HOLY WEEK EXPLAINED
For many of us, this year's Lent is probably one of the most trying yet. We may have committed to making various sacrifices, but one involuntary sacrifice has been keenly felt - that of the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist. When the announcement that mass had been suspended came seven weeks ago, it felt like Lent had arrived earlier. Now, as the Covid-19 situation in Singapore and around the world escalates, more stringent distancing measures have been implemented by the government. Mass for the laity continues to be suspended even throughout Holy Week, which is the most important week in the liturgical calendar.
In many ways, it can feel like the Risen Christ will still be hidden from us even when the dawn of Easter breaks. Yet, even without participating in the liturgical celebrations, Jesus Christ is ever-present among us and continues to walk with us on this sacred journey.
So, gather a few companions online, participate in the online liturgical celebrations and set aside time to pray, reflect and share, using the reflection materials that will be made available HERE. Respond together in prayer, pray for one another! Be bold to reach out to someone today!
You may choose to read this article in it's entirety or throughout Holy Week. To do so just click on the relevant images below:
Palm Sunday (also known as Passion Sunday), commemorates Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem where he is welcomed by the crowds. It also marks the start of Holy Week, where this triumphant episode very quickly turns into the great tragedy and sorrow of his Passion and Crucifixion.
Jesus is making a royal claim as he enters Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah: “Behold: your king is coming to you, a just saviour is he; humble, and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” He is the king who has come to restore his people. He is king of the poor, the wounded, the broken, and the sick. He is the king who comes to establish peace in our hearts, but only if we let Him.
From this triumphant entry into Jerusalem, comes the acclamation: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” It is a shout of praise and jubilation for the Messiah who has finally arrived! Together with the Hosanna acclamation, the crowd welcomes Jesus with the waving of palm branches and spreading of cloaks. The palm is a symbol of victory, and is used to remind the Israelites of God’s great saving act when he took them out of Egypt (Leviticus 23:40). Likewise, cloaks were laid down; a gesture to welcome a new king (2 Kings 9:13). It is a sign of homage and submission, of laying one’s life down, and entrusting one’s life to an authority whom he knows is capable of securing him, providing him and ensuring peace in his home.
Jesus calls us to trust him as the faithful king. What may seem like a tragedy, ends in victory, as he has shown by his own life. He calls us to lay down our lives for him by laying down our lives together with him as we walk with him this Holy Week.
Maundy Thursday is a day filled with many different significant events around the person of Jesus Christ. It can also be seen in the light of His commandment: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” – John 13:34
Maundy is taken from the Latin “Mandatum”, which means “Commandment”. Truly this new commandment to love is what the Church celebrates in the liturgy, inviting and leading all the faithful to appreciate and live out the deeper realities from the events that happened then, in our lives today.
It begins in the morning with the Chrism mass, which directs the Church’s attention to the institution of the priesthood. The holy oils are at the centre of the liturgical action where they will be consecrated by the Bishop and distributed to all the parishes of the diocese as an integral part of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination.
In the evening, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. It is the most important event of Maundy Thursday as Jesus Christ bestows on His Church two precious and sacred gifts – the Institution of the Eucharist as well as the Priesthood, which are intrinsically linked to one another, and are born together from Christ Himself. We commemorate the first celebration of the Eucharist and remember Christ’s great gift of Himself for the “first time”.
At this Mass, Jesus washing the feet of His disciples is re-enacted in anticipation of His death on the cross when the Lord would be stripped of His dignity for the love of humanity. More importantly, it demonstrates the absolute unconditional love of God through the self-emptying act of Jesus the master, washing His disciples feet. ‘Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends.’ – John 15:13. In both the Eucharist and the washing of feet, Jesus demonstrated what love truly is in the total giving and emptying of His entire self for us. In the same way, we too, are also called to share this total unconditional love to the people around us. Are we willing to lay down our lives for those whom we love?
At the end of the Mass of the Lord’s the Blessed Sacrament is moved to the Altar of Repose in a solemn procession. This reflects Christ’s journey to the Garden of Gethsemane where He will undergo His agony and passion. The Altar is stripped together with the veiling of the crosses, statues and images to poignantly direct us towards the sacrifice of Christ.
This last part of the Maundy Thursday Liturgy brings out a deeper sense of sorrow to allow us to enter and participate in Jesus’ agony and ultimately, His great love for us. Truly, as we experience His self-emptying love that happens symbolically right in front of us in the liturgy, we are reminded once again of Christ’s commandment that, ‘I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’ – John 13: 15
Commandment of Love
All the liturgical events that we are called to participate today points towards the emphasis of Jesus loving us first, so that in turn, we can love one another. As we celebrate Maundy Thursday, let us enter deeper into Christ’s life, His example and His love to truly ‘do this in memory of Him’ by imitating His example to love others.
As we enter into Good Friday, we arrive at a juncture in our journey through Holy Week where we are confronted with heavy decisions. Up to this point, the Lord has bid us to follow Him, and so we have. He has walked with us, eaten with us, won our faith and trust through His miraculous healing and inspiring teachings; He has prayed with us, washed our feet, served us, and called us His friends. In his life, He has spoken much about love and lived with much love, and urged us to do likewise. However, the Lord seems to say that all these are still incomplete. The next step needed on this journey towards the eternal life will be costly. For Jesus, that cost was death on the cross.
“For this I have come to bear witness to the truth.” (cf John 18:37). Jesus stands on the side of the truth and does not shy away from it. He claims his rightful title as the Son of God, despite being fully aware of the heavy consequences that would come with it: a death sentence. Standing by the truth in our own lives can consequently bring about inconvenience, discomfort, pain and misunderstanding. It may also mean letting go of attachments which do not necessarily give life to ourselves or others. We are sometimes like Peter: walking with Jesus at a safe distance and following Him, but only when convenient for us. When confronted publicly, we say, “I am not (one of his disciples).” Or we may rather respond like Pilate and turn a blind eye to the truth, to restore peace at the expense of justice. But Jesus shows us that neither of these responses will win any lasting good, because only “the truth will set you free”.
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Even after being tortured and being mocked to the point of death, Jesus still musters forgiveness for his persecutors. Releasing forgiveness is hardly easy. Holding on to a grudge is often an instinctive way to feel justified when wronged. Jesus knows our deep wounds and stands with us. He is on the side of those who suffer and are hurting. We are first to be the hearers of these words of forgiveness from our Lord, so that in receiving the grace of forgiveness, we may find strength to forgive others.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46). Jesus must have felt the pain of abandonment from his Father intensely. It would have been felt more deeply knowing that he had been obedient to his Father all His life. Because of the many sacrifices involved, following the Lord might begin to not seem worthwhile. If the Gospel ended here with death on the cross, then there would hardly be a cause for following Jesus. “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Cor 15:14). The tragedy of Jesus’s suffering does not end in death, but in the hope of his resurrection. It does not end in failure, but in victory. It does not end in misery, but in glory. Christ is our living hope. And it is towards this hope that we can entrust ourselves to him even more each day, that into his hands we can commit our spirit.
The celebration of the Good Friday service commemorates Jesus' death on the cross. Special to the Good Friday service are the Solemn Intercessions and the Adoration of the Holy Cross. The Solemn Intercessions, similar to the Prayers of the Faithful during Mass, encompass the whole range of intentions for the Church and the world.
Note: Due to the present pandemic, the Church recently decreed a new prayer titled "For the afflicted in time of pandemic" to be inserted into the intercessions. Let us join our prayers and petitions with the Church in this time to intercede for the world, turning to God in confidence to not only hear our prayers but to move and act among us.
The adoration of the cross is followed. "Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore." These words are proclaimed while the minister unveils the cross in parts and faces the cross to the congregation. "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life." (John 3:14). More than just an act of respect or salutation when we venerate the cross in the procession, we are in fact reminded that nothing else brings salvation other than the Cross, whereon Jesus is crucified. Where we are hurt and broken by our sin and the sin of others, the cross is our healing. When we are overwhelmed by darkness and confusion, the cross is our beacon of hope. When we are condemned, the cross is our restoration and our redemption.
The world as we know it is at a standstill, sacraments are not celebrated.
Jesus Christ buried, his body lying in the tomb, reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfilment of man’s salvation. (CCC 624)
What can we possibly do now? It is as though we are in the state of limbo, mourning and grieving the death of Jesus and yet in anticipation for his foretold resurrection. Jesus’ disciples mourning his death, rested as it was a sabbath day. “And on the Sabbath day, they rested, as the Law required.” (Luke 23:56) The easier option, like the first disciples, is to turn away and go back to our old ways and comfort zones. Yet, the Church on this day is at the Lord’s tomb – meditating on Jesus’ passion and death, and his descent into hell. It is an invitation to each of us to return and await the resurrection with prayer, gathering as a people to celebrate the Office of Readings and the Morning Prayer (Lauds).
After the night falls, a vigil is held. Vigil comes from the Latin word vigilia, which means “wakefulness”, the call to stay awake, praying and waiting for the coming of the Lord. We are awaiting our master's return with our lamps full and burning so that he will find us awake and seat us at his table (cf. Luke 12:35-48). The vigil is divided into four parts: Liturgy of Light, Liturgy of the Word, Baptism Liturgy and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
In the first part, the Liturgy of Light, we begin with a different atmosphere. The church is shrouded in darkness, water fonts are drained, and the tabernacle is empty. A fire is lighted outside, and the Paschal candle is lit from it. The candle represents Jesus Christ, the light of the world. The deacon or priest processes into the dark church and stops three times, proclaiming “Christ, our Light!” By the time he reaches the sanctuary, the entire church is blazing with candles. Wow, that excitement as each of our candles are lit – it is almost as though the fire in our hearts are also being rekindled and prepared to become a beacon of light to those around us.
Secondly, the Liturgy of the Word, it seems like a whole lot of readings are being read. It’s the Church’s way of offering all of us this complete view of Salvation History – from Genesis to the New Testament. God’s unique and unrepeatable plan for both you and I. Many of us tend to zone out because we don’t understand why so many readings are said. It is perhaps a call then to dive deeper into the unfolding of God’s salvation in our lives, how he continues to draw us ever closer to himself.
Next, we have the Baptism Liturgy. During this time, the waters are blessed, and new members are initiated into our Christian community. It is a new birth. A new beginning in life. The passage of the Letter to the Romans which would have been read says, in words filled with mystery, that in Baptism we have been “grafted” onto Christ by likeness to his death. In Baptism we give ourselves over to Christ – he takes us unto himself so that we no longer live for ourselves, but through him, with him and in him; so that we live with him and thus for others.
And lastly, the liturgy climaxes and culminates in the Eucharist. It is the first time the newly baptized will partake of Holy Communion, we too are invited to re-encounter the Risen Lord. The Sabbath is now over, it is the first day – a day of encounter with our Lord and Saviour. Jesus Christ meets his disciples and gives himself to them. We too, meet Jesus in the Eucharist, how are we nourished and transformed by his passion, death and resurrection?
What comes to mind when you think of Easter Sunday? Are they easter bunnies and eggs? A warm celebration with family or friends over a meal? A beautiful and joyous liturgy to celebrate the end of Lent?
While these may be good, they are woefully insufficient to capture the revolutionary nature of Easter Sunday. Perhaps we have domesticated Easter – the Church’s triumphant celebration and proclamation that Jesus Christ, true God and true man, died and rose from the dead, and appeared to His disciples in His glorified body. That this earth-shaking historical event really happened (and is not a mere myth, legend or spiritual idea) is testified by the countless early believers who not only dedicated their lives to preaching this message to the ends of the earth, but were also willing to go to their deaths in the face of violent persecution instead of denying its truth.
In fact, our whole faith hinges on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. St. Paul proclaims boldly “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14).
Indeed, the Resurrection confirms all of Christ’s works and teachings, and affirms the truth of His divinity. Salvation is granted through the Resurrection – not only is sin and its consequences of eternal death is conquered, but Jesus Christ opens up the way for us to new life as sons and daughters of the Father, to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. This is also the source of our hope that we will be also raised up at the second coming of Jesus Christ and have glorified bodies just like his, for all eternity. This is God’s great “yes” to the whole of creation.
The Resurrection further shows us that lasting order is only established through love, and not power. The history of mankind is a story of various powers being used to exert control (without any lasting success) – whether it is the power of violence, the power of money, the power of knowledge – and the list goes on. The Resurrection turns this entirely on its head: Jesus who is betrayed, abandoned and killed appears to His disciples after rising from the dead, shows them his wounds, pronounces peace upon them and breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit (John 20:19-23). The divine order is established when violence (and all other powers, earthly and spiritual) is absorbed by love. This has deep implications for how we should live our lives – always and only by the reality of divine mercy and not of our human ego!
In sum, Easter is the ground for all our Christian hope. Nothing else suffices. This is why we celebrate Easter Sunday with such joy and vigour – because in the final analysis it is all that matters. This is the Good News! And it remains so, in and out of season, and even as we wrestle with the ongoing Covid-19 situation. Let us take some time this day to contemplate this great truth, allowing it to transform our hearts within, so that we may respond with love and freedom in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” (St. John Paul II)