The rich symbols of Holy Week

| Father John Paul Erickson | April 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

We are about to enter into the most sacred week of the entire Church’s year, appropriately entitled “Holy Week.”

It is a powerful period of grace, when the whole Church remembers, meditates upon and lives sacramentally the central event of salvation, which is the saving passion, death and resurrection of the God-man, Jesus Christ.

It is truly the greatest story ever told.

And, it is the only lens through which the Christian’s life can be fully understood.

Throughout this week of power and glory, tragedy and eternal triumph, Christians will be witness to a wide variety of rich symbols and sacramental signs, all of which bring us into contact with the saving mysteries we celebrate.

Palm Sunday

palmPalms and procession: “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut from the fields. Those preceding him as well as those following kept crying out: “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” —  Matthew 11:1-10

At the principal parish Mass of Palm Sunday, we walk with Christ as he makes his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Like those who gathered to greet Jesus so many years ago, we, too, wave palms — symbols of triumph and honor. Often, these palms are brought home following Mass and used to decorate the holy images of one’s own home.

Holy Thursday

footwashingKeeping vigil with Jesus: “Down in adoration falling, Lo! the sacred Host we hail! Lo! o’er ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail; Faith for all defects supplying, Where the feeble senses fail.” — Tantum Ergo

At the end of the Holy Thursday liturgy, in which we remember the institution of the Holy Eucharist by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, as well as Christ’s institution of the sacred priesthood, we solemnly process with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, a space set aside for quiet prayer with the Eucharistic King. The presence of Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, within the Blessed Sacrament is a fundamental Catholic belief.

Following the homily, the priest removes his chasuble, and proceeds to wash feet in the fashion of the servants of old.  In this powerful gesture, an optional rite of the Holy Thursday Mass, the priest imitates the One who came not to be served but rather to serve. The beautiful chant “Mandatum novum do vobis” is one of the options prescribed for this symbolic ritual, which translates “I give you a new commandment: love one another, just as I have loved you, says the Lord.”

Good Friday

crossAdoration of the cross: “Behold the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore!”  — Roman Missal, Showing of the Holy Cross

Good Friday is the one day of the entire Church’s year when Holy Mass is not offered. It is a day of mourning and mystery, when the sacrificial lamb, wounded for our offenses, ascends his throne out of love for the Father. During the unique liturgy of Good Friday, many rich symbols and ceremonies are celebrated, but perhaps none are so moving as the veneration of the cross, when the faithful are invited forward to touch, kiss and honor the symbol of salvation. It is a moment of both sadness and gratitude. Sadness, because this symbol represents all that is worst in us — our capacity to condemn, to betray, and to destroy. But it is also a symbol of a love stern as death, the love of a God who willingly descends to save the very ones who betray him.

Easter Vigil

fireFire, water, joy: “Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!  O truly blessed night, when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.”  — The Easter Proclamation

On this greatest of nights, the Church witnesses the resurrection of her spouse and savior, Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the sacraments of initiation, the blessing of the Easter water and the renewal of baptismal promises, and the joyful reception of the Eucharistic King within our hearts and souls, Jesus lives who once was dead.

waterIn the glow of the Easter fire and the lifting of the Paschal candle, we witness the triumph of the light of God over the darkness of our world and our hearts.

In the blessed waters of the Easter font, we witness the life-giving power of the Crucified and Risen King, from whose side flows the water of salvation.

In the broken and shared bread of the table of the Lord, we witness the abiding presence of the one who will never abandon us. And, in the lives of those newly baptized and received into the Church, we witness the beauty and joy of Christian holiness.

Truly, these are glorious and important days. Let us be attentive and open our hearts to the many graces the true and living God wishes to lavish upon us. “Come let us adore him!“

Father Erickson is director of the archdiocesan Office of Worship.

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Category: Holy Week/Easter