Into the Heart of Holy Week

holyweekBack in the day, two friends and I started a business. We were a good mix of skills, dispositions, and work ethic. One of the partners, Jack, was the best project manager I ever encountered. His staff loved him, and the clients always wanted to know if Jack was managing their particular project. We had one client in the Midwest that made a very large contract contingent on Jack being the manager. That was fine. Jack had a demand of his own – and it was non-negotiable. The client insisted, but Jack held firm. He was clear, convicted, and certain: no matter what, he would be attending the Summer Olympics and the World Track and Field championships. That was his non-negotiable: his vacation.

I had my “non-negotiable” vacation time, too. But I have to say I was not as clear, forthright, and bold as Jack. I just made it work, quietly, without a lot of fanfare or attention. I always took vacation to free up the whole week before Easter.  I took time off to relax, visit people, take long bike rides and decompress so I would be ready to celebrate Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday. I have to admit, I did not pay a lot of attention to Palm Sunday.

Palm Sunday is the gateway to Holy Week; the context is set today in the holy words we proclaim. Although most everyone calls it “Palm Sunday,” today is properly called “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Lots of people are surprised that the Palm Sunday gospel proclamation is part of the entrance procession, and that the Gospel is the reading of the Passion. At one point in my life I distinctly remember thinking that reading the Passion was jumping the gun a bit. I mean, won’t Good Friday arrive in its own good time? Can’t we wait to hear about the Last Supper, the betrayal, Gethsemane, the trials, Pontius Pilate, scourging, the crucifixion, and Jesus dead, laid in a tomb? What is the rush?

One thought is that people don’t attend church on Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and so the Church wants to make sure that they hear the reading of the Passion before Easter. I will admit there is a danger in going from the Palm Sunday shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest;” then jumping to Christ Resurrected. The “danger” is “see, it all works out, Jesus wins,” skipping over the details of Holy Week and thinking the glory of God is revealed in the Resurrection alone.

I think there is something in reading the Passion on Palm Sunday that not only gives us the context for the week, but it also points to the heart of Holy Week. And we need to sit with that memory of the Passion for a few days before we celebrate the particulars of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We need time to let it rummage around and let it find its home within us to better prepare for those liturgies.

It has not been that long since we celebrated Christmas when the Son of God and Son of Mary, fully divine and fully human, entered into the fullness of the human condition. Now our Lenten journey has brought us to Holy Week where so many folks focus on all that Jesus suffered for us because of our human condition, stiff-necked and unrepentant as we can be. Even though that is true, I think it misses the mark. It is incomplete at best. Yes, Jesus suffered for us, but Jesus has entered into the part of humanity where darkness dwells; where people are entombed, where there is torture, brokenness, bondage, hopelessness, and abandonment. The place where we hear “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? … My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, from the voices of the faithful, the lost, the despairing, and those who are afflicted and who feel as though there is no place left for hope; the voices that may be particularly poignant during this pandemic of the coronavirus.

But it is through the betrayal, Gethsemane, the trials, Pontius Pilate, the scourging, and the crucifixion that Jesus enters into the darkest part of humanity: where he is tortured, broken, held in bondage, scourged and crucified and thus helpless in the hands of Roman power, corrupt authorities and betrayal. There is no vestige of human experience untouched by God.

Such is the love of God for us. The glory of God displayed as a Love so vast, a desire that all be saved that runs so deep, that God holds back nothing. Nothing! Not even his only Son. Such love. Such love! It is the glory of God. Holy Week is a journey into the Glory of God, rightly understood.

It is to understand the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday in a profound way. To understand that the Word of God, condescendere, stepped down in humility to pitch his tent with us. Stepped down to wash His disciples’ feet; knowing that Jesus will step down even further into the full darkness of the human condition. That all will be saved, all will be converted; even the most broken part of our lives. So, when Jesus asks the Apostles on Holy Thursday, “Do you know what I have done for you?” The answer is far richer. Then to sit, watch the altar being stripped as darkness begins to fall within the church, and the grand silence settles, and we wait… and there is a lot of waiting these days. But we also ponder: “Do you know what I have done for you? Do we really understand what He has done for us?

Holy Week begins here on Palm Sunday. By Easter Sunday morning we pray we will be closer to being able to more completely answer the question: “Do you know what I have done for you?” We need time to let it rummage around and let it find its home within us. And this year it seems exactly the celebration we need during this pandemic as we wait and wonder.

This is a glimpse into the heart of Holy Week.

9 thoughts on “Into the Heart of Holy Week

  1. Definitely something to think about and a real change in view and intensity of preparation having been “in the Garden” and at “via Dolorosa” changes the experience. Its the difference of reading about the Holocaust in a book and being at Auschwitz

  2. Father George, Thanks for the explanation but like your younger self I have my own preferences for not wanting to see the combined Gospels. Perhaps because I know I won’t be missing Thursday, Friday and Saturday readings and the combined reading is confusing. Pope Benedict was pretty clear in an explanation once that the crowds celebrating Jesus arrival were pilgrims who accepted Jesus as Messiah and clearly separate from the crowds we replicate in the passion readings. I’d like to enjoy being part of the crowd that celebrates Jesus as the Messiah before I quickly jump into my sinful self who murders Jesus and denies Him.

  3. Thanks father George.
    I will take to heart Your encouragement to deeper exploration Of what Jesus did for me throughout this Holy Week.

    On this same theme is a wonderful book by Richard John Neuhaus entitled Death on a Friday afternoon.
    I have read it every year during Lent for over 15 years! I think you would really appreciate it.

    • Hey Tim – thanks for checking in. I too had read Fr. Neuhaus’ book many times… I loaned it out… and alas while it did not return I hope it is still in circulation. May you have a blessed Holy Week.

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