Holy Week 101: A lesson in simplicity
My initiation into the Catholic Church was unusual. No RCIA. Not even much instruction. I was a seeking girl/woman traveling with all I owned in a duffle bag and found myself in St. Louis under the influence of a Jesuit who introduced me to the Gospel. Within days, he baptized me.
That was in Lent of 1974. A few weeks later, I wandered into a church where I met a pastor whose advice for celebrating Holy Week was simplicity itself: “Do what the others do.” With apologies to Robert Fulghum, that’s when I discovered that all I need to know about the Christian life, I can learn at the Holy Week liturgies.
Palm Sunday dawned a fine spring morning, and I joined the parishioners outside with banners and palm branches. It was a festive atmosphere, one that changed abruptly with the proclamation of the Passion. On Palm Sunday I learned that the praise of others is not where we should find our true identity or our vocation. It’s “Hosanna!” one minute and “Crucify him!” the next.
In the parish bulletin was the word Triduum, the “great three days.” I showed up on Thursday evening for the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The pastor picked me out of the congregation to be one of the twelve to have my feet washed. (I realize now that someone didn’t show up.) I pulled off my hiking boots and wool socks and watched that old pastor wash my feet. On Holy Thursday I learned that Christian leadership is service—real on-your-knees service.
Then came Good Friday. I joined the procession to embrace the cross, walking with young parents carrying their babies, grave little children, teenagers who normally eschew such a ritual but are somehow transformed by it, nuns and priests, old people, infirm people, successful people, and people who were down and out. On Good Friday I learned that the cross is the great leveler. Each of us carries a cross. Each of us is dying. Each of us is unsure what comes next.
On Holy Saturday, I had no eggs to dye or family meal to cook or special Easter clothes to get ready. I spent the day writing in my journal until it was time for the Easter Vigil. Now it amazes me how many Catholics have never experienced this extraordinary liturgy. Once a year we gather around the Easter fire from which the new paschal candle is lit—the same candle that’s placed at the head of the coffin each time we say goodbye to a parishioner. The water is blest and made holy—the same water that will be used to baptize new Christians that night and little babies throughout the year. The Scriptures are read—stories of creation, the Exodus of Israel’s children, the empty tomb—stories that tell Our Story. Fire, water, bread, wine, Word, song, community: On Holy Saturday I learned that the most basic is the most important, the foundation of everything else.
My clearest memory of my first Easter Sunday is of feeling a little low and wondering, “Jesus is risen; what about me?” It had been a week of spiritual highs; this was my first postretreat letdown. But as soon as I asked “What about me?” I somehow knew the answer. On Easter Sunday I learned that all endings are beginnings.
Since that first Holy Week, when all I knew was to “do what the others do,” I’ve never missed these liturgies and, God willing, I never will. They’re a gift of time out of time—an invitation to stop, reflect, remember what’s important, and live more consciously until it’s time for our own passing from the dark tomb to bright, new life; until it’s time for our own happy Easter.