By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Someone you know, whether your spouse, a pouty child, or a friend, will soon complain about the interminably long liturgies they will be subjected to this coming Holy Week. Instead of the usual icy glare or a fed-up “because I’m your parent and God expects you there” approach, you might ask them to ponder why it is that the church subjects her faithful year after year to the same ceremonies, the identical words and actions seemingly on “rinse and repeat.” (I don’t pretend for a moment that what follows will get a jaded 18-year-old jazzed for the Holy Thursday washing of the feet; these words might, however, prompt a believer responding to that teenager to ponder the mysterious purpose behind the church’s liturgical life and the grace flowing from that life.)
The church recognizes that a culture without a memory has no future. A distinct Catholic culture developed quite organically from the desire to offer liturgical praise to God, commemorating his mighty deeds in history and making them present in our here and now. For example, the death and resurrection of Jesus ensure that our Lord is not bound by the constraining straps of space and time, and can therefore be truly present to us in every Eucharistic feast. Our recollection of Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the cross is a matter of obedience to his own words, uttered hours before his passion and death: “Do this in memory of me.” This liturgical memory is our living link to the ministry of Jesus, and channels to us the joyful zeal which animated the first disciples who shared the Eucharist (see 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:17-34).
Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem, so terrible and fateful for the salvation of the world, are brought to life again in our liturgical prayer. The details of Jesus’ loving sacrifice are re-presented to us when we hear the words of Scripture proclaimed; this is done as we participate in those sacred events through our prayers, music and actions.
Two examples of this enacted memory (besides the Eucharist itself) will suffice. On Palm Sunday, a long Passion narrative is read to prepare us for the coming week; yet we also imitate the very procession Jesus makes into Jerusalem, re-enacting the triumphant arrival of the blessed one “who comes in the name of the Lord.” The palm branches we hold are the tangible sign that our Christian faith is neither isolated away in an ancient age nor lifeless like the pages of a history book, but rather expressed in the life of the church, who nurtures that faith for all generations past, present, and future.
What happens in the Holy Week liturgies is, in a most beautiful way, a blending of historical times and places by the Lord who draws all ages to himself as he extends his arms on the cross. The unrivaled apex of this liturgical time comes at the Easter Vigil, when we hear in the dead of night the first good news of Christ’s victory over the tomb.
The church is dark, symbolizing the defeat death had inflicted on the crucified Jesus, but light from a single candle soon scatters the blackness of night. That most exquisite hymn of praise, the Exsultet, then resounds as the light of Christ is spread to all the faithful. Just one sample lyric from this ancient song reveals the church’s understanding of her own mission to exult in God’s salvific plan across the centuries. For on this very night, God brings about the salvation of Israel from the hands of Egypt, the liberation from death through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the renewal of our baptismal faith in the Lord of life: “This is the night when first you saved our fathers: you freed the people of Israel from their slavery and led them dry-shod through the sea […] This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and rose triumphant from the grave.”
No other earthly honor could possibly equal the privilege of standing shoulder to shoulder on the night of Christ’s resurrection with your family and friends, but also with Moses, the Israelites, the prophets, the apostles, and all the saints, who have lived for the hope generated at the first Easter.
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.