The Holiest Days of the Year
by Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, D.D., J.C.D.
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Last Sunday, Palm Sunday, we entered into the holiest days of the Church Year, the days in which we celebrate the completion of the mission for which our Lord Jesus was sent into the world: His suffering, dying and rising from the dead for our eternal salvation. So singular is this time for us that we call “Holy Week” the days from Palm Sunday to the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Of all the weeks of the Church Year, during which God faithfully pours forth His grace upon us, we refer to one week only as Holy Week, because the source of all grace is found in the events which took place during this week.
Even as we call the truth that God became man for us the mystery of the Incarnation, so we call the truth that God Incarnate suffered and died for our salvation the mystery of the Redemption. The two mysteries are inseparably united. For that reason, St. Pope John Paul II was fond of referring to the two great mysteries together as one, the mystery of the Redemptive Incarnation.
Our 40 days of Lenten observance prepare us for Holy Week, so that we might enter as fully as possible into the celebration of the mystery of our Redemption. Accompanying Christ, through prayer and worship, during these days of His Passion and death, we recognize the mystery of His Life within us. He reveals to us the deepest truth about our life in Him. In the cleansing and life-giving waters of Baptism, we were buried with Christ, dying to sin, and we came to life with Christ in the Church through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Our life, as we have come to understand more deeply, through our Lenten penance of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, is a pilgrimage in the company of Christ, which reaches its completion at the portal of death. In Christ, the portal of death leads to resurrection and life without end in the presence of God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — in the company of the angels and all the saints. Through our participation in Holy Week, especially the Sacred Triduum — beginning with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper and concluding with the Easter Vigil — we will draw closer to Christ and grow more gratefully conscious of His life within us through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Passion or Palm Sunday
We will begin Holy Week by participating in the Mass on Passion or Palm Sunday.
The Mass starts with the blessing and distribution of palms, and the procession which recalls Christ’s final entry into Jerusalem, in obedience to the will of the Father, to suffer a most cruel passion and death for love of us and in the desire to win for us both freedom from sin and life without end.
At the Gospel, the account of the Passion and death of our Lord is proclaimed to us in its fullness, so that we may understand the significance of the holy time into which we are entering. We can never comprehend sufficiently the meaning of Christ’s suffering and death. Christ Who entered Jerusalem with the acclaim of the people would soon hear the same people crying out repeatedly for His crucifixion.
The words of the verse for the Communion Rite, taken from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, reveal the depth of the love of Christ for us as He enters into His Passion. They are words which Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He awaited His arrest and condemnation to the most ignominious form of execution known at the time, crucifixion. Christ, ever obedient in carrying out the mission which the Father had entrusted to Him from the moment of His Incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary, turned to His Father and prayed: “Father, if this cup may not pass, but I must drink it, then your will be done” (Mt 26:42).
Throughout Holy Week, it would be good to return to a meditation on these words and on the text of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to enter as deeply as possible into the events of His redeeming work. Participation in Holy Mass on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week would be a wonderful way of accompanying Christ during these days. If participation in Mass is not possible, it would be good to make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament each day. For all, time each day in prayer, meditating upon the Passion of our Lord, will help us to be with our Lord during these holiest of days. I recommend especially the praying of the Rosary each day, meditating upon the mysteries of our salvation and keeping in mind the intentions of the family and of world peace.
During Lent the bishop, as head of the diocese, offers a Chrism Mass during which the sacred chrism is consecrated and the holy oils are blessed for use in the celebration of the sacraments and other sacred rites during the coming year.
It is a most beautiful celebration, the last solemn liturgical rite before the Sacred Triduum begins with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper during the evening of Holy Thursday.
All of the faithful of the diocese are invited to participate in the Chrism Mass. It is one of the most important and beautiful liturgical celebrations of the Church Year. Holy Thursday is a most special day for priests, for Christ instituted the ordained priesthood on Holy Thursday at the Last Supper. Also, the priests, united around the bishop at the Chrism Mass, are reminded that they, by their ordination, have been constituted the ministers of the sanctifying and healing sacred chrism, oil of the catechumens and oil of the sick. Before the consecration of the sacred chrism and the blessing of the holy oils, the priests of the diocese renew their commitment to priestly service. With these words, all of the faithful are invited to pray for their priests:
Ask the Lord to bless them with the fullness of His love, to help them be faithful ministers of Christ the High Priest, so that they will be able to lead you to Him, the Fountain of your salvation. (The Roman Missal)
The consecration of the chrism and the blessing of the oil of catechumens and the oil of the sick remind us of the living presence of Christ, the Anointed of the Lord, with us in the Church, ceaselessly accomplishing the work of our salvation, especially through the sacraments. The word chrism comes from the same root as Christ, the word for anointing. Throughout the Chrism Mass, we recall how Christ was anointed by God the Father with the fullness of the Holy Spirit, so that He might win for us the gift of the Holy Spirit by suffering, dying and rising from the dead.
Mass of the Lord’s Supper
The Sacred Triduum begins with the celebration of the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. We recall how Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist on the night before He died, in order that the fruits of His suffering and dying, the outpouring of His life for us, might be available to us always in the Church. The Holy Eucharist is the source and the highest expression of our life in Christ, for it is communion in His true Body and Blood. For that reason, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper is central to the celebration of the mysteries of our Redemption. During the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, sufficient hosts are consecrated, so that the faithful may be able to participate in Holy Communion on Good Friday, the day of our Lord’s Passion and death.
At the Gloria, all of the bells of the church are rung with exultant joy and then remain silent until they are even more exultantly rung at the Gloria of the first Mass of Easter during the Easter Vigil. During the Mass, after the Gospel and homily, the priest carries out what is called, in Latin, the mandatum (command) or the Washing of the Feet. This striking rite recalls what our Lord Himself did during the Last Supper, and His command that His disciples do likewise. The love of Christ which we receive in the Holy Eucharist is expressed in our humble service of our brothers and sisters.
At the conclusion of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in solemn procession throughout the church and is then reposed in a tabernacle in a fittingly decorated chapel. The faithful are invited to make a holy hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament during this holy night of its institution. After the Mass, the altar is stripped. Mass will not be celebrated at the altar again until the Easter Vigil.
Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
Around 3 p.m. on Good Friday, good because it is the day when Christ died for us on the cross, we solemnly celebrate our Lord’s Passion and death.
We begin with the Liturgy of the Word, the heart of which is the proclamation of the Passion from the Gospels. After the homily, the Liturgy of the Word concludes with the General Intercessions for the needs of the universal Church and of the world.
The second part of the celebration is the Veneration of the Cross. A large crucifix is carried in procession and shown to all the faithful, so that they may worship the Savior who hung on the wood of the cross for our salvation. After the solemn procession with the crucifix, the priest, other clergy and faithful approach the crucifix for veneration.
During the Veneration of the Cross, appropriate sacred music, based on texts of the Holy Scriptures, helps us to meditate on the immeasurable love of God for us in Jesus Christ. The celebration concludes with Holy Communion. The hosts consecrated at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper are brought to the altar and distributed to the faithful. Any hosts remaining are reposed in a place outside the main body of the church, so that the church remains without the Real Presence as the Church waits at the tomb of Christ for the announcement of His glorious Resurrection at the Easter Vigil. Good Friday is a day of abstinence and fasting. It is day when we should observe periods of silence, remembering the Passion and death of our Lord.
The Easter Vigil
The Sacred Triduum concludes and the Easter Season begins with the celebration of the Easter Vigil. Fittingly, the liturgical rites for the Easter Vigil are the richest in meaning and beauty.
The blessing of the fire and the lighting of the Easter Candle signify Christ the Light, dispelling the darkness of our sin and restoring life in us by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Easter Proclamation (Exultet) sung before the Easter Candle is a most striking meditation on the mystery of our salvation.
The Liturgy of the Word is very ample. Nine readings, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament, are provided, in order that we may have the fullest divine instruction regarding the saving events we celebrate. After the last reading from the Old Testament has been proclaimed, the candles on the altar are lighted and the Gloria is sung with the joy-filled ringing of all the church bells once again. Then follows the prayer, Epistle, Gospel and homily. The third part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of Baptism, during which we witness the lasting fruit of Christ’s Passion, death and Resurrection in the baptism of catechumens, and in the conferral of Confirmation and the reception of First Holy Communion for the newly baptized.
In many churches, this is also the time for the conferral of Confirmation and the reception of First Holy Communion for those being received into the full communion of the Catholic Church or for those who were baptized Catholic but not catechized. The final part of the Easter Vigil is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Christ renews His paschal sacrifice, so that we may be healed and nourished with His true Body and Blood.
Please make plans now to participate in the sacred liturgies of Holy Week, especially of the Sacred Triduum. May these holiest of days bring us all to a deeper knowledge and love of Christ. In the mystery of Christ’s suffering, dying and rising from the dead may we discover the deepest truth about God, about ourselves and about our world.
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