Diving deep into Holy Week

| March 15, 2016 | 0 Comments


The meaning and history behind Palm Sunday and Triduum liturgies

The liturgies of the Triduum — the evening of Holy Thursday to the evening of Easter Sunday — are unique in the liturgical year. Nowhere else will a priest wash feet, lead extended prayers of the faithful or begin Mass with a fire.

Father Thomas Margevicius, an instructor of liturgical theology and homiletics at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, compares the Triduum to special moments marked in a marriage. The Church wants Catholics always to celebrate the liturgy well and with attention, he said, but, like a couple’s anniversary, Holy Week presents an opportunity for a deeper display of one’s devotion.

As a primer on the pinnacle of the Church’s year, The Catholic Spirit asked Father Margevicius to walk us through the rituals, sacramentals and traditions of Holy Week and the Triduum, beginning with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter.

Palm Sunday

Also known as “Passion Sunday,” Palm Sunday is often remembered for palms, but the palms actually have a minor role, Father Margevicius said. One’s focus is better turned to the symbolism of the color red and the Gospel reading.

Red. During Lent, clergy have worn purple vestments, but on this final Lenten Sunday, expect to see red. Used elsewhere in the liturgical calendar, the color symbolizes martyrdom. On Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it points to Jesus’ Passion and the blood he shed in his crucifixion and death.

Extended Gospel reading. The Palm Sunday Mass is marked by a long Gospel reading — the entire passion narrative from Matthew, Mark or Luke, depending on the year’s cycle of readings. (This year it’s Luke, and includes about two chapters.)

Father Margevicius compares Holy Week to a marathon, and Palm Sunday is the starting line. “We’re entering into the most solemn time of the year,” he said. “The reading of the full Passion is like the beginning of the race — you shoot the gun and now, all of a sudden, there’s a lot of great energy right at the beginning. You know you’ve got a race to run yet, but it starts with such a focus with the red and the long Passion reading precisely so that we are aware of the passion of Jesus that will be enacted throughout the week’s liturgies.”

Finding silence in Holy WeekJayne Windnagel, director of liturgy and music at St. Michael and St. Mary in Stillwater, advises Catholics not to add, but to subtract from their obligations during Holy Week.

“I would enter into silence. I would try to eliminate as much activity as possible to prepare ourselves for the great feast,” she said.

She also suggested Catholics read and reflect on parts of the liturgy that are unique to the Triduum and Holy Week, such as the Easter Vigil’s Exsultet or the Easter Sequence, or the liturgies’ readings. For her, not knowing the readings “is like when you go to a concert and don’t know the music. What we labor to understand will just help us become very present,” she said.

Windnagel takes to heart Mother Teresa’s words that in silence is where prayer begins.

Holy Thursday

Lent officially ends Holy Thursday afternoon with the midday prayer, before the evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper. However, the Triduum is still a solemn time.

“Lent gives us the opportunity to examine our lives to see how well we are living the Gospel,” Father Margevicius said. “In the end, all of us will fall short of that, and [it] make[s] us more aware than ever before of how much we need Jesus Christ. The Triduum liturgies focus intensely on Jesus’ suffering . . . death and resurrection. Lent should have [woken] us up to the need for Jesus. Lent is not ultimately about self-perfection; it’s about how much we need God. The whole climax toward which Lent is pushing is not self-centered, but Jesus centered, and that’s [why]  the Triduum’s liturgy focuses on Jesus so intensely.”

The Holy Thursday Mass gives the faithful a lot to unpack, Father Margevicius said. It’s a commemoration of the Last Supper, which includes the institution of the Eucharist and the institution of the priesthood. Priests bathe people’s feet. The Mass ends with the stripping of the altar and eucharistic exposition, with a procession and adoration.

The washing of feet. Service is the focus of the foot-washing rite — Jesus’ service for others, and his command for Christians to serve others.

Altar stripping. The altar has a dual significance as a place of sacrifice and the place for the ritual meal, Father Margevicius said. The altar cloth is removed at the end of the liturgy as a sign that the Eucharist will not be celebrated until the Easter Vigil. “Because you’re not offering the sacrifice and you’re not gathering at the ritual table, then there’s no need to set the table, as it were, for the meal and the sacrifice,” he said.

Eucharistic adoration. In Church history, the whole period of Lent — and the Triduum — began primarily as preparation for catechumens who were going to receive the sacraments for the first time at Easter, Father Margevicius said. Part of that preparation was the Church’s invitation to spend the night of Holy Thursday in prayer as part of three days of fasting. He added that the Church still encourages those who are able to enter into the three days after the Lord’s Supper with as much fasting as they are able to do.

Good Friday

Good Friday’s liturgy is not a Mass; however, it does include a Communion service, meaning that the Eucharist is offered to the faithful, but was consecrated at a different liturgy.

Asked why Mass is not celebrated on Good Friday, Father Margevicius said the question includes an assumption — that there should be Mass every day. Daily Mass wasn’t a normal practice in the Church until the Patristic era and early Middle Ages, he said, and the Good Friday liturgy retains some of the oldest traditions in the Catholic liturgical year.

Lent also developed before the Church was practicing daily Mass, and when daily Mass became a regular practice, it was not initially offered during Lent because of the season’s penitential nature.

The Passion from John. Each year, the Good Friday liturgy includes a two-chapter reading from the Gospel of John. “It’s interesting that the Church early on would have chosen John for Good Friday,” Father Margevicius said. “It . . . has the same structure as the other Passion accounts of Jesus, but John has a distinctly different portrait of Jesus. It’s in the Gospel of John that Jesus is not the pawn of political machinations. In John, Jesus stands up and says, ‘I’m who you’re looking for.’” John’s Gospel puts Jesus in charge, he added. The point of Good Friday is not to feel sorry for Jesus. The point is Jesus’ victory, even as Christians mourn his death, he said.

Complex prayers of the faithful. Good Friday’s prayers of the faithful are longer than a typical Sunday’s intentions, and include a period of kneeling. The structure is ancient — and once the norm for every Mass — but it fell out of use in the Church. The Second Vatican Council reinstated it on Good Friday.

Veneration of the cross. The practice of venerating the crucifix dates to the early Church, Father Margevicius said. In the time that the New Testament was still being compiled, the cross transitioned, he said, “from being a symbol and tool of shame” to “a symbol of hope and victory over death.”

“Kissing the cross [and] embracing the cross [are] all acceptable ways to show we accept the meaning of what this is all about,” he said.

Easter Vigil

Celebrated after sunset on Holy Saturday, the Easter Vigil starts in darkness — one of the many primal symbols packed into the longest liturgy of the year.

“Images like darkness and fire and water, these are all playing in very strongly,” Father Margevicius said. “The idea is that what you see here ritually is a visual expression of what’s happening theologically. What’s happening theologically is that Jesus Christ is remaking creation. . . . So we’re going to use symbols that remind us of the first creation.”

Darkness. The Vigil is intended to begin when it is truly dark, with no trace of twilight, and historically lasted deep into the night or until the dawn. It begins in darkness that is pierced with the “light of Christ” from a fire ignited near the entrance of the church. The liturgy includes seven readings with Psalms in between, plus an epistle and the Gospel. Many parishes abbreviate the liturgy and use only a selection of the readings.

Taken together, however, the readings and psalms walk the congregation through salvation history. “Jesus didn’t emerge in a vacuum,” Father Margevicius said. “Before God started his covenant with Abraham, God was working with Noah and the patriarchs all the way back to Adam and Eve. . . . [Jesus] is the one who fulfills all of human history.”

Exsultet. Before the lighting of the pascal candle, the deacon or priest sings the exsultet, a special hymn of praise unique to the Easter Vigil. It contains the stanzas, “Oh truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the death of Christ. Oh happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a redeemer.”

The paradox can be traced as early as St. Augustine in the fifth century. “The idea behind that ‘Oh happy fault, oh necessary sin of Adam’  . . . is that we would not have had access to the grace of Jesus Christ had not Jesus come to repair what Adam destroyed with sin,” Father Margevicius said. Although Adam and Eve had perfect communion with God in the garden, he said, they did not have the fullness of grace. Christ’s redemption gave Christians access to grace that made them part of God’s family, elevating them beyond friends.

Baptism. The Easter Vigil is also when many parishes welcome catechumens — or unbaptized men and women who have been in formation to become Catholic — into the Church. It’s a natural time for people who have gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults to join the Church because “the life of Jesus Christ is accessible to them only because of the Passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Father Margevicius said.

Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday’s liturgy feels much more like a regular Mass. The beginning, however, includes the sprinkling rite, where the priest blesses everyone in the church with holy water. Drawing again on the marriage analogy, Father Margevicius compared the sprinkling rite, and the renewal of baptismal promises that replaces the creed, with spouses renewing their vows: something that helps them appreciate one another in a fresh way.

Also unique is the praying of the Easter sequence, an ancient poem describing the resurrection sung after the second reading and before the “alleluia” preceding the Gospel reading. Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday’s “Alleluia” is also the first one Catholics have heard since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

With all the vivid ritual and imagery, there can be a lot to contemplate during Holy Week, and Father Margevicius urges Catholics to indulge that impulse.

“You don’t have to be a historian or Bible scholar to benefit from meditating on these truths,” he said. “Any person reflecting on this can come up with insights [and] inspirations from the Holy Spirit that are just as meaningful as persons who may have studied it more professionally. Don’t fall into the trap of ‘I don’t know what it means, and therefore it doesn’t mean anything.’ Pray about it, and it will mean something to you, and go with it.”


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Category: Featured, Holy Week/Easter