Holy Week as living mystery


M. Francis Mannion is rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, USA and president of the Society for Catholic Liturgy. In this article he is clear that, 'the purpose of Holy Week cannot be captured in a passion play...no matter how dramatic or spectacular'.

Some years ago I had a conversation with a prominent Protestant businessman (who has since become Catholic) for whom the high point of his Easter observance over the years was a visit to the Holy Week pageant at the (Reformed Church) Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California. The pageant is a spectacular event that draws tens of thousands of people for two weeks each year and reaches a national audience in the United States through cable television. Michael Linton describes the pageant as follows:

Centurions ride through the audience on white Arabian horses, Pilate feeds his pet tiger while interrogating Jesus, and the Resurrection is accompanied by a light show and fireworks . . . . Pontius Pilate is a vision of imperial splendor, and the women at the tomb are greeted by angels who 'fly' forty feet above the audience. There's a thunderstorm that rattles the rafters at the Crucifixion, an earthquake that shakes the foundation at the Resurrection, and smoke and blinding lights at the Ascension. 1

My businessman friend wondered why the Catholic Church does not incorporate the kind of vivid portrayal used at the Crystal Cathedral into its Holy Week liturgy. He thought a more dramatic format might appeal to larger numbers of people, have a greater spiritual impact and represent a more appropriate idiom for the church's worship in the 1990s. My response to him (stated as gently as I could) was that while dramas and pageants have a valid and venerable place in Catholic devotional life (the Oberammergau Passion Play being the best known), the official liturgy of the church has a significance and efficacy far beyond dramatic reenactments. Indeed, the real purpose of Holy Week cannot be captured in a Passion play or an historical reenactment, no matter how dramatic or spectacular.

Not pageant but liturgy
Of course, the historical basis of the saving mysteries of faith has to be affirmed and venerated without ambiguity. Christianity has never been well served by attempts to sever it from its foundations in history, and the more we know about that history the better. Modern biblical research has been of great service in this regard. However, what the liturgy of Holy Week primarily celebrates is the living, powerful reality of the Lord's death and resurrection at work in the life of the church here and now. One of the fundamental convictions of the modern liturgical movement (reflected repeatedly in official liturgical documents over the past thirty years) is that the great mysteries of salvation are made present here and now when the church gathers in worship. The considerable amount of writing in the twentieth century on such concepts of anamnesis (memorial) has served to underscore this truth powerfully. Already in 1947, Pope Pius XII wrote in Mediator dei:

The liturgical year, devotedly fostered and accompanied by the Church, is not a cold and lifeless representation of the events of the past, or a simple and bare record of a former age. It is rather Christ himself who is ever living in his Church. Here he continues that journey of immense mercy which he lovingly began in his mortal life, going about doing good, with the design of bringing men to know his mysteries and, in a way, live by them. 2

The sense in which the liturgy is the living action of Christ in his church has been classically expressed in the words of St. Leo the Great: 'What was visible in our Savior has passed over into his mysteries.' 3 This consciousness of the liturgy as the making present of the mysteries of Christ impressively transfuses the entire segment of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which sets out a theology of the church's sacramental life (CCC 1066-1209).

The Holy Week liturgy does not merely help the church cast its mind back to Jerusalem and Calvary. The function of the liturgy is to celebrate what God in Christ is doing today among his people. Our worship celebrates Jerusalem and Calvary in the life of the church and of Christians today. As the church moves through Holy Week, the concern is not primarily to retrace the steps of Jesus' final days, but to enact the present reality of God's saving work in Christ's living Body, the church. By liturgical action, the church now is caught up in the death and resurrection of the Lord in the manner aptly designated as the 'paschal mystery': Christ and the church united in an eternal Holy Week. Pope Paul VI wrote in promulgating the norms for the new calendar in 1969:

While we are celebrating his passage from death to life, we ask God that those who are reborn with Christ may 'by their life hold fast to the sacrament they have received by faith' [Collect, Tuesday of Holy Week]. In the words of Vatican Council II, 'recalling the mysteries of redemption, the Church opens to the faithful the riches of the Lord's powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age in order that the faithful may lay hold on them and be filled with saving grace' [Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 102]. 4

New Jerusalem
Holy Week begins officially with Palm Sunday. The liturgy of this day calls to mind the Lord's historic entry into Jerusalem. But more than this, it also entails a living proclamation of Christ's lordship over the church and its people here and now. We carry palms on this day not merely for historical remembrance, but as a sign of present commitment to Christ. St. Andrew of Crete in the eighth century put this point well when he wrote:

'Let us go together to meet Christ on the Mount of Olives. Today he returns from Bethany and proceeds of his own free will toward his holy and blessed passion, to consummate the mystery of our salvation. . . . So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soul-less olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. . . . Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children's holy song. 5

In the procession of palms we are not pretending to enter the new and eternal Jerusalem of long ago. We are preparing to enter the new Jerusalem that Christ promises to his faithful people and into which we have already received initiation through baptism. During the blessing of the palms, the priest prays: 'Almighty God, we pray you bless these branches and make them holy. Today we joyfully acclaim Jesus our Messiah and King. May we reach one day the happiness of the new and everlasting Jerusalem by faithfully following him who lives and reigns for ever and ever.' 6 The events of ancient Jerusalem become new in the solemn assembly of the baptized acclaiming Christ its Lord.

Living sacrifice
On Holy Thursday, the church recalls the gathering of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper, an event that inaugurated the Christian eucharist. Thus, the church is celebrating its own identity now as Christ's living Body and renewing the centrality of Christ's sacrifice in its life. The liturgy acts to gather Christ's people around the table from which he offers them — and incorporates them into — his own Body and Blood. On Holy Thursday, Christ is at table with us as really-indeed even more really-than he was at the Last Supper. The doctrine of the Real Presence is most illuminating on the matter with which we are dealing here. While Catholic teaching holds that Christ is present in a unique way in the eucharistic elements, we may also say that the whole set of events of the Last Supper are really present in the celebration of Holy Thursday. In truth, all of Holy Week may be regarded as making really present the saving events of time past, now in the mode of living sacrament.

In the Washing of Feet, the liturgy of Holy Thursday calls to mind Jesus' gesture of washing his disciples' feet. However, when the priest washes the feet of his parishioners, he is not simply repeating what Jesus did in the manner of a pageant or play. He is expressing and renewing his own commitment to service of God's people in the model of Jesus. The washing of feet challenges not only the priest but the whole community to the Christ-like tasks of charity and service.

We do well to keep the words in John's Gospel read on Holy Thursday (13:1-5) as we witness this rite:

And so, during the supper, Jesus - fully aware that he had come from God and was going to God, the Father who had handed everything over to him - rose from the meal and took off his cloak. He picked up a towel and tied it around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet and dry them with the towel he had around him. . . . After he had washed their feet, he put his cloak back on and reclined at table once more. He said to them: `Do you understand what I just did for you? You address me as 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and fittingly enough, for that is what I am. But if I washed your feet - I who am Teacher and Lord - then you must wash each other's feet. What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do. 7

The congregation on Holy Thursday is asked to do more than watch the priest washing feet. It is challenged to act toward all as Jesus himself did. (Incidentally, attachment to a pageant model of the foot washing rite and a failure to understand it in sacramental terms accounts in part for the argument - which I regard as lacking solidity - that only the feet of men, and not of women, may be washed on Holy Thursday.)

Today's cross
On Good Friday, the liturgy calls to mind the terrible and heroic events of Christ's crucifixion. But the solemn Good Friday liturgy is infinitely richer and more significant than any passion play or historical drama. Its purpose is not only to call to mind the original event of Calvary, but to recognize and celebrate the Cross standing forth in the church and in the world today. The suffering Christ with whom we enter into solidarity on Good Friday is the Christ who suffers in his living Body today: in victims of violence and war, in those who mourn, in the suffering and dying. On Good Friday we are asked to celebrate the Cross that we carry in our own hearts and souls and that lives in the tragedies of the world, the Cross that will shape history until the end of time. One of the valuable insights of liberation theology is that the passion of Christ is a profoundly real feature of the modern world, that Christ suffers anew in every generation and that the authentic veneration of the Cross inevitably involves a commitment to charity and justice.

Good Friday calls the church to a living paschal imagination represented so well by Thomas à Kempis, who wrote expressively of the Cross as a reality knit into the fabric of human life:

See how in the Cross all things consist and in dying on it all things depend. There is no other way to life and to true inner peace, than the way of the Cross, and of daily self-denial. Go where you will, seek what you will; you will find no higher way above nor safer way below than the road of the Holy Cross. . . . The Cross always stands ready, and everywhere awaits you. You cannot escape it, wherever you flee; for wherever you go, you bear yourself, and always find yourself. Look up or down, without you or within, and everywhere you will find the Cross. And everywhere you must have patience, if you wish to attain inner peace, and win an eternal crown. If you bear the cross willingly, it will lead you to your desired goal. 8

Good Friday celebrates the ongoing Calvary of the world. Even the humblest cross carried into the church for veneration on that day has said of it: 'This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world.' This proclamation would be a fraud if the power of the Spirit were not acting to renew liturgically the eternal divine act of redemption and to make every cross the Cross of Christ.

Pulling man from the tomb
At the Easter Vigil, the liturgy does not pretend to be waiting for Christ to rise from the dead. The entire celebration takes place in the light of Christ risen from the dead (which is why the practice in some places of transferring this rite to a position after the Liturgy of the Word is not appropriate). It is in the power of the original resurrection event that the church remembers God's saving deeds in history. Accordingly, the liturgy is introduced with the words:

Dear friends in Christ, on this most holy night, when our Lord Jesus Christ passed from death to life, the Church invites her children throughout the world to come together in vigil and prayer. This is the passover of the Lord: if we honor the memory of his death and resurrection by hearing his word and celebrating his mysteries, then we may be confident that we shall share his victory over death and live with him for ever in God. 9

In the marvelous poetry of the Exsultet, past and future are conflated in the present. The events of long ago become the events of this night: 'This is the night when first you saved our fathers'; 'This is the night when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!'; 'This is the night when Christians everywhere [are] washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement'; 'This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.' 10

In the great vigil of Easter, the biblical story becomes our story; catechumens and baptised alike are touched by the waters of rebirth; and the gifts of bread and wine are filled with the glory of the eternal Easter. On this night, the church is not awaiting, as in a play, the original resurrection on the first Easter. It is invoking the return of Christ in glory at the end of time, an expectation stamped in a powerful way on the character of the Easter eucharist. In the iconography of Eastern Christianity, the resurrection is often presented as the action of Christ pulling a man by the hand from a tomb. This imagery sets before us the truth that Christ's resurrection is not only about the person of Christ, but about all humankind. In the Easter sacraments, we glory in Christ's resurrection as a living and vital source, and we celebrate the promise of the great and eternal Easter.

Spectators or participants
The need to dramatise and recapture the historical events of Christ's death and resurrection is an important feature of Christian life. Liturgical dramas and sacred pageants have a valid and natural place in Christian culture and spirituality. However, there is a world of difference between a dramatic representation of Jesus' last days, such as we find at the Crystal Cathedral or at Oberammergau, and what occurs in the solemn liturgies of Holy Week. Michael Linton observes of the Crystal Cathedral celebration: 'It's quite a show. But is it Christian?' To the extent that it might not be adequately Christian, it would be so, he says, because 'there is only audience, thrilled, amused, and perhaps even emotionally moved by the drama - but always distanced from it.' 11

It would be easy for Catholics to imagine that we approach Holy Week with an attitude light years from the dangers of the Crystal Cathedral. Could Linton's judgment about the mode of participation in the Crystal Cathedral pageant apply to the observance of Holy Week in our parishes? Linton writes that the fundamental problem with the pageant is not 'the donkey, tiger, earthquake and angels;' it is that at Garden Grove, 'we are not participants in this story.' 12 This is the great danger, too, for Catholic Holy Week. This problem can find very real (if quite different) expression in mechanical, routinized and lifeless observances of Holy Week in Catholic parishes, which (to turn the tables for a moment) have indeed something to learn from the care, attention to detail and performative seriousness found at the Crystal Cathedral.

The fundamental lesson of this essay is simple: in a passion play, the events of our attention remain in great part in the past, and we are spectators. In the Holy Week liturgies, the events stand powerfully in the present, and we are participants. Knowing the difference between the two is the basis of the profound and vital spirituality that is crucial to the fruitful celebration of Holy Week and Easter. Melito of Sardis, in his famous Easter homily, captured the essential point well: 'We should understand, beloved, that the paschal mystery is at once old and new, transitory and eternal, corruptible and incorruptible, mortal and immortal. In terms of the Law, it is old, in terms of the Word it is new. In its figure it is passing, in its grace it is eternal. It is corruptible in the sacrifice of the lamb, incorruptible in the eternal life of the Lord. It is mortal in his burial in the earth, immortal in his resurrection from the dead.' 13

1. Michael R. Linton, 'Smoke and Mirrors at the Crystal Cathedral' First Things 74, June/July 1997, p. 12.
2. No. 165; text in R. Kevin Seasoltz, The New Liturgy: A Documentation, 1903-1965, New York: Harder and Harder, 1966, pp. 149-150.
3. Sermo. 74, 2. PL 54, p. 398.
4.Motu Proprio, Mysterii Paschalis; text in Documents on the Liturgy 1963-1979: Conciliar, Papal, and Curial Texts, Collegeville, Mn.: The Liturgical Press, 1982, p. 1153.
5. PG 97, 990-994; text in Office of Readings, Palm Sunday, the Liturgy of the Hours, New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1976, pp. 419-420.
6. Text from The Sacramentary, New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1974, p. 123.
7.Text from Lectionary for Mass, New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1970, p. 88-89.
8.Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, London: Penguin Classics, 1952, pp. 85-86.
9.Text from The Sacramentary, p. 171.
10. Ibid., p. 183.
11. Linton, 'Smoke and Mirrors at the Crystal Cathedral', pp. 12-13.
12. Ibid., p. 13.
13. SC 123, 60 ff; text in Office of Readings, Monday within the Octave of Easter, The Liturgy of the Hours, p. 554.

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