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The close proximity in time between the Jewish Passover and the Christian Holy Week is no accident; one could write for volumes of its deeper meaning. However, as I prepare to enter into Holy Week as a Catholic Deacon, I was reminded of the question usually asked by the youngest at the Passover Seder, “why is this night different from all other nights?” Other Christians might ask, particularly of Catholics, a variant of the question as we enter into Holy Week, “Why is This Week any Different from other Weeks?”
The Liturgy of Palm/Passion Sunday, with its re-presentation of the triumphal entry of the Master into Jerusalem leading into the first Passion Narrative sets the Liturgical framework for a week filled with invitations of grace for all who choose to receive them. To be “Holy” is to be set aside for God. Lord knows, we all need help on the path to being “Holy”, set aside for God. Entering fully into the Liturgical celebrations of this extraordinary week has the potential to change us. Now it begins…now it all begins.
There is no better book to assist Bishops, Priests, Deacons, and lay men and women charged with the task of preparing truly good liturgies in the Modern Roman Rite than Monsignor Peter J. Elliott’s “Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year” Monsignor Elliott writes these insightful words: “Christians understand time in a different way from other people because of the Liturgical Year. We are drawn into a cycle that can become such a part of our lives that it determines how we understand the structure of each passing year.
“In the mind of the Christian, each passing year takes shape, not so much around the cycle of natural seasons, the financial or sporting year or academic semesters, but around the feasts, fasts and seasons of the Catholic Church. Without thinking much about it, from early childhood, we gradually learn to see time itself, past, present and future, in a new way. All of the great moments of the Liturgical Year look back to the salvific events of Jesus Christ, the Lord of History.
“Those events are made present here and now as offers of grace. This week is Holy not only because of what we remember but because of what it can accomplish within each one of us as we give our voluntary “Yes” to its’ invitation. To put it another way, in Christ time takes on a sacramental dimension. The Liturgical Year bears this sacramental quality of memorial, actuation and prophecy.
“Time becomes a re-enactment of Christ’s saving events, His being born in our flesh, His dying and rising for us in that human flesh. Time thus becomes a pressing sign of salvation, the “day of the Lord”, His ever present “hour of salvation”, the kairos. Time on earth then becomes our pilgrimage through and beyond death toward the future Kingdom. The Liturgical Year is best understood both in its origins and current form in the way we experience time: in the light of the past, present and future.
Holy Week invites us to let go of self and embrace the Lord anew. To begin again! How desperately the current age needs to hear this Good news that we can all begin again! The real question is not whether we will mark time but how we will do so? For the Christian time is not meant to be a tyrant ruling over us with impunity. Rather, it is a teacher, inviting and instructing us to choose to enter more fully into our relationship with the Lord and in Him with one another for the world.
Time is not our enemy, but our friend. It is a part of the redemptive loving plan of a timeless God who, in His Son, the Timeless One, came into time to transform it from within. He now gives us time as a gift and intends it to become a field of choice and a path to holiness in this life and the window into life eternal. Through time the Lord offers us the privilege of discovering His plan for our own life pilgrimage. Through time He invites us to participate in His ongoing redemptive plan, through His Son Jesus Christ who has been raised, by living in the full communion of His Church. That plan will in its final fulfillment recreate the entire cosmos in Christ.
Time is the road along which this loving plan of redemption and re-creation proceeds. We who have been baptized into Christ are invited to co-operate in this Divine Plan. The Christian understanding of time as having a redemptive purpose is why Catholic Christians mark time by the great events of the faith in our Church calendar. At the very epicenter of that Calendar is the great Three days we will celebrate this Holy Week, the “Triduum” of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Resurrection of the Lord.
As we live the liturgical calendar we can experience the ever-deepening call to conversion and find the deeper mystery and meaning of life by responding. Christians believe in a linear timeline in history. There is a beginning and an end, a fulfillment which is a new beginning. Time is heading somewhere. That is as true of the history of the world as it is our own personal histories. Christians mark time by the great event which forever redeemed it, the saving Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Good Liturgy is not a re-enactment of something that happened over 2000 years ago but an actual participation in the events themselves, by faith. They are outside of time and made present in our Liturgical celebrations and in our reception of the Sacraments. Every Liturgy is an invitation to enter into the sacrifice of Calvary which occurred once and for all. That one Sacrifice is re-presented at every Altar in every Holy Mass.
Our Holy Week invites us to participate in the timeless Paschal Mystery, the saving life, suffering, passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Over the course of this Holy Week we attend the Last Supper and receive the gift of the Holy Eucharist, the Body, Blood Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. We enter into the deep meaning of the Holy priesthood and are invited to pour ourselves out like the water in the basins used to wash feet on Holy Thursday. We are asked with the disciples in the Gospel accounts we hear proclaimed to watch with the Lord and to enter with him into his anguish by imitating His Holy surrender in his Sacred Humanity in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Through the stark and solemn Liturgy of the Friday we call “Good”, we stand at the Altar of the Cross where heaven is rejoined to earth and earth to heaven, along with the Mother of the Lord. We enter into the moment that forever changed – and still changes – all human History, the great self gift of the Son of God who did for us what we could never do for ourselves by in the words of the ancient Exultet, “trampling on death by death”. We wait at the tomb and witness the Glory of the Resurrection and the beginning of the New Creation.
At the Great Easter Vigil we will be invited to join the new members of the Body of Christ and affirm once again that we believe what we profess in that great Creed, the symbol of our ancient and ever new faith. We can be Catholic, as I like to say, “by choice”, by exercising our human freedom and choosing what is true. The Liturgical year in the words of Monsignor Peter Elliott “transforms our time into a sacrament of eternity.” Let us enter fully into this Great and Holy Week by reaching out to receive all of the graces offered to us in these wonderful Holy Week Liturgies.