Wednesday 31 March 2021

The Ceremonies of Holy Week

With the waving of palm branches, and the singing of “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, we have entered into the holiest week of the Christian Year. Last year, in much of the world, the solemn commemoration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Lord was celebrated by the clergy alone, in empty churches — adding a poignancy which we hope never to experience again. This year, thanks be to God, we are able to gather once more with God’s People. Unfortunately the restrictions still in place mean that the capacity in our church is greatly reduced and we have had to ticket the main services of the Triduum. For those who are not able to attend in person, we will be live-streaming on our YouTube channel — please join us if you can!

Apart from the Mass itself, the ceremonies and symbols of the Triduum are some of the most moving and meaningful we possess, and are among the most ancient. About 1,630 years ago a woman from Spain (or possibly France) went on holiday to the Holy Land. She was a Christian, and she went to Jerusalem to witness the famous ceremonies of the week before Easter. Her diary, a sort of travelogue, is said to be the oldest significant written work by a woman we have. It is also the first account we have of the ceremonies of Holy Week.

Egeria describes the procession of palms on the Sunday before Easter, she writes about a Mass to celebrate the Last Supper on the Thursday and gives an account of a long service of readings and prayers, ending with the faithful venerating a large relic of the cross of our Lord with a kiss, on the Friday before Easter Day. She describes them with enthusiasm as great novelties, remarkable, unknown to her readers at home. She tells of elaborate and detailed ceremonies, the like of which those in Spain (or possible France) would not yet have seen. It is thought by historians of the Liturgy that her writing did much to spread and establish ceremonies which are now very familiar to us and which are the basis of holy week all over the world — ceremonies which we are about to celebrate ourselves in the coming days.

And then she comes to the Easter Vigil, the most colourful, the most dramatic, the most elaborate of all the ceremonies. Her description here is all the more remarkable — “and on Easter night,” she says, “they do exactly the same as us.” It is the barest description, with almost no detail. “They do exactly the same as us.” 

For Egeria, the Holy Week ceremonies were worth writing home about. They were so different, so unusual, so dramatic. But Easter was the same everywhere.

Egeria’s diary tells us something we might have worked out for ourselves. The Vigil of Easter is so different. The other days, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in a sense dramatise the story of the passion. They take us in the footsteps of Christ. They place us amongst the crowd. We voice the words and carry out the actions of those days. They are memorial and commemoration that allow us to participate in events of two thousand years ago. They are liturgy as solemn drama.

And this drama is necessary for us. We recall what God has done in the past, so that we can see how he continue to work today. We remember the events of Christ’s life — especially his Passion and Death — so that we can give glory to God for what he did then, so that we can see how those events effect us here and now, and so that we can prepare ourselves for how he will act in the future. We are called to reproduce Christ’s life in the day-to-day events of our own lives, through the power of his grace at work in us. This then-now-in future is present in all the Church’s liturgy and sacraments, but especially in the dramatic ceremonies of Holy Week.  

Yet in the Easter Vigil, the high-point of the liturgical year, there is no drama, at least not in that sense. We do not gather round a tomb. We do not roll away a stone. We do not converse with angels, not even in a liturgical manner.

We gather in the dark. We bless a fire and sing God’s praises. We listen to Old Testament prophecies, about creation, about salvation through water of the Red Sea, about the water which will be poured over us and give us a new heart and a new spirit. We recall once again how God prepared his creation and his chosen people over thousands of years to receive his Son in the flesh, a Son — God himself — who becomes one of us so that he can save all of us. Our symbols are a candle and water, neither of which feature — at least not directly — in any story of the Resurrection.

In Easter night we do not recreate a story. We do of course commemorate an event, the actual real bodily resurrection in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ: but we celebrate salvation, and Baptism, which is our own dying and rising with Christ.

And in doing this we are doing something far more ancient than the retelling of the story, something more fundamental than reliving and representing history. We are not stepping back in time, but striding forward to eternity.

This is not drama, this is mystery. This is how we welcome new members into our family, into the Body of Christ, the Universal Church. “This is the night…” the Deacon will sing in the light of the Paschal Candle. “This is the night” when we celebrate that death is no more, that our life is the life of God himself, that darkness and sin and oppression and hell itself are not the final word on the human condition. “This is the night” in which we celebrate that our God loves us and gave himself up for us — and gives himself to us.

We have yet to begin the Triduum. We will gather with the Apostles for the Last Supper, and watch with the Lord who was handed over to be crucified. We will be confronted by the Son of God hanging on his cross, crying out “My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!” But we will do all this in the knowledge that Christ is Risen.