I set out to deacon-struct Holy Week and soon found that I was faced with a monumental task. I looked at each of the key moments of the Passion: the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Gethsemane, the trial, the way of the Cross and crucifixion… the burial… there is so much there. I have always been drawn to the mysteries of Holy Week and the more I study and pray with these mysteries, the more I feel I am over my head.
I guess that’s why it’s a Mystery. When we use the word “mystery” in our Faith, we don’t mean it’s something that has to be solved, like an Agatha Christie novel. Rather, it means that it is something so profound, so amazing, so vast, that it cannot be fully understood in human terms; it cannot be fully explained in human language. And so we are called to understand it only in part and to stand at the foot of the Mystery and contemplate it; to gaze upon it and let it change us. As Pope Francis says so beautifully in Joy of the Gospel with regards to the neighbour: “remove our sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (EG 169). That’s what we do when faced with Mystery.
And that’s how we should approach Holy Week. It is not something to “understand” but something to behold: to gaze upon. We are called to walk with Jesus through his passion and death.
But that doesn’t mean that we are not meant to try to understand it as much as possible. This understanding can help us enter more deeply into the Mystery of the Passion.
For example, a few times I have been honoured to be part of a Jewish Seder meal. This is the Passover meal that Jesus would have been celebrating. I remember coming out from the meal with a whole new understanding of the Mass. Once we know what the ritual of the Seder is, we come to appreciate what Scriptures tell us about the Last Supper much more deeply. For example, why are they dipping bread in a dish (Mk. 14:20; Jn 13:26)? Which of the four ritual cups of wine is the cup that Jesus is says is “the cup of the New Covenant” (Mt. 17:28; Mk 14:24; Lk 22:20)? What is the hymn that they sang when it says, “after they had sung the hymn…” (Mt. 26:30; Mk 14:26)? Or the fact that in the synoptic Gospels Jesus dies on the day after Passover (Mt. 26:17; Mk 14:12; Lk 22:7) , but according to the Gospel of John, it was the day of preparation for the Passover (Jn 19:31). There is so much there and I don’t think I could do it justice. It is certainly enough for a lifetime of prayer and meditation.
But today I can’t stop thinking about one thing: The Cross. We have no idea what people at the time thought about or felt about this instrument of torture and death. When Jesus said “pick up your cross and follow me” (Mt. 16:24; Lk 9:23) what did people think? Was that a common expression at the time? Would he have said today, “pick up your electric chair and follow me?”
And the fact that almost immediately, the followers of Jesus seemed to embrace this “Cross.” I’m sure they remembered Jesus saying “pick up your cross and follow me” but did they remember him saying “do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19)?
Did they understand that it is through the Cross that Jesus saves us? That it is through the Cross that Jesus makes all things new: by destroying death forever and forgiving our sins. I wonder when they started signing themselves with this sign, the “sign of the Cross.”
I wonder if they began signing themselves with this sign as a reminder of who they were: As a reminder of the love of God. Did they remember what Jesus told Nicodemus that “God so loved the world that he “gave” his only Son? (John 3:16?) Did they think that this thing that Jesus did for all of us they were called to do for others?
What did Jesus mean when He said, “do this in memory of me?” I don’t think he was just talking about eating bread and drinking wine. Was He speaking about washing each other’s feet? Did he mean going up on the Cross like him? I’m pretty sure He wasn’t talking about merely “remembering” him.
In Spanish, when Jesus said, “do this in memory of me,” He says, “hagan esto en conmemoración mia.” That means something closer to “do this to honour me.” It is not about remembering Jesus. That when we remember Jesus we are to do something or when we do something we are to remember Jesus. I suppose it could mean that, but I think it means that we are to do something so as to commemorate Jesus and what He did for us. Commemorate is not just to remember. It is not just to honour. According to the Oxford Dictionary, commemorate means “to keep in the memory by means of a celebration or ceremony” and “to be a memorial to.” But I don’t even think this is exactly what Jesus meant. After all, He didn’t say “do this to commemorate me” (hagan esto para conmemorarme). Perhaps, “do this so that it is a memorial to me and to what I have done.”
St. Paul refers to this very moment in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:23-26). To them he writes that, “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Our “eating of this bread” (which symbolically can mean doing all the things I mentioned above) is a proclamation of the Lord’s death and a reminder and sign that He will come again.
It’s almost as if when we celebrate the sacrifice of the Eucharist, we are transported back in time to the foot of the Cross. Not that Christ dies again everytime we are at Mass, but that we are taken right back there and we are part of that sacrifice once more. I don’t know how to explain it better; we don’t recreate the sacrifice of the Cross. We don’t repeat the sacrifice of the Cross. Rather, it’s more like God makes us present to the sacrifice of the Cross, which it happening all the time in Kairos time. This is the commemoration, the memorial, the proclamation. It is more than just a memory, although a memory, more than just an honouring, although very much in honour.
In fact, memory is very important in Jewish tradition. For a Jew to “remember” actually had this significance: to make present again that which had already taken place. Many Jewish prayers and Psalms call us to “remember.” For the Jews at the time, and to this day, the Passover meal is a “participation” in the Exodus. The Passover for Jews is a memorial, a remembering, but also a “making present” the deliverance that God had granted their ancestors with the exodus from Egypt.
And we “do this” in a very special way every time we celebrate the Eucharist. But let me offer a very simple way that all of us can “remember” in a practical way, every day. We remember by making the Sign of the Cross. When I sign myself with the Cross, I am calling to mind all of this. Especially, I am calling to mind the sacrifice that I am called to do like Jesus on the Cross. I am reminded that I am called to die to my own petty ego needs; my own desire to be loved and to be special; my own needs to be right and to be needed. I am called to “die to myself.” I am called to sacrifice my own needs for the needs of others. As a husband, that is what I am called to do: put my wife’s needs before mine. Every time. As a father, I am called to place my children’s needs before mine. Every time. As a Christian, I am called to put others’ needs before mine. Of course, this doesn’t mean I become a throw rug for everyone to walk on but it does mean that I am called to consider other people’s needs to be more important than mine, every time. This, I believe, is true freedom: freedom from my own petty needs. And that is what Jesus did on the Cross: He set us free!
And when I remember, by making the Sign of the Cross, I do it in the name of the Father, of the Son and the Holy Spirit – a reminder of another awesome Mystery – the Mystery of the Holy Trinity. Not only do I remember in my mind, but also in my mind, my thoughts, my knowledge, my head; and in my heart, in my feelings, in my emotions and soul; and with my arms, through my actions, my service. It also reminds me that I am to love God back; with all my mind; with all my soul and my heart; and all my strength, and to love my neighbour as myself.
This Holy Week, let us walk with Jesus and let us remember. When we do, at Mass and at daily prayer; every time we make the Sign of the Cross; every time you put other people’s needs before your own – when we wash others’ feet, when we “remove our sandals at the sacred ground of the other” – remember the memorial. Let Christ be present to you and let yourself be present to him.
Send me your comments – especially if you know what the original Aramaic is for “do this in memory of me.”
(CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)