Dear Friends in Christ,
Holy Week begins each year on Passion Sunday, usually called Palm Sunday, this year on April 14th. With the Church’s evening prayer of Vespers on the Saturday night before Palm Sunday, Holy Week actually starts. In our liturgical tradition this is called “First Vespers,” which reflects the Jewish tradition of the new day beginning at sunset.
At First Vespers of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, we sing special antiphons assigned to each of the four Vesper psalms. Antiphons are short Scriptural or poetic texts that are used before and after each psalm. The four psalms of Vespers are followed by a special Scripture verse, then a short response, also taken from Scripture and then a hymn text. These are all sung with special tones or chant modes, which are solemn and memorable.
The mood and atmosphere of Palm Sunday shifts somewhat from the earlier weeks of Lent, as a fitting conclusion to Lent and a natural entry into the mysteries of Christ’s passion and death, leading to celebrating the Lord’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. The emphasis of Holy Week is on the betrayal, scourging, crucifixion, death and burial which the Lord endured for our sake, in order that we might be saved and brought to new life in the Risen Christ.
As the annual commemoration of what Christ suffered for us, Holy Week is the culmination of the Liturgical Year for Catholics. In monasteries, the week normally is celebrated with special care and solemnity, including longer than usual ceremonies on Passion Sunday, as well as what is called the Sacred Triduum, the three days of the week, that comprise Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday With Easter we begin fifty days of Paschaltide, as it is often called, leading up to and including Pentecost Sunday, this year occurring on June 9th.
As we enter upon Holy Week, I would emphasize that it is a time of prayerful reflection and recounting by way of sacred liturgy the fundamental truth that Jesus put nothing before the will of His Heavenly Father. The preaching of the Good News and the healing of the sick, which the Lord undertook during three years of public ministry, as well as calling the Twelve Apostles and other followers, as important as they are, never take priority over the basic vocation of Jesus in faithfully obeying His Father.
After the triumphal and festive entry into Jerusalem of Jesus on Palm Sunday, where the crowds had shouted aloud, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” waving palm and olive branches, and making a carpet from their garments for walking on by the donkey that Jesus rode, our Lord was well on the way to Holy Thursday, the celebration of the Last Supper, which included the institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood, and the day after, Good Friday, recounting Christ’s crucifixion, death and burial in a borrowed tomb. Though innocent of crime or any wrong-doing and free from sin, the Lord nonetheless submitted Himself to death, for the salvation of the human race.
Jesus’ commitment to obey the Father and doing the will of the Heavenly Father are inspiration for us to do likewise. Every day we have opportunities to forget ourselves and to do good for others. During the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, Jesus left his followers with a wonderful example, by washing and drying the feet of the Apostles. The Master was saying by this gesture that love in action must be a matter of really serving one another, extending mercy without measure, even to the most undesirable in our midst.
Among the Twelve Apostles was Judas, the betrayer of the Lord. Jesus had tried to patiently win over Judas, but never forced him into remaining faithful. Possessed with free will, Judas chose to betray the Master and the Gospel path. We want to do otherwise, of course, remembering that we have the ability to make choices and are lovingly invited by our God to make good choices day by day as we grow in the knowledge and love of God. That necessarily implies that we also grow in love of one another.
Ultimately Jesus was condemned to death, especially recounted on Good Friday of Holy Week. Those who had previously followed Christ and collaborated with him fled in fear, abandoning their Lord and even denying that they knew Jesus. Experiencing total abandonment, Jesus cried out on the cross, in the words of one of the psalms, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Psalm 21(22). Jesus also prayed that His spirit be commended into the hands of His Father as he died.
Of course death does have the final word and out of His death came life eternal. That is the special emphasis of Easter Sunday which will be here before we know it. The great mystery of Easter, the “Festival of Festivals” as it is often called, is worthy of a separate meditation, hopefully to follow this one.
A blessed celebration of Holy Week to all. You are in my prayers.