Holy Week is so different from any other week in the Christian year. The Three Days of Triduum are between the Forty days of Lent and the Fifty days of Easter. The great Three Days conclude on Easter Sunday afternoon. The Passion, Suffering, Death and Resurrection of the Lord are the very themes that unite us as a Christian people and a Church this week.
On Palm Sunday as we listen attentively to Matthew's Passion, we cannot help but pick up on the striking contrasts of the story. The evangelist presents us with Jesus' triumphal entry into the city of destiny for that final, fateful week of his life. We accompany Jesus up to Jerusalem amidst the crowds crying out "Hosanna, Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!" The day is filled with exceeding praise and jubilation, but looming on the horizon is a wave of hatred, destruction and death.
We, too, are caught up with the crowd acclaiming their Messiah and King as he descends the Mount of Olives... coming not with the trappings of a royal motorcade but on a beast of burden. What striking images of royalty, humility and divinity all packed into this paradoxical scene of Jesus' entering his city! Full of enthusiasm, they welcome him on Palm Sunday as the king of peace and the bearer of hope. Full of hate, five days later, they demand his death on the cross. On Palm Sunday we are invited to remain among those who stayed true to him, even while he hung on the cross.
Holy Thursday's scripture readings root us deeply in our Jewish past... celebrating the Passover with the Jewish people, receiving from St. Paul that which was handed on to him, namely the Eucharistic banquet, and looking at Jesus squarely in the face as he kneels before us to wash our feet in humble service. After listening to the scriptures, we do something strange: we wash feet. On this night, Jesus gives us an image of what the church is supposed to look like, feel like, act like: a community of servants and foot washers.
After the meal on Mt. Zion, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and threw himself to the ground, cried out and sweated blood. Three times he prayed to the Father, always saying the same thing– that he could go on no longer. He stared with wild eyes at the figure of the angel, who sought to comfort him. In a sense that we could never fully comprehend, Jesus descended in his suffering, into hell, into the destruction of all hopes. Yet there is no power in the world that can take such a savior from us. Those who have made self-seeking and pitiless self-assertion into a rule of life may cause us suffering and want. But in the depths of our being, they no longer have power over us, for they had no power over Jesus.
Good Friday is the day of the divine paradox. John's hauntingly moving Passion narrative is proclaimed in the liturgy. We gather quietly to listen to the beloved disciple's account of the death of the Messiah. As the Cross is held high in our midst, we gaze upon this instrument of death and destruction, and in some strange and mysterious way, find strength and hope in our own struggles. It is not only a day of sorrow but of glory. Today, what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope and a continuous call to heroic goodness. Today the "great high priest" is not one distant from us and our condition, but he is the one who sympathizes with us, for he has experienced our weakness and pain, even our temptations (Hebrews 4:14-15).
Holy Saturday is the day of grief and mourning, of patient waiting and hoping. Our own times parallel the experience of the disciples and Mary, Mother of the Lord, as they allowed the full impact of the Lord’s death to become a reality for them. Their faith was strongly challenged as they awaited the resurrection.
At the end of a long day of waiting, we celebrate the mother of all liturgies, a true feast for the senses. The church gathers in darkness and lights a new fire and a great candle that will make this night bright for us. We listen to our ancient scriptures: stories of creation, Abraham and Isaac, Moses and Miriam and the crossing of the sea, poems of promise and rejoicing, and the story of the empty tomb. We see, hear, taste, feel the newness of God in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. In this liturgy, the past and present meet, death and life embrace and life is triumphant; we reject evil and renew our baptismal promises to God.
I suggest that we look at the example of the woman who generously poured very expensive oil on Jesus' head in the passion account [Matthew 26:6-13]. His disciples object, and Jesus' response to their objection is quite telling. Her prophetic act is indeed extraordinary in the context of Matthew's passion because we discover in the succeeding passages that the disciples will fall asleep (Peter, James & John), betray him (Judas), and deny him (Peter). What a bold track record from Jesus' closest followers. And from her– what courage–what boldness– what an example!
Though this nameless woman may not fully understand the significance of her symbolic and prophetic act of anointing, nor the timeliness of her action, she only desires to be with him and to express to him lavish love and attention. That is what we are called to do this week: to love Jesus and to be attentive to him throughout the final movements of the symphony of his earthly life. May our lives be like the jar of expensive ointment that this anonymous woman pours so lavishly on her Lord.
Let this awesome week begin…
Fr. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B.,
C.E.O., Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation