This week, wrenching sorrow to genuine joy

This week, wrenching sorrow to genuine joy

This is, for me, a schizophrenic week. From Palm Sunday to Easter, Holy Week offers a feast of solemn services. There’s Tenebrae, when each of 15 candles set high on an altar stand is gradually extinguished, symbolizing Christ’s death. Each candle goes dark as a psalm is read. Finally, the

This is, for me, a schizophrenic week.

From Palm Sunday to Easter, Holy Week offers a feast of solemn services.

There’s Tenebrae, when each of 15 candles set high on an altar stand is gradually extinguished, symbolizing Christ’s death. Each candle goes dark as a psalm is read. Finally, the congregation sits in silence in the dark. In silence, in the dark, the congregation rises and goes home.

On Holy Thursday, we wash each other’s feet. In my parish, better late than never, women can both wash and be washed, a moving exercise in humility. After Communion we sing “Pange Lingua Gloriosi” as we process from the upper church down the outside stairs, the choir chanting in Latin on either side of those stairs. We end up in the lower chapel where the chanting continues by candlelight and the praying continues late into the night.

On Good Friday, there are Stations of the Cross services at noon and again at 3 p.m. Some parishes commemorate the Last Seven Words of Christ on the cross. At night comes the Passion of the Lord. We read the prophet Isaiah predicting the life and awful death of the Messiah. “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers. He was silent.” Read or sung is “The Passion According to John.” It details Judas’ betrayal, Jesus’ arrest, how the petrified apostles scatter and Peter three times denies even knowing Jesus. We hear how the Romans beat and mocked him and dressed him in a “king’s” purple cloak, then stripped him and nailed him to the cross. We sing the haunting Negro Spiritual:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Sometimes it causes me to tremble.
Tremble.
Tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

When I was young, we ate our tuna sandwiches and headed to say the Stations at 3 p.m. on Good Friday. We then skipped straight to new shoes and pocketbooks and egg hunts on Easter Sunday, no dwelling for days and nights on the horrors of Christ’s last hours. But when I was older, the Easter Triduum helped pull me back to the Church. It felt like a nightly retreat, a full-immersion plunge into the injustice and the brutality of it all; a reminder of the injustice and brutality that are all around us still. I remember bringing to Good Friday service my youngest baby, just two weeks old; sure she’d sleep in my arms right through an event that seemed too upsetting for my other young children. Wait until at least middle school for all this grimness and grief.

So why do I call this week “schizophrenic?”

Because at the same time I saturate myself in the raw beauty of this mourning, I really don’t want to think about Christ spat upon, helpless, tortured, no one to defend him before the Jewish council or the vicious Pontius Pilate. Just be with Christ in his suffering, his brokenness, they tell us in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. I do my best.

But selfishly, I prefer Christ at the top of his game, when he’s not too broken to pay attention to what’s broken in me. I prefer him in Bethany with Martha and Mary, Martha complaining about working too hard and Mary sprawled at his feet, mesmerized. I prefer him astounding the woman at the well, a stranger, when he tells her all about her life. “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” I like it when he’s all-powerful: ordering Lazarus to come out of the tomb. And out Lazarus comes.

I used to wonder why Christ didn’t say anything or do anything — just one tiny miracle — to cause the Romans to hesitate, to reconsider. Now I realize that once he leaves the garden at Gethsemane, the miracles stop. He becomes more man than God, totally surrendered both to his captors and his father.

Now I realize that going through the wrenching passion story on Palm Sunday, and over and over in Holy Week, year after year, the same hymns, the same readings — helps me understand the man a little more, how lavishly he gave himself. It reminds me that the world has not changed because of his sacrifice.

But I can. I have my example. The passion mystery has helped me feel a more genuine joy on Easter morning before an altar overrun by lilies and pink azaleas. The death is over, and now comes the rising. We are people of the empty tomb, after all, and of the light that darkness has not overcome.

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