An Introduction to Holy Week (I)
(Note: Here is another little email I sent out to the Young Adults group. I hope you find it informative and helpful.)
What is Palm Sunday?
The Sunday before Easter is Palm Sunday, commemorating the triumphant entry of Christ into Jerusalem (Mt. 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:29-40), which happened a week before the resurrection. It includes a procession with Palms that has a long tradition. The fourth century Nun and Pilgrim to the Holy Land, Egeria wrote about a series of processions that took place on Palm Sunday in Jerusalem in the 380's. By the 1100's the practice became universally accepted. Eamon Duffy's book, The Stripping of the Altars describes in detail the complex processions that took place in Pre-Reformation England. What we do on Sunday (like all Sundays) has a long history behind it.
On Sunday, we will gather outside on the front steps and one of the Gospel versions of the Triumphant entry is read. Palm branches are blessed and passed out. Then, we process around the building (only once, though -- if we did it seven times the building might fall down). Now, this is more than just a nice walk-about around the Church. In processing, we are reenacting Christ's entry into Jerusalem. As one of the Collects says, "That we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life an immortality." As we process around the Church, do not consider what the Baptists across the street are thinking or what motorists who pass by are wondering. Lift your mind to heavenly things: like, for example, how we who praise him this day will soon demand a crucifixion; that we praise him with our lips, but crucify him in our hearts. Carry your palms with pride, for they will be later burned to ash for next year's Ash Wednesday service.
Upon returning to Church, we will sing the ninth century hymn (written specifically for Palm Sunday), "All Glory, Laud and Honor." Then -- almost immediately -- the focus of the service switches from Triumphant Entry to the upcoming suffering. The readings for Sunday (Isaiah 50:4-9 and Philippians 2:5-11) are sober reminders of Christ's submission even to death. Then, the Gospel of the Passion is read by a variety of people, each enacting different roles. The congregation enacts the role of the crowd by shouting, "Crucify! Crucify!" (Yet another sober reminder). We finally stand when the lengthy reading gets to Golgotha and there is a period of silence after the death of Christ. As Dennis Michno put it, "As it begins in triumph it should end in silence . . . The strength of this day is in its 'schizophrenic' nature."
It might strike you as odd that Palm Sunday is more than just a commemoration and reenactment of the triumphant entry but includes Good Friday in it, also. "Couldn't they just come on Good Friday and hear it then?" we might ask ourselves. It is this way, so those who could only come to Church on Sundays would still be able to fully participate in the Passion of Christ. It is a good reminder that catholic tradition is not just for the spiritual Übermensch, but also for those who -- because of their station in life -- cannot live at the Church like some of us want to do. Even in Church attendance during Holy Week, there is no room for pride, because catholic tradition is for all people, even those who can't be present at all the services.
What is Maundy Thursday?
Maundy Thursday is the Thursday of Holy Week. It commemorates the events of that day: namely, the first Eucharist, the washing of the Disciples' feet by Christ and his arrest. The term "Maundy" comes from Latin word, mandatum, which means commandment or mandate. This mandatum for Maundy Thursday comes from Christ's command that "a new commandment I give you, that you love one another even as I have loved you." (Jn. 13:34) Here, we see the strength of Christ who gave himself in service to all humankind: in the Eucharist where "his flesh is true food" (Jn. 6:55), in his humiliating act of washing the disciples' feet and in his arrest at the kiss of one of his best friends. The Latin hymn Ubi Caritas (which we sang at the retreat) will be used numerous times throughout this service.
After the homily, there will be foot-washing available. In years past, you would wash whomever was in front of you in line and let whoever is behind you wash your feet. While feet have a definite ick factor to them, we must not forget what Christ said to Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” (Jn. 13:8) I strongly encourage you to engage in this tradition. We are not greater than our master and we are blessed if we do them (Jn 13:16-17). What could have been a humiliating act is sanctified by Christ who gave of himself to all.
The arrest of Christ takes place -- symbolically, of course -- at the end of the Mass with the stripping of the Altar. While this is done, Psalm 22 is chanted by the choir. Psalm 22, which is a lament, has this verse: "They part my garments among them : and casts lots upon my vesture" (18). Matthew tells us that after crucifying Our Lord, the soldiers "divided up his clothes by casting lots" (27:35). So, the prime symbols of Christ in the Church: the altar and the priest are stripped of their vestments. Even though the Church is austere during Lent (veiled crosses, no alleluias, etc.), at Maundy Thursday it is stripped of all its beauty, just as Christ was. There is a great sense of nakedness at the end of this service.
The remaining Hosts from the Mass are taken to the Altar of Repose (which is to symbolize the garden) and the faithful gather to watch with Him through the night. By the end of the Maundy Thursday service, all beauty is taken from the Church, except for her Lord. But after the Good Friday service, even He will be taken from us.