April 13, 2023 // Perspective

Reviewing the Holiest — and Most Joyful — Week

I don’t know how the six weeks of Lent went for you, but I was really glad when we reached Holy Week. I love the liturgies and traditions that we observe together in this most sacred time. Everything we do is packed with meaning, from the veiling of statues to the darkness in the church at the beginning of the Easter Vigil. And I’m really looking forward to the Easter Season this year, especially because of a special feast that I am delighted to share with you. But first, let’s talk about some of the little joys that we encounter in Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum. 

As a child, I always looked forward to Palm Sunday, if only because I got to wave palm branches (and annoy my siblings by tickling them with the palms throughout the rest of the Mass). And I love the opening procession, where we get to walk and sing like the people of Jerusalem did on that first Palm Sunday when Jesus was welcomed joyfully into the city. How quickly that joy turns to sorrow, however, when we hear (and participate) in the reading of the Passion, again being invited to play the part of the people who shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Most Catholics have never attended a Chrism Mass, which is one of the most beautiful liturgies of the year. At this Mass, which typically falls in Holy Week, the bishop blesses and consecrates the holy oils and the Sacred Chrism, which are used throughout the diocese in the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, and Ordination (as well as to consecrate new churches and altars). The Chrism Mass is a wonderful opportunity to see the fullness of the Church at prayer, and it is particularly marvelous for anyone preparing to be received into the Church at Easter. Plus, it’s the one time each year you get to see the “liturgical spoon,” which the bishop uses to stir the fragrant oil into the Sacred Chrism!

Wednesday of Holy Week has a special nickname, “Spy Wednesday.” This alludes to the Gospel passage for the day’s Mass, recounting how Judas agreed to betray Jesus to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver (which was the amount that the Mosaic Law decreed be paid to a slave owner if his servant was gored by an ox). The Gospel says that “from that time on Judas looked for an opportunity to hand Jesus over” (Matt 26:16), he “spied” on Jesus’s comings and goings, and thus the nickname for the day.

Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday together form the “Paschal Triduum”, which means “three days of Passover,” a reference to the original Passover which freed the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Our Christian Passover is the three days encompassing Jesus’s passion and death, culminating in His resurrection. At the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, Jesus sacramentally anticipated the sacrifice He would offer the next day on the altar of the cross by giving Himself to His Apostles in the Eucharist, His Body and Blood poured out to seal “a new covenant” (1 Corinthians 11:25) — this time not just with the Jewish people, but for the whole world.

On Good Friday, we once again hear and participate in the reading of the Passion, and venerate the cross itself upon which our salvation was offered. Parishes around the world perform this ritual in different ways; when I was in formation as a Dominican Friar, the tradition was to remove one’s shoes and lay face down in prayer as one approached the cross. This echoed the encounter of Moses with God in the burning bush, where he was told, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground,” and “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:1–6).

The Easter Vigil is without doubt the most glorious of celebrations. From the bonfire outside, and the huge Paschal candle leading the way into a darkened church, to the singing of the ancient Exsultet prayer with its description of “the happy fault, the necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer!” I love the return of the joyful “Alleluia,” singing the Litany of the Saints as we bless the baptismal font, and of course the delight of welcoming our newest brothers and sisters in Christ through Baptism and Confirmation. The entire night is full of happiness. Some parishes even follow the Vigil with a party to welcome the neophytes (that’s the fancy name for newly baptized people). Who doesn’t love a piece of Easter cake at midnight?

But the absolute best part is that the Vigil kicks off the 50-day Easter Season. Think about that: while we’ve been slogging along for 40 days of our Lenten journey, the joyful season of Easter is even longer! The first eight days of the Easter Season are what’s called the “Octave of Easter” — eight consecutive days that are celebrated as one. Each day’s prayers are the same as Easter Sunday’s prayers, underscoring the fact that Jesus’s resurrection has recreated the world anew. A traditional Easter greeting says, “Jesus is risen!” with the response, “He is truly risen!” I like to make the response a little more Catholic by adding, “and has appeared to Simon!”

Many years ago, I started a personal tradition that highlights a practical ramification of Jesus’s bodily resurrection. Throughout Lent, we observe the penitential practice of not eating meat on Fridays, as a reminder of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. (Many Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year for the same penitential reason). But the Friday within the Octave of Easter is liturgically the same as Easter Sunday. So I took to hosting a party in the octave called “Meating Friday,” where we eat bacon and ribs and brisket and all the meats. The tradition has caught on — I’m pleased to say that my parish will celebrate the coming Meating Friday with a potluck; this year, St. Joseph Parish: next year, the Vatican?

I hope you had a blessed and joyful Holy Week — and a glorious Easter!

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