I love Holy Week.
My earliest memory of Holy Week was one year when my dad was out of town. My mom set up a small table and we all sat on the floor to eat a "last supper" which I think was bread and wine, or crackers and juice, or something. We might have washed each other's feet too.
Other than that we never did much about the Triduum. On Easter we would often be at my grandma's house. I liked her church and singing "Alleluia, alleluia, let the holy anthem rise."
But when it got really special was in boarding school. I don't miss much about those days, but I miss Holy Week intensely. It would start with the Mass of the Lord's Supper Thursday evening ... bells in the Gloria, the organ silenced afterward. The chapel seemed all hollow with us singing a capella. (Have I mentioned, we were very good singers -- everything was in three parts, always. And the Holy Week hymns were beautiful: Man of Sorrows, Wrapped in Grief, Ah Holy Jesus, O Sacred Head Surrounded, What Wondrous Love Is This, and so forth.)
After Mass we would sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi and process behind the Blessed Sacrament to the conference room -- which had been transformed into an altar of repose, decked with flowers. From that moment until noon on Friday, we would take turns for adoration. Adoration at night was always special -- getting woken up while everyone was sleeping, tiptoeing down to the dim, quiet altar for some alone time with Jesus.
Good Friday was silent, with a deep silence unique in the year. Instead of being woken by "Christ Our King" and then standing by our beds to recite the Te Deum, we were woken by a knock on the wall and would pray in silence. Down to the chapel to say our prayers in silence. No directed meditation, now that was a treat -- we could pray in silence. We spent the morning on housework, and then the only words of the day -- the Seven Last words. Seven girls would offer meditations on Jesus' words from the cross, before the Good Friday liturgy, solemn and quiet. We would receive communion one last time before Easter and then stand by as the altar was stripped.
I felt bereft, with Jesus gone from the tabernacle. All year, we'd be in and out, paying visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and now he was gone. I imagined how the apostles and Mary must have felt, laying Jesus in the tomb. The rest of the day was empty, mournful. We didn't even pray to Jesus, or at least I didn't. Everything was addressed to Mary, because Jesus was gone. Dead.
Holy Saturday passed the same way, hollow and sad. More housework to do, to get ready. A walk-through of tomorrow's procession. Confession, if you wanted to go. No Mass. The chapel was an echoing space; we would start to genuflect and then cut ourselves off awkwardly. Reach into the font, find it empty.
Then, as the sun went down, we would gather hopefully outside. Father's vestments flapped in the evening breeze, picked out by the red rays of the sun. The sacred fire in the brazier fought with the wind; it seemed it might lose out. The incense grains embedded in the Easter candle, Christ yesterday, today, and forever, the numbers of the year etched on . . . hard to believe those numbers, wasn't it still 33 A.D.?
We would process into the dark, silent chapel, the candle being raised as Father chanted Lumen Christi. Our own candles were finally lit and the Exsultet was recited. As the lights blazed on, we could see the source of the delicious smell that had been wafting down from the altar -- floods of Easter lilies, tumbling down the steps. Then the long, beautiful liturgy. Every single reading was said, every psalm sung. Every time I read those psalms, I hear the voices of those soloists, always the best singers in the school, singing those beautiful settings. The whole of salvation history, picked out and summarized. All so clear. Then, at long last, the first Alleluia -- that one word, carefully not said for forty days. We would sing it at the tops of our lungs.
But it never seemed real, it never seemed Jesus had returned, until the consecration, when he was at last present again in our chapel. We received him with a sigh of relief, at last you are back.
The next morning was one of my favorite parts -- meditation, not only undirected, but not in the chapel. We were given a handout with the appropriate gospel passage and set free to go pray where we wanted. Lots of people stayed in the chapel anyway, but I always went outside. Given the choice between a church and outdoors, I almost always will pick outdoors. It was cold, cold and damp -- for though it felt like spring in the heat of those days, the mornings were chilly. And I would read the passage, "Rising early on the first day of the week..." How must they have felt, Mary and Mary Magdalene and the others? Thinking it was all over, Jesus was dead, now this grim duty. And then, he was gone, how dare they take even his body from us? Mary Magdalene, later, walking alone in the garden. Is that the gardener? No, it is him, really alive after all!
After that, there was the Mass of Easter Day, and breakfast with all the best food. I can't remember what else we did, because honestly that wasn't the best part. The best part was leading myself through darkness, deliberately surrendering to grief, and then letting hope dawn again in my heart. No joy without suffering.
Perhaps, within this description, is the answer to the question, "Why did you stay, even though you were being emotionally abused?" Perhaps there too is the answer to that other question, "Why are you still Catholic, when you admit you don't believe?"
Because these things go deep, deeper than good reasons. Cynically I can say, that's the point. Religions bind you, bind you to each other and to the past. That's why the world is so full of Christmas and Easter Catholics, of atheist Jews celebrating Passover. We might not believe, but we remember.
It's all about the re-enactment, the re-presenting of an old story, a story of death and rebirth. Certainly Christianity is not the only religion that does something like this in the springtime -- the earth itself dies and is reborn every year. But for us it is more than a symbol, because we think it's something that actually happened. And meaning can be drawn out of this one story forever. Things like:
*Someone loved you enough to die for you, before you were even born -- your life was all foreknown and has meaning.
*That broken feeling inside every person, the knowledge that we are not what we should be, that we are at war with ourselves, comes from a primal Fall and it is all fixable.
*Death is not permanent, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead and you will rise from the dead too.
*True victory is not found in violence, but in what the world calls defeat.
It's a story that clings at the heart, to the point where it can hardly be disbelieved despite any amount of evidence. In the words of Sister Joan Chittister, "It rings in our hearts like tines on crystal." Perhaps the story so resonates because it is true. Perhaps it was created because it resonates. Or maybe it's just because I learned it as a child. Does it matter? It is a good story, one that I want to believe.
I am not sure what to do for this Holy Week. I can't make it to church today, not with these wild kids, and I'm dispensed from fasting. Easter Vigil is definitely right out, as it has been for years. I can't seem to read the Bible without analyzing it. But still, I feel that I walk that path somewhere within ... suffering, death, rebirth. The mystery of it. What does it mean? What does it mean to me?
So I sing hymns. I think about it all. I'll go to Easter Mass, though I probably won't make my Easter communion. I wonder what I will do, when my family greets me with "He is risen" -- do I respond "He is risen indeed, alleluia"? I do not feel any alleluias. I cannot testify to his rising. But I want to play my part in the story, somehow, if even it's only the part of the doubter.
A strange Holy Week, for me. I hope it is a blessed one for you.