Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Holy Week 2012

Fr. Charles Sérignat OFM Cap, Rome


Today we are entering the most solemn week in the Church’s year.  In the Orthodox Church it is called “The Great Week”, and we call it Holy because it is the source of all holiness, redemption, reconciliation – everything is here.  In order to enter this Week properly, it helps to keep three things in mind:
1.  It is the last week in Jesus’ life on earth   2.  In recalling the events of Holy Week, we are not just remembering;    3.  We are celebrating the Passover with Jesus.

1,  It is the last week in Jesus’ life on earth.  When a family member dies, everyone remembers where they were, what they were doing, the moment they heard the news. Everyone wants to tell the story of the last moments, what the person did and said just before they passed away.  It’s natural to do this, it’s human.  So we can understand that, in the case of Jesus, the last events of His earthly life would be remembered, recorded, treasured.  Every detail would be significant.  And so it is for us.

2. We are not just remembering.   But the disciples were not just remembering past events.  Only God himself could have found a way to take these historical events, and make it possible for people in any age, in any place, at any time, to enter them and live them, to make them happen NOW.  This is the wonder of the liturgy, which we are privileged to celebrate. “Do this, in memory of me”: Do this to make this moment present for ever.

3. “Passing Over” with Jesus.   “When the time came for Jesus to pass from this world, to the Father”, says the evangelist John. This is what we are “making present” this week. But the point is, Jesus takes us with Him on the journey.  We go with Him, through the sufferings of our human condition, into death, and into the new life of resurrection. His Passover is ours!  

Also, pay special attention to the Readings at Mass on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. You could say they are “specially timed” so give us a real sense that these things are happening TODAY:
On Monday, we hear in the Gospel “Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany….”  Six days before Saturday, counting inclusively as the Jewish custom was, makes it: Monday.  On Tuesday and Wednesday, the focus is on Judas, preparing to betray Jesus….   And on Maundy Thursday morning, some of us may get the chance to attend the Chrism Mass, when the Bishop consecrates the oils that will be used in all the sacraments during the coming year.  The life we receive through the sacraments was won for us by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and is conveyed through the ministry of priests.

We see that this Week, every detail speaks, more loudly than ever before, if only we prepare ourselves to walk the Way with Jesus.

A Blessed Holy Week to one and all!

Palm Sunday

Today we begin the holiest week in the Church’s year.  It starts with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem.  The crowds shout out in welcome – but little do they know, He is going to His death.
Probably also,  they wouldn’t have dreamed that, just a few days later, some of the same people would be shouting for His blood.

How fickle we humans are, how easy it is to be swayed by public opinion.  It takes courage to stand against the crowd, to swim against the tide.

Somebody once asked a group of people in our parish: “Have you ever been in a situation when it really cost you something to admit you were a Christian?   Several replied that the hardest thing for them was to stand up for what they knew was right, when their friends – or at least the people around them at the time – were all doing the opposite. 

Look at the different characters in the readings of Holy Week.  Who do you identify with most?   Are you waving the palm branch, shouting hosanna?  Are you Peter, who claimed not to know Jesus?  Are you shouting for Him to be crucified, just because everyone around you is doing the same?  Or are you on the sidelines, watching but not taking a stand?

The truth is, we are all those characters at different times!  But this week  -- at some point – God’s grace will meet the real me, no mask, no pretence, face to face with Jesus – around the supper table or on the road to Calvary, or weeping, with Mary, at the foot of the cross.  At that moment, something will change in me, and I will at last begin to be His true disciple.

Maundy Thursday

The Gospel of the Mass this evening is taken from John.  It has always seemed strange to me that on this night, when we commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist, John, describing the Last Supper of Jesus before His death, does not even mention that Jesus took bread, took the cup of wine, blessed and distributed them….  He seems to take for granted that everyone will know that this happened today.  He is not so much interested in the events, as in their deeper significance.

What catches his attention, stops him in his tracks, is what happened after supper was over:
 “And after supper, he showed the full extent of his love …. He got up from the table, took off his outer garment, and knelt to wash the feet of each disciple in turn…”

Jesus the Lord, performing a slave’s job and washing feet!  No wonder Peter exclaims: “Lord, you will never wash my feet!”  But here we remember, as Jesus intended us to remember, what He had said a short while before, when James and John were arguing about who was the more important among them: “Among the pagans, their great ones make their authority felt….It must not be like that among you… Among you, the greatest must be the slave of all.”

Today we recall the foundation of priesthood – Jesus sharing his priesthood with ordinary human beings.  But priesthood does not mean dominating others. It is not taking pride in one’s status or exalted position in society. It means doing what Jesus did – humbling ourselves, and serving all people – in fact, giving our lives for them.  Franciscan brothers who are priests should be specially sensitive to the servant nature of priesthood.

St Francis saw the truth of this immediately. He was amazed that God could make Himself so small – as a baby in the manger, in a tiny piece of bread and a drop of wine, in this amazing gesture of kneeling before his own disciples.  This is why insisted that his brothers were not to be called “prior” or “superior”. Instead, he said, they were to imitate Christ’s “minority” and “minister” (serve) like “lesser brothers”. And on his death-bed he asked for this same passage of John’s gospel to be read out to him.

Tonight Jesus humbles himself in the washing of feet, and hides in the humble forms of bread and wine. Tomorrow, on the Cross, these symbols will reveal their full meaning, when the Lord gives His life, to prove the full depth of his love.

“If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet”. Where do we get the ability to love like this?  By humbly receiving the Eucharist!  It is this amazing reality that is made present tonight, and for all time to come.

Good Friday
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. The liturgy in this Holy Week speaks more powerfully than at any other time. God’s grace can be touched and felt as never before.

Today’s first reading from Isaiah sounds like an uncanny prediction of Christ’s sufferings, 600 years before the event. We may be moved, but the events seem far away, back in the distant past. We are spectators, looking from a distance – we take a look, sympathise a little, and move on. Life goes on as before.

Something more needs to happen. Matthew tells us that, when Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom; the earth shook, the rocks were split.  The rock that must be split is the hard rock of our own heart. How is this to happen?

It cannot be forced – it is a moment of grace, a realisation that suddenly dawns: He was pierced through for OUR sins – for MY sins; ours were the sufferings he bore. Until that realisation dawns, I will only ever be a spectator on Good Friday.

There is a famous Negro spiritual with these words:
            Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble … tremble (and we add, to weep, for my part in His death).
Some may think: that’s going too far! After all, I wasn’t actually there when they hammered in the nails!

Let me share a very personal memory of a visit to Auschwitz – a place of such evil that it made its victims cry out: “Where is God now”? I remember the photographs of the people who died there, and their relics, the combs, glasses, handbags, piles of shoes, the mounds of human hair, the cans of crystals to make the poisoned gas, false teeth, toothbrushes, crutches made for a small child….

Seeing all this horror, after about 15 minutes I remember saying to God: “Please God, it can’t be true! Can human beings be so evil? How can it be undone?”  And back came the reply: “Yes, it is true, and there is nothing you can do to undo it”.

Next, I was filled with a deep sadness, and I knew that somehow I was part of all the evil that clung to this place. Oh, I’ve never murdered or raped or tortured anyone, or done any of the things that caused these people to suffer. And yet, I knew in that instant that there is such a thing as “solidarity in evil”, just as there is solidarity in goodness. The good, and the evil, that I do, has its consequences, and we are all in it together. All my sins, small and great, are part of the mystery of evil.

For a split second, I felt despair. If that’s how things are, how can we be saved? Instantly I was overwhelmed by the desire to say Mass on that very spot: only God Himself could put us right again, and He has done so – in the death of Christ. Every Mass makes present, until the end of time, the dying and rising of Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus is the innocent victim, unjustly condemned, dying in agony as a criminal. We sense that, somehow, He will be on the cross until the end of time, as long as there are innocent victims, as long as any human being is suffering. We will never have the final answer to the mystery of evil and suffering, but in faith we know that God, in Jesus, is sharing them with us. And that His death has put things right, has cancelled out all human sin.

Were YOU there when they crucified my Lord?  Yes, today, we are all there. Perhaps, today, our hearts of stone will be split open, and then, the light will begin to dawn …

Holy Saturday

This is the seventh day of the week, the day Jesus rested in the tomb. In the first three Gospel accounts this was the Jewish Sabbath, symbolising the seventh day rest.  The liturgy is not celebrated today; the church is empty. It is traditionally a day of quiet meditation as Christians contemplate the darkness of a world without a future and without hope apart from God and his grace.
Some years ago, some philosophers were happy to proclaim that “God is dead”!  There successors are still actively with us in many societies today.  They want to banish God from public life, to remove sacred symbols, to decide for themselves what is right and wrong.  We are beginning to see that, if you keep God out of human life, then the world becomes a bleak and dangerous place. Imagine a world without God…    Holy Saturday is a good time to ponder these things.
It is also a time to remember family and the faithful who have died as we await the resurrection, or to honour the martyrs who have given their lives for the cause of Christ in the world.  While Good Friday is a traditional day of fasting, some also fast on Saturday as the climax of the season of Lent. An ancient tradition dating to the first centuries of the church calls for no food of any kind to be eaten on Holy Saturday, or for 40 hours before sunrise on Sunday. 
However it is observed, Holy Saturday has traditionally been a time of reflection and waiting, a time of weeping that lasts for the night while awaiting the joy that comes in the morning (Ps 30:5).

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