], pp. 219-220.)

We must all heed the Apostle’s pathetic invitation to imitate Christ’s humility, for Christian spirituality has this as a necessary foundation. We would do well to heed the words of la Doctora de los Doctores, St. Teresa of Avila: “What I have learned is this: that the entire foundation of prayer must be established in humility, and that, the more a soul abases itself in prayer, the higher God raises it. I do not remember that He has ever granted me any of the outstanding favors of which I shall speak later save when I have been consumed with shame by realizing my own wickedness; and His Majesty has even managed to help me to know myself by revealing to me things which I myself could not have imagined.” (Autobiography, Peers translation, p. 215) In abasing ourselves thus, we cultivate the virtue Christ had in the “extreme.”

VI. “Here may the stains of all sins be washed out; here may human nature, created to Thy image, and reformed to the glory of its maker, be cleansed from all filth of the old man; that all who receive this sacrament of regeneration, may be born again new children of true innocence” (prayer over the baptismal font, from the Vigil of Holy Saturday). The last day of the Sacred Triduum is the most solemn liturgical commemoration of the entire year. Formerly, the vigil lasted so long that Mass began around Midnight, so this Mass is the Easter Mass, while the vigil ceremony, which preceded it, was the consummation of the Lenten season. Traditionally, the absolution of the public penitents and the sacramental regeneration of the catechumens — two classes of people who must be kept in mind if we are to make sense of the Church’s Lenten liturgy — form the burden of the vigil ceremony. Even when there are no baptisms, all the rites commemorate the mystery of rebirth, or “illumination,” which it was also anciently called. This explains the whole ritual of the Paschal candle. An attentive reading of the texts for Holy Saturday will reveal that this day is a summary of all of salvation history, with particular attention being paid to the element of water in creation and supernatural recreation. Christ is the new Moses, who rescues us from the Egyptian bondage (sin) through the parted waters of the Red Sea (baptism).

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The following are some further offerings on our site for Passiontide and Holy Week: