Since the beginning of Lent, we have prepared our hearts by prayerful works of charity, self-sacrifice and penance. Our pilgrimage of faith culminates with Holy Week and the Paschal Triduum when we both commemorate and enter into the mysteries of our salvation. We do not only remember in this time what Jesus endured and the redemption he accomplished for us. We are there in the scene as witnesses and participants as the experiences of two millennia ago are made a present reality.
The drama opens on Palm Sunday with the Gospel proclamation of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem as we wave palms of jubilation and acclaim Jesus is the Messiah. The entire Passion narrative is read at this Mass, with all the faithful playing a role. Nothing has more significance than does the account of Jesus’ offering of himself as the sacrificial lamb given in ransom for his people. Everything else in history and scripture leads up to these saving events or flows from them.
The Mass readings for this first part of Holy Week set the stage for the Paschal Triduum as the holy anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany is set in contrast to his betrayal and denial. Although he knew of Judas’ duplicity, Jesus still welcomed him at table and even got down on his knees to wash his feet. The Lord teaches us that though we may sin against him and may deny him, he will remain faithful to us, and to be forgiven we need only repent as Peter did. In our lives today, there is still time to return to the Lord. Though our sins be like scarlet, God never hesitates or tires of forgiving, so let us never hesitate or tire of asking for forgiveness.
Holy Thursday makes present to us the action of the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the priesthood and a new memorial sacrifice in the Eucharist. What we participate in is the enduring re-presentation of the death and the resurrection of Christ, the true and definitive Passover Lamb, in a way that allows you and me to share in that liberating, transforming, life-giving action through bread and wine made his Body and Blood.
After Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is taken in solemn procession to a place of repose, the altar is stripped bare, the lights are dimmed, and silence is observed. Many people choose to stay for a while and keep vigil, accepting Jesus’ fervent request, “Remain here with me; watch and pray,” knowing that this night is different from all other nights. This is the night of the beginning of our redemption as, in and through the Lord’s agony in the garden, arrest, passion, crucifixion and resurrection, God’s people are led out of slavery to sin and death to freedom in grace and new eternal life.
On Good Friday, the drama takes on greater intensity as the Church experiences the sad emptiness and coldness of death. There is no Mass, but a liturgy where the Passion narrative is read and there is Adoration of the Cross before distribution of Holy Communion. Many people also pray the sorrowful mysteries of the Rosary and/or the Stations of the Cross.
We are witnesses and participants this day in the trial of Jesus and the scourging, condemnation and crucifixion he endured for our sake. All of these events of our salvation are made present again, in the context of our own lives and in what we do for others. Can we see ourselves as Mary, offering comfort and consolation to Jesus, as Simon of Cyrene helping him to carry the Cross, or like Veronica wiping his face? Might we sometimes however also play the role of Pilate washing our hands of responsibility while doing what we know to be wrong? Or have we sometimes stepped aside from our Lord as most of his Apostles did?
The Good News of Jesus Christ is that his loving mercy is greater than our sins. We need only turn to him, even if in our final moments like the “good thief.” We have Jesus’ assurance that we will be with him in paradise. By his self-offering on the Cross, Jesus shows us his limitless love for the Father and for us.
With darkness covering the land, Jesus was truly dead. Laying his body in the tomb should have been the end of the story. But it was not – death would not have the final say. After Holy Saturday, when Christ’s body lay quiet in the tomb, the world would never be the same.