Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Embracing Holy Week

With Sunday’s celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion we enter into the greatest and holiest week of our Church calendar, called aptly Holy Week. This is, by far, my favorite week of the year. One of the saddest things to me though is that, although the sights and sounds and experiences of Holy Week are so interesting, by and large, most members of our congregation will not participate in them. So, let me explain them a little bit, and also encourage everyone to make the effort to join in our Holy Week celebrations this year.

I think of the question asked by the youngest member of a Jewish family at Passover (which we also celebrate this weekend), “What makes this night different from all others?” This is a good question for us for this upcoming Holy Week. What makes it so very different? Well, in the most general sense, Holy Week is the celebration par excellence. There is virtually no aspect of our faith that is not explained, highlighted and elevated during this great week. The origin of Holy Week is actually tied to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Long before there were religious education programs, new members of the Church community learned about Christianity by engaging in a 40 day retreat (what we now call Lent), and the celebration of Easter where the deepest mysteries of faith were explained leading them to receiving the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist) at the Easter Vigil. Holy Week is still a special time for those entering the faith, but it has become over the centuries a time also of renewal for the entire community. So, let’s take a look at each of the days of Holy Week:

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: I often think of this day as the Prologue of the week that lies ahead. We begin our celebration today in glory recalling how Jesus was received into Jerusalem as a King. But, our celebration will end on a more somber note; as we go from His Kingship to His suffering and death on the Cross as we participate in the reading of the Passion Gospel.

Holy Tuesday, Chrism Mass: This day holds one of the greatest, hidden gems of the liturgical year. The Chrism Mass takes place only at the Cathedral of the Archdiocese and is a celebration on a few levels. First, all of the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese make their way to the Cathedral for this Mass. It is a moment to re-affirm and celebrate our unity with our Archbishop. At this Mass, all priests and deacons will renew the vows they made at their ordination. It is very moving for the clergy involved and for the people who watch the entire presbyterate make this renewal. And renewal is a good theme for this Mass as the Archbishop also blesses and consecrates the oils used throughout the year for the Sacraments. If you’ve ever wondered, the three Holy Oils – the Oil of the Infirm; the Oil of Catechumens; and the Sacred Chrism – that are used for Baptisms, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, etc. throughout the year all come from this Mass It is a symbol of the Church reaching out from its center in Hartford to the rest of the Archdiocese. This Mass takes place at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at St. Joseph’s in Hartford. If you can go, I strongly encourage it.

Holy Thursday of the Lord’s Supper: On Holy Thursday we begin what is called the Sacred Triduum – or the Holy Three Days. This is really one celebration that is so incredible that it takes three full days to properly celebrate it. At this Mass, we receive the oils that were blessed on Tuesday at the Cathedral, Fr. Mike and I will again renew our priestly commitment, we have the Washing of the Feet, the great symbol of service that Christ gave us, and we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. After Mass, we engage in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament until midnight to continue to adore the gift of the Jesus Real and True Presence in the Eucharist. In some places and cultures, many people also visit seven churches. I used to do this in my home town – you would visit seven Churches and pray in each of them as a devotional practice before midnight. I don’t think we have seven Catholic churches close enough here to do this though.

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion: Suddenly, we take a start turn. When you arrive at Church on Friday, after all the beauty and décor of Thursday, the Church is stripped bare an in morning. We commemorate the death of Jesus on this day. From the end of Holy Thursday until the Easter Vigil no sacraments are celebrated (except in case of death). The Church is in mourning. Often Christian Churches come together to commemorate this, as we will on the Town Green at noontime. At 3 p.m., we traditionally celebrate the Stations of the Cross. At 7 p.m., we gather for the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion which includes the Gospel Passion again, the Veneration of the Cross and the reception of Holy Communion (that was consecrated the night before). We depart in silence and sorrow. We fast and abstain from meat on this day; and in many cultures it is a custom to refrain from talking except at religious services.

Easter Vigil: Throughout the day on Saturday, we continue to mourn, but once the sun goes down, the celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection begins. The Easter Vigil is a feast of sight and smell and sound. We begin outdoors blessing the new fire and lighting the new Easter Candle; in the Liturgy of the Word we have extended and numerous readings that recount the story of our salvation; those in the RCIA program will receive the Sacraments of Initiation and join the Church; the overwhelming theme is rejoicing! Resurrexit, dixit! Alleluia! He is Risen as He said! Alleluia!

I invite you to clear your calendar this week if you are able and to set the celebration of this Great and Holy Week as the highest priority in your life. Let us enter into the great mystery of our salvation and reach next Sunday with true Easter joy!

Happy Holy Week!

Love, Fr. Tom

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