I overheard the woman’s rant as she made her way out of the church that Easter Sunday morning. “They read the wrong Gospel!”
“How’s that?” her friend responded in a low voice, probably hoping the irate one would tone her voice down too.
“I wanted to hear about the Risen Body and all I heard was something about an empty tomb!”
Are there many that feel that same disappointment at the end of the Gospel for Easter Sunday? It is quite likely that many come hoping to hear about the Body and leave feeling as empty as the tomb. Easter is that kind of feast. Churches fill to overflowing, the way they do after a disaster. People come to Mass who have not been to church for months. Some may not have been inside the doors for years, but because they are visiting parents for the holiday they tag along for the morning ritual, all the while thinking of the super breakfast that will follow when they return home. Then there are the angry regulars resenting that a stranger has taken their place in the pew. Let’s hope that their anger isn’t so intense that they are prevented from hearing the proclamation of the Good News.
Easter should be the feast that shores up challenged faith. I would wager that every year there are those that come into the celebration hoping against hope. This Feast is especially important for those who are new to mourning: parents that have lost a child; brothers and sisters who have lost a sibling or a parent; a man or woman who has lost a spouse. Depending on the intensity of the grief, the mourner can wonder if there is reason to hope, reason to go on living.
The one who sees does not believe. If I see another face-to-face I do not have to believe that s/he exists. There is no faith in heaven, no hope, only love. Those in glory do not have to believe. They are in the presence.
The wrong Gospel is the important one to hear. It is a proclamation about grief-stricken people wondering if anything worse could possibly happen. Mary of Magdala is distraught when, upon her arrival and expecting to prepare properly Jesus’ body for burial, she finds the tomb empty. She reports to Peter, the seasoned disciple, and the Beloved Disciple, the neophyte, They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him. Not that her standing at the cross in witness to his execution did not break Mary’s faith that Jesus is Lord. But her faith will have to take another step in order to believe that He is risen.
It is not a bad idea to try to imagine what thoughts raced through the heads of Peter and the Beloved One as they raced to the Tomb. Peter remains burdened by the memory of having denied that he was a disciple or that he even knew Jesus. Moments of panic can surface scores of memories. He could have been experiencing kaleidoscopic images of the first meeting on the seashore and the mountaintop Transfiguration. He might have been feeling still the tug of the net teeming with fish caught at Jesus’ direction to cast the nets again after a night of fruitless labor. Perhaps he saw Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm, remembering how he sank when Jesus had bidden him to come. There is the possibility that he shivered, remembering the gaze that passed between them during that final encounter following Peter’s third denial.
The other disciple, the one Jesus loved, what was he thinking as he raced ahead of the older Peter. Beloved. That is his designation, one denoting a special relationship. At the final meal he had reclined at table next to Jesus and had leaned into his embrace to ask Jesus which one would betray him. He had stood at the cross on that terrible day only to hear Jesus entrust his mother to the Beloved One’s care. But notice that his eagerness to see for himself did not keep him from deferring to Peter, allowing him to enter the Tomb first. Imagine the heart pounding within his breast as he waited at the entrance, storing up the signs, wondering what they meant.
In the end the Gospel is about faith that results from the confrontation of signs. When Peter arrives, he enters and sees the burial cloths. A curious detail is added. The cloth that had covered the body’s face was folded and placed apart from the other cloths. Peter drank in the visuals, but the pericope does not speak of Peter’s response. The Beloved Disciple follows Peter into the tomb, drinks in the signs and seeing, he believes.
Of course it is possible that both Peter and the Beloved disciple believed in that moment. The Gospel doesn’t say that. It is also possible that it took Peter longer to believe just as it had taken him longer to arrive at the tomb. That is not a fault. It is a reminder that faith is a gift that comes when grace empowers belief.
If only we could have been party to their discussion as the two walked home again.
So, on this morning we are confronted by the Empty Tomb and are invited to see the signs. The wrappings of death rolled up and put aside tell us that death is not forever. But that should not make us conclude that resurrection is resuscitation as it is depicted in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If you ever have the opportunity, view Pier Paolo Pasolini’s brilliant The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Pasolini got it right. You’ll catch the difference immediately.
To confuse resurrection and resuscitation is to limit the Mystery and contain it. Jesus resuscitated Lazarus; but remember that Lazarus had to die again.
So, we come to Easter variously burdened. Perhaps we are seasoned believers, aging as did Peter. Perhaps we are newly aware of being sinners as Pope Francis declared himself to be. There will be those who come to the celebration burden with a new diagnosis of a terminal disease. The neophytes in their white robes stand as the Beloved Disciple, drinking in the signs, pondering as they rejoice in their newfound faith. We all come with cares needing to have signs contradicted. The betrayed and the shunned come hoping against hope, needing to have their wounds anointed and to find some reason to go on believing. Will love ever triumph? Will there ever be one human family? Will we ever live in peace and experience God’s reign?
Maybe we will limp in with all the others, those familiar to us and those strangers. All of us bearing scars of another year’s wounds we encountered on the way. But if, burdened by them, we move from the Table of the Word and stand with them at the Table of the Eucharist we will remember and recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread. Sharing in the meal, we will know the Presence.
Some will think of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday as three separate and distinct feasts. Perhaps you have thought of them that way. The truth is that what has come to be thought of as three feasts, in reality comprise one feast that continues over three days. The Paschal Triduum (the word means three days) does not have three distinct liturgies. Rather we enter one Liturgical journey during those three days that comprise the most important celebration of our faith in the Church’s Year. It saddens me to think that so many have never allowed themselves to enter into the experience.
I remember a letter I received some years ago from a senior woman parishioner. She had been a life-long Catholic and had always practiced her faith. Only illness had ever kept her from Sunday Mass. She told me that that year, because of something I had said, she had made the complete Triduum for the first time. In prior years she had been content to celebrate Easter Sunday. True, occasionally she had attended Holy Thursday, but rarely Good Friday, and never the Holy Saturday Vigil. She wrote lamenting that fact because this year the Triduum had proved a moment of faith that she would never forget. She wrote on Wednesday of Easter Week and said that already she found herself looking forward to next year’s Triduum. She said that she even liked to use the word, Triduum now that she knew what it meant. Witnessing the adult emersion Baptisms filled her with awe. She had never seen the like. So rich was the moment she found herself wishing she could be baptized again the way these neophytes had been.
We are a very busy people. So who can be expected to devote three days to a religious observance? It’s true that each part usually lasts over an hour. Rumors about the length of the Vigil abound even with many pastors reducing the number of readings to three. As pastor, I always incorporated all seven readings, with seven different lectors, in the dark, the only light coming from the Easter Candle and candles that had been lit from the Easter Candle, held by the Assembly. So, some would say, the combined length is too much to ask of anybody. Or, is it?
Think back remembering the Lent we just completed. What were we doing through those six weeks? The Church encouraged us to fast, to pray, and to give alms. Why? We are better for each practice, and giving ourselves over to all three can renew and transform us and have an impact not only on our faith lives, but also on our relationship with the entire Church, and therefore with Jesus Christ. Certainly Pope Francis’s messages through this Lent would support that concept, as he prays for a poorer Church serving the needs of the poor; and for a more obviously servant Church.
Experiencing hunger, we recognize an emptiness that only Christ can fill. Sitting in and being enveloped by silence, we can find ourselves open to the God who longs for us to let him be our God just as God longs for us to be God’s people. Giving ourselves in service and sharing our wealth, we can come to identify with those in need and see Christ in them. Perhaps, in the process we can come to understand why Lent is a penitential season. If we do penance, we turn away from whatever separates us from the love of God in order to give ourselves more completely to God. Having completed the forty-day journey with Jesus in the desert, do we now experience a holy longing to give ourselves to the Triduum, a need to be there with the Church of which we are parts, and celebrate the core mysteries of our faith? The Church doesn’t make the Triduum obligatory, as in holy days of obligation. The urgency to join in the celebration should come from within, just as the urge to celebrate Sunday Eucharist does.
So we come together in the worship space on Holy Thursday evening. Two things we should notice as we enter. Lent is over and gone is the purple of that season. White vestments and hangings are the order and flowers may adorn the space. Second, as you pass the reservation chapel, you will notice that the tabernacle is open and empty. There should be no reserved consecrated Bread.
The Assembly of sisters and brothers gathers in the evening just as Jesus did with his disciples on the night before he died. We gather and we listen to the Word proclaimed reminding us that we are involved in Passover as we remember that Jesus is our Passover Lamb of Sacrifice. Paul instructs us that when we gather we renew what Jesus did when during that night he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them, inviting them to eat his body. And he invited them to drink from the cup of his blood. We are to continue to do that each Lord’s Day until Christ comes again in glory.
You might expect that the Gospel proclaimed would be about the institution of the Eucharist, too. In stead, we hear John’s Last Supper narrative about Jesus the foot washer. (People still remember those whose feet Pope Francis washed last Holy Thursday. Some were scandalized by what he did.) The fact is, the reading is a complement to the Institution Narrative. We are challenged to live what we hear. Jesus speaks to us here and now. When he finished washing their feet, Jesus said to them: What I have done for your, so you should do for one another. If we share in the meal we must realize that the result will be our being sent to do what Jesus did, not only to wash feet, but also to minister to our sisters and brothers within and outside the community. Tonight you might be invited to be a foot washer. Or, you might be invited to have your feet washed. In either role, chances are you will feel uncomfortable. Either role is humbling. But don’t miss the important symbol that is being proclaimed. This ritual of feet washing is what the Church ought to be about – always. We are a servant Church. We are not about splendor and aggrandizement. It shouldn’t be only the pope who is called to be the servant of the servants of God. So also should we be. Is that why the new pope signs his name simply: Francisco? No pp. in front. Just his name, pure and simple. I say, Wow!
After the feet washing is completed, we move on to the celebration of the Eucharist, giving thanks to God for the life we live in Christ. We receive Christ’s Body and Blood. We are one with Christ and one with each other in Christ as Church.
The Liturgy of Holy Thursday has no conclusion or dismissal. Instead, the Communion Bread will be processed to the reservation chapel. We will be invited to stay, to watch and to pray as we await the next segment of our Triduum celebration – Good Friday.
It is clear that the Liturgy of Good Friday is a continuation of and not separate from the Liturgy of Holy Thursday. There is no entrance rite. Instead, once we have reassembled in the worship space we pause for a moment of silent reflection to ponder the solemnity of this night of the Lord’s Passion and to pray that we will be open to entering into the Liturgy of the Word. We hear the Prophet Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who seemed in the view of the foolish, to be punished by God. In reality, the Servant is God’s beloved. Then the Writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering. The implication is obvious; so will we through ours. We can approach our Great High Priest with confidence because Christ is our perfect representative and intercessor before God. Because Christ, in spite of his struggles and temptations to the contrary, embraced his suffering and death, he has become the source of eternal salvation for all. The result is that we can live in hope regardless of how dire the circumstances surrounding us might be. The prize, if you will, has been won for us.
If you are able, stand for the proclamation of John’s account of Christ’s Passion. If the proclaimer is accomplished, resist the temptation to follow along with a printed text. Let the words wash over you and catch you up in the wonder of what is unfolding. Notice that in John’s account, Jesus remains Lord, with full knowledge He carries the cross to Calvary. Notice that he mounts the cross as a king would his throne. Christ reigns from the Cross and pours himself out to the shedding of the last drops of blood and water from his side. It is finished. With those words, Jesus proclaims that he has accomplished all that the Father gave him to do. And he breathes forth his spirit in peace.
The Gospel passage concludes with the body of Jesus being wrapped in burial cloths, similar to the swaddling clothes he had worn as an infant when he lay in the manger. The body is laid in the tomb in which no other person had ever been buried. It is finished. Yes, but the beginning is not long away.
Following the proclamation of the Passion we will gather around the altar, this time not to celebrate Eucharist, but to pray for the renewal of the whole world and all its inhabitants that the original order planned by God at the beginning of time might be restored and all might come to know God’s love and peace. I hope the prayers won’t be rushed or that you will become impatient. There is much to ponder as sectors of society are put before us and as intercessory prayer is offered for them. Lord knows, and so should we, there is much to pray about in these times, many signs of the ongoing Passion of Christ being lived in those who suffer. Remember, too, the intercessor is Christ in, with, and through whom we pray.
A short Communion Service concludes this part of the Liturgy. In former times, Good Friday was the one day Eucharist was not celebrated and Communion not offered. We fasted on Good Friday even from the Lord’s Body and Blood. In some ways, I wish it were that way still. We should experience emptiness at this point in the Liturgy and a holy longing for Christ to come and fill it. Certainly it would place all our other needs in perspective and our wealth, too.
The Easter Vigil is THE celebration of Easter. Sunday will be the First Sunday of Easter, continuing what began in the celebration of the Vigil. It is meant to be celebrated in the night and can be timed to end at dawn’s first light. Monasteries can do it that way. Only a few parishes will be able to. But the symbolism is rich and powerful as it begins in darkness. Fire symbolically consumes all that was as the old order passes away. And out of the fire comes the spark that lights the Easter Candle, the principal symbol of the Risen Christ. It is that Light that will scatter the darkness. I pray your fire will be of sufficient size to merit the name fire. A can of flickering Sterno leaves much to be desired.
As the burning Candle is carried into the dark church, Christ, our Light is proclaimed. The Assembly responds: Thanks be to God. Three times the dialog is exchanged and flickering candles lit from the one Candle announce the spread of the faith in the Risen One. The Exultet is sung, calling on all of creation and all women and men to rejoice in what is happening this night.
By the Light of the Candle, lectors will proclaim the various readings that in reality make up a recap of Salvation’s history. We begin with the Creation narrative and conclude with the Resurrection narrative and the empty tomb. Many places will eliminate several readings. It that is the case where you celebrate, I hope you will take the time to read the missing selections for yourself. You deserve the whole story.
I have already taxed your patience here, so I will be brief with the remaining commentary. Following the return of the Glory to God and the ringing of the bells and the singing of the Alleluia, in full light, the Gospel is proclaimed. Then it is time for the Elect to be baptized. They will be presented to the Assembly who in turn, in union with all the saints in the Litany will pray for the Elect as they journey to the Font. The Assembly has prayed for the Elect all through the Lenten Season. Now they pray as the Elect are initiated through the Waters of Baptism and are anointed with Chrism. Then they are brought to the Table for their first participation in the Eucharist. There may well be tears, but they will be tears of joy for the wonder that Christ is accomplishing in them through his dying and rising.
And the Easter Season begins. May you be blessed and renewed in the faith we celebrate here. And may you be a sign always of the presence of the Risen One as you imitate Christ in Service.
What is this supposed to be about? That is not a bad question to ask as we enter Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. What do you think all this is about? What are we supposed to feel? How are we supposed to respond? Some would have these days be lugubrious, so touching our emotions that we weep with guilt remembering what happened over 2000 years ago. Remember Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ? That film was notorious for its intent to draw the viewer into a visceral experience of the horror of the crucifixion, the horror of Jesus’ agony, his scourging, his crucifixion, and his death. Blood and gore were everywhere. The horror. The horror. The horror. Mary’s stark and accusing stare that was the final image in the movie gave every viewer ample reason to beat his breast. Look what your sins have done! Then there was the question of the film’s anti Semitism to consider.
The truth is that one of the driving forces for us during these days of Lent is supposed to be repentance. We are supposed to be conscious of the fact that we are sinners seeking to atone for our sins as we look for ways to conform more closely to Jesus, the One in whom we have been baptized. By the way, that was a powerful image that registered on the masses when Pope Francis was seen in public confessing his sins. He has been open in his avowal that he is a sinner. That should take away some of our denial, freeing us to make the same declaration. In this holy time, to admit to being sinners is to declare, along with Francis, that we are stepping out of the darkness and embracing more fully the light.
All that is well and good. But we must guard against making our Lenten journey too introverted, with our focus too backward looking. Were that the case, then no matter how strict our Lenten observance has been, no matter how vivid the image we have of Jesus on the Cross, we will fall short of the transformation that grace empowers during this holy season.
Participation in the Liturgy of Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, is not meant to be attendance at a passion play. Were You There can be a very moving spiritual, but I don’t appreciate it as a hymn for today’s Liturgy or that of Good Friday. The hymn is an invitation to indulge in saccharin emotionalism. Who are the you to whom the Lord possessor is speaking? Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Isn’t Jesus our Lord also? The experience is not supposed to be about us vs. them. The Liturgy is about the timelessness of the event and the reality that every person’s suffering can be a share in the Lord’s passion thus removing any hopelessness from it.
Hear Isaiah’s Suffering Servant’s Song in the first reading. Some of the imagery in the Passion Narrative undoubtedly comes from this text. Who is the Suffering Servant? Certainly we see a fulfillment in Jesus. The Servant is at times an individual. At other times the Servant is Israel, that is, the whole people who suffer. As terrible as the sufferings may be, this is the person, this is the people convinced that God is present to the sufferer and ultimately is the deliverer. An individual who suffers can find consolation in Isaiah. A people who suffer can, too. Liturgy invites us to live in hope.
Have you read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, or seen the film by the same name? That is not bad reading or viewing for Lent and Holy Week. There are other similar works that serve as well. The point? Is the historical novel an invitation to simply look back at an event of some 70 years ago and remember? Or is the work meant to stir in us a compassionate response? If we simply look back and gasp in horror at the evils perpetrated, we can have a satisfying emotional experience. On the other hand, if we recognize our participation in humanity’s suffering, and like Schindler, are stirred to a compassionate response, the experience can be converting. The operative word is compassion. The word means to enter into the sufferings of others, to suffer with. Dare we do that? And if we dare, will we ever be the same again?
Remember when we celebrated Christmas a few months ago? What was that all about? For some it is another invitation to be sentimental and imagine themselves at a baby’s birth. That’s fine, I guess, but oh so lacking. The reality is that we are celebrating the Lord’s Incarnation, the wondrous fact that the Word became flesh and so united the human and the divine forever. What does that have to do with Passion Sunday, you ask? God has entered into the human experience and united us. If we believe in the Incarnation, we cannot look at others as strangers. We cannot blind ourselves to or stand idly by and watch dispassionately as others suffer. To do so is to blind ourselves to Jesus’ sufferings, to fail to recognize his presence in others, and to fail to recognize the cross on which he hangs today.
We must enter into that suffering, dare to suffer with, or we miss the door Passion Sunday opens for us. Dare we enter? I don’t mean to be dower, but we might not find God unless we so dare.
I remember how moved I was the first time I read a biography of Damien of Molokai. You remember him, the Belgian who traveled to the Hawaiian Islands to minister to lepers – outcast from society, the untouchables. Once he encountered that community and became part of it, he too became untouchable lest he contaminate someone else with the dreaded disease. In order to fulfill his obligation to confess his sins at least once a year, he had to stand on the dock and confess to the priest on the ship in a voice loud enough for all present to hear his sins. From the day he recognized the signs of leprosy in his own hands he never again referred to his flock as you lepers. Rather they were fellow lepers. Compassion: to suffer with. For us, the invitation is to recognize in those who suffer, the Christ suffering today and to enter into that suffering.
Those who entered Dante’s Inferno read overhead, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Hell means to live without love, without hope of loving or being loved forever. That is the essence of despair. Suffering leads us to the brink. Jesus, in the Passion Narrative, cries out, My God, my God, why have you abandoned (forsaken) me? Some have said that the cry is evidence of Jesus’ despair in the last moments on the cross. In reality, the words open Psalm 22, the prayer of all suffering people who believe in the God who saves. Jesus enters into that suffering. The Psalm is not one of despair. The final lines affirm belief and trust in the God who saves. The God who led Israel dry shod through the Red Sea and to the Promised Land will continue to save until time runs its course. The psalm ends in triumph and thanksgiving because God delivers God’s people in the present just as God delivered in ages long ago. It is with confidence that Jesus leaps into the void that is death and into the arms of the One he knows will raise him up.
Now celebrate Eucharist. Remember, the word means Thanksgiving. We give thanks to God by renewing the dying and rising of God’s Son, Jesus. In the Institution Narrative, Jesus says to us, Do this in my memory. The action of Eucharist necessitates our allowing ourselves to be transformed by what we do. As Jesus uses the word memory, it is better translated and I am with you, the whole mystery, the total of the Jesus experience. Now. The Body is broken. The Cup is poured out. Our participation makes us the Body of Christ to be sent to do what Jesus does in every age, enter with compassion into the sufferings of others. Don’t leave others in the abstract. Give others names and faces and genders and orientations and nationalities and races. The others are Jesus. Now, how do you look at the illegal alien? The Iraqi? The Muslim? Jesus suffers in those families in anguish after the loss of the plane in the Indian Ocean, and in the 23 million people suffering with HIV/AIDS in Africa and elsewhere. And there are other places and people in similar pain.
We bring our own personal sufferings to Eucharist, too. Is this why Jesus said we must love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Could that be why we are supposed to forgive someone seventy-times-seven times? Is this why, if someone strikes me on one cheek, I am to turn the other for the slap. Is this why we are silent before our accusers and those who defame us? It is only then that we will know the transformation Jesus has in mind.
Remember who is your vindicator, who it is who will raise you up. That is why the Christian cannot end in tragedy. For the Christian there is no ultimate defeat. God exalted Jesus following his rejection and defeat. So will God do for all who hope in God through Jesus, God’s Son.
Now, enter into the celebration of the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and see if you will ever be the same again.