When I returned to the Church in my late twenties, one of the things that became very important to me was fully investing in the liturgical year. As a child, any day at church was just the same as another, and though Christmas and Easter had extra trappings, my adolescent apathy didn’t allow for much conviction or interior renewal. So, when I came back I wanted to learn, appreciate and enjoy all the unique aspects of living life according to the liturgical calendar. And there was no time where that commitment to commitment became as significant as during Holy Week.
Holy Week is the apex of our liturgical year. The entire week is one of continued heightening, building and expanding of our faith in and love for Christ, culminating with the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter. There’s so much to do during the week, and the ups and downs of the scriptural events throughout can seem rather chaotic. I’ll admit my first few Holy Weeks upon my return to Catholicism had me feeling frazzled and overwhelmed, because I wanted to have the full-on, no holds barred Holy Week experience. Instead, I wound up finding myself burnt out and exhausted by the time Easter came around. This is a rather common experience amongst the faithful, so I offer some gentle guidance and things to focus on during the week in order to make for a rich and rejuvenating encounter with God.
To make things simpler, it might help to look at Holy Week as a journey, one that moves from the interior to the exterior. We begin in an interior space on Palm Sunday — the traditional start of Holy Week — allowing ourselves the opportunity for both anticipation and reflection. In the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, read during the blessing of the palms at the beginning of Mass, we anticipate the events of the week to come, but in the Gospel reading later, we encounter Christ in his Passion and death.
Palm Sunday holds in tension the suffering and death of Jesus, and the promise of the Resurrection. We hear of the crowds waving palm branches — a symbol of victory — as they greet Jesus entering Jerusalem, riding on the back of a donkey — a symbol of peace — and yet we know that “the son of man must suffer many things and be rejected” (Luke 9:22) as well.
We can look to Palm Sunday as the impetus for the week; it is the invitation by Jesus to accompany him on his most important mission. Jesus is inviting us to be with him in a more intentional way this week, and we might take this time — from Palm Sunday onward — as an opportunity to go back to the scriptural accounts of his entry into Jerusalem, as well as his Passion and death, and reflect on their meaning, for both ourselves individually and humanity on a larger scale. We might want to take the time to sit with these scriptural passages, placing ourselves in the scene, going deeper and strengthening our relationship with Jesus. This time should be one spent primarily within, as we consider the significance of the events that are about to take place, but also consider their necessity. What is it about the world we live in that called for a Savior?
Entering into the Triduum — which begins with Holy Thursday and the Feast of the Lord’s Supper — we begin to move from the interior to the exterior, as we commemorate the Last Supper both in the Eucharist and in the ritual washing of the feet. As we partake in and witness the ritual washing amidst our own faith community, it is important for us to heed the instructions Jesus gave his apostles that fateful night: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
As the Body of Christ, we are called to emulate Jesus, our head, and go out into the world and be a servant for all. Our faith is a communal faith, and having spent the previous few days in reflection and quiet, we are now being awakened and called out of ourselves to serve and sacrifice as Jesus did. When the Feast concludes, and the Eucharist has been brought to the Chapel, we are given the opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ time in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus: alone, abandoned and afraid, in his full humanity, cannot escape the reality of suffering and sorrow, a reality that we all must live with. Holy Thursday is a time to be with Jesus in his frailty, while simultaneously recognizing our own.
We leave the Garden, and enter into Good Friday, a time of solemnity and silence, as we listen to the proclamation of Jesus’ Passion and Death according to the Gospel of John. While we’ve been sitting with the crucifixion throughout the week, it now takes center stage, and with it comes the realization of our own sinfulness in the wake of Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross.
Most parishes offer the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a matter of course, but it is also a good time to consider the evil occurring in the world on a broader scale, and — remembering Jesus’ instruction from the ritual washing of the feet — perhaps take the opportunity to fill part of this day of fasting with spiritual nourishment, through service of some kind. While the day is (and should be) tinged in sorrow, it is also important to remember to never give up hope, to never forget the end of the story.
The Exsultet, sung after the lighting of the Paschal candle at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, is the climax of the week, an outpouring of joy and praise for the reality that is our Salvation. The entire week has been moving toward this moment, just as the history of the faithful, as recounted in the nine passages read during the Vigil, had been awaiting the Resurrection.
Now is the moment to celebrate Christ’s victory over death and his invitation to us to join him in new life. All the sorrow we’ve encountered throughout our journey with him is to be forgotten and the time has come to rejoice, through him, with him and in him. It is also the time to remember that with the Resurrection comes our responsibility to proclaim it, in both word and deed. Easter does not end Monday morning. It never ends, and it is our duty to always live in the hope and joy of the Resurrection and bring that hope and joy to all whom we encounter.
Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, comedian and writer. He is pursuing a Licentiate in Sacred Theology at Heythrop College in London.