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A 15th-century fresco depicts Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene after his resurrection. Easter, the feast of the Resurrection, is April 4 in the Latin rite this year.

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Catholics begin observance of the most sacred days of the Christian year
March 24th, 2010

The Catholic Church is about to enter into the most sacred days of the Christian year, during which Catholics immerse themselves in the events that have brought us life and salvation: the saving death and glorious resurrection of Christ. The ceremonies of this week are among the most ancient and moving celebrations of our tradition. In every liturgy we encounter Christ, but it is above all in these most sacred rites that He shares Himself with us.

~ Historical Background ~

The first Christians were Jews, and much of our liturgy is patterned on Jewish worship. Along with the weekly celebration of the Sabbath, the Jews celebrate certain festivals annually, the most important of these being Passover, which commemorates their deliverance from slavery into the Promised Land.

The early Christians gathered weekly for their own “sabbath,” rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus. Since Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week, our weekly holy day is Sunday. By the second century, there is clear evidence of an annual Christian “Passover” — no longer celebrating deliverance from Egypt, but liberation from sin and death and entry into the Promised Land of heaven with the risen Christ. In the third century, Christians also began holding a special gathering on the Friday before Easter, and spent Friday and Saturday fasting to commemorate the death of Jesus. Thus the “Holy Triduum” consisted of Good Friday, Saturday and Easter Sunday in the early Church.

An evening celebration of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday was added in the seventh century. Influenced by the liturgies of Jerusalem, where the events in the last week of Jesus’ life were memorialized in the very places they occurred, the tendency was growing to see the liturgy as a kind of drama, commemorating separate events in the life of Jesus. In reality, every celebration of the Eucharist makes present the entire mystery of Christ — His Incarnation, ministry, Last Supper, death, resurrection and ascension and the sending of the Holy Spirit.

After the Council of Trent, the “Triduum” was understood to comprise Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and all of the liturgies for these days were celebrated in the morning. In 1951, Pope Pius XII restored the Easter Vigil to its proper place in the evening, and the other liturgies soon returned to their proper times. The liturgies of Holy Week were somewhat simplified in the reforms of Vatican II. The “Easter Triduum” now begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening and concludes on Easter Sunday.

~ The Liturgies of Holy Week ~

The different names for this day highlight two distinctive ways of beginning Holy Week in the early centuries. In Rome, on this Sunday the Passion of the Lord was proclaimed. In Jerusalem, Christians naturally focused on the triumphal entry of Jesus into the holy city. Gradually this custom spread to other places, so our worship on this day combines the practices of Rome and Jerusalem. This gives a powerful impact to the liturgy: we move from the festive mood of the crowds hailing Jesus to the sober and dramatic proclamation of His rejection. The second reading unites these two contrary movements — it is precisely by obediently accepting death on a cross that Jesus is exalted by the Father in His triumphant resurrection.

We gather in the evening to commemorate the Lord’s Last Supper with His friends. The first reading reminds us that they met in the context of the Passover; just as the blood of the lamb spared God’s chosen people, so Christ by shedding His blood has freed us from slavery to sin and death. In the second reading, we hear the most ancient account of the institution of the Eucharist. The Gospel of John proclaims the mutual love which must be at the foundation of Holy Communion. This love is illustrated by Jesus in the gesture of washing His disciples’ feet — ordinarily the work of a slave. This is dramatized in an ancient ceremony called the “Mandatum,” from the Latin word for “command.” Jesus says, “I give you a new command: love one another as I have loved you.” The priest puts aside his vestments and imitates the gesture of Jesus, a reminder that any truly Christian leadership must be a leadership of service.

At the end of the liturgy, the Holy Eucharist is solemnly carried to the altar of repose. Until recent centuries, it was customary to reserve the Eucharist in a chapel apart from the place where the community gathers to celebrate the liturgy. At the end of Mass, what was left of the consecrated bread was reverently carried to this chapel. When the practice developed of placing the tabernacle on the main altar, this procession was no longer necessary, and it was dropped — except on Holy Thursday, since the Holy Week liturgies have a “long memory.” The reforms of the Second Vatican Council have restored the earlier practice of reserving the Eucharist in a separate place when possible, but this procession has since taken on a symbolic meaning: we accompany Jesus as He leaves the Upper Room, and “watch and pray” with Him.

This liturgy preserves some of the most ancient traditions of our Church. Its simplicity proclaims with eloquent understatement a combination of sobriety and quiet confidence in God.

The introductory rites manifest their antiquity by the prostration performed by the celebrant, an ancient gesture which has survived only in this ceremony and in the liturgies of ordination or religious profession. We might expect a penitential rite on Good Friday of all days, but there is none — the penitential rite only becoming a fixed part of the Mass in the Middle Ages, long after the shape of today’s liturgy was set.

The Liturgy of the Word concludes with the General Intercessions, prayers for the various needs of the Church and our world. While it is always fitting to respond to the proclamation of God’s word by confidently bringing our needs before Him, it is especially apt on this day when the pierced Heart of the Crucified proclaims the depth of God’s love for us.

The Veneration of the Cross which follows is a custom which began in Jerusalem. There on this day the people venerated the relics of the True Cross found by St. Helena. Hence, the invitation to pray originally had a literal meaning: “This is the wood of the Cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.” We venerate the Cross today as the great sign of God’s love for us and as the instrument of our salvation.

The liturgy concludes with Holy Communion. Why no Mass on this day? Again we find the survival of an ancient practice, still observed in the East, where Mass is not offered daily. Today and tomorrow we “fast” from the joy of celebrating the Eucharist, until the resurrection of the Lord.

On this day the Church waits at the Lord’s tomb, pondering His Passion and Death. The readings and prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours meditate on the Lord’s rest, and look forward in hope to the Resurrection. There are no sacramental celebrations on this day.

The feast of the Resurrection begins with the central celebration in the Church year, the ceremony which St. Augustine called “the mother of all vigils”. This ushers in the fifty-day Easter feast which culminates in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

This liturgy is rooted in the Passover celebration, in which the chosen people kept vigil for the Lord. The early Christians would gather this night in expectation of the return of Christ, and they passed the time reading through the great events of salvation history, beginning with creation and leading up to the victory of Christ over the grave. The Service of Light proclaims the Risen Christ to be the true light of the world scattering the darkness of death. In the Liturgy of the Word we proclaim the principal events in God’s dealings with His people: we share in the experience of the first disciples, who were instructed by the risen Lord about the meaning of all that had been written in the Old Testament. The Vigil concludes with the celebration of the sacraments of initiation: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. It is through these sacraments that the elect are incorporated into Christ in His death and resurrection, and so become part of His Body, the Church. On Easter Sunday we are all invited to renew our baptismal commitment and to rejoice in the presence of the risen Christ whose Body and Blood we share in Holy Communion.

The fifty days of the Easter Season — from Easter Sunday to Pentecost — are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, one “great Sunday.” These above all others are the days for the singing of the Alleluia.

When we accept the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus it lifts us up in spirit. It inspires us to go beyond the ordinary; to soar beyond the expected. It moves us beyond the understandable. This is what the Resurrection did for the Holy Women, the frightened Apostles and the scattered, hiding disciples.

The Resurrection empowers our faith as Christians today. From the moment of the Resurrection everything in life is transformed and enlivened. The trammels of death are broken for us all. It takes us Christians fifty days until Pentecost Sunday to celebrate the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus.

From March 26, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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