Ancient liturgies, timeless salvation story: Holy Week gives way to Easter

By Mary Woodward
JACKSON – As we make our way through Holy Week which began with the celebration of Palm Sunday, we look back and take stock of the beauty and sacred moments these liturgies of this most holy of weeks provide. On Palm Sunday we joined with Catholics around the world in blessing palms and remembering Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
A few minutes later we embarked upon the passion narrative of St. Mark. With this festive beginning that transcends into the passion and death of Jesus, we begin our own journey into “Jerusalem” and the holiest of weeks in our church’s tradition.
On Tuesday, we celebrated the Mass of Chrism in the Cathedral of St. Peter the Apostle, where with the presbyterate gathered around, Bishop Joseph Kopacz blessed the oils of catechumens and the sick and consecrated the Sacred Chrism. These oils presented to parish representatives were taken back to home parishes for use throughout the year to anoint the sick and baptize infants and adults. A striking point in this Mass is the Renewal of Priestly Commitment where the priests present renew the promises they made at their ordination.
On Wednesday in the cathedral, we prayed and sang the Office of Tenebrae, an ancient part of the Liturgy of the Hours that reflects on the suffering of Jesus Christ while offering a glimmer of hope at the end in one remaining lighted candle. It is always a very moving ceremony that features readings from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, psalms and hymns on the cross and crown of thorns. After each reading a candle on the altar is extinguished until one is left burning and offering hope.
The Sacred Triduum begins and Lent officially ended with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Thursday. This Mass is filled with rituals and symbols revolving around the true meaning of the Eucharist – sacrifice and service. The Gospel reading from St. John is that of the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus. In the liturgy 12 feet are washed by the bishop who, in the image of Christ, reflects the servanthood of being a follower of Jesus. At this liturgy a second ciborium of hosts is consecrated for distribution on Good Friday.
The final movement of the Holy Thursday liturgy is the transfer of the ciborium by procession to an area separate from the main altar perhaps even in another building. In St. Peter Cathedral the altar of repose is decorated to look like a middle eastern garden with palms in urns and fresh budding flowers to reflect the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus went to pray and was ultimately betrayed and also to foreshadow the garden tomb. The faithful remained in prayer and adoration trying to stay with the Lord.
Good Friday is one of my favorite liturgies of the church. It is once again an ancient ritual – one of the oldest in the church’s centuries old liturgical tradition. The altar is bare, stripped of all ornamentation and the liturgy begins in silence. The starkness of the church is quite striking.
The passion narrative of St. John is read, and then the general intercessions are chanted or recited. Following these time honored prayers we venerate the cross. What a moving moment to be able to touch or kiss the cross and watch our fellow Catholics come forward and do the same knowing that so many of them have had trials and struggles in their lives throughout the past year.
Once the veneration is finished, the altar is set with a simple red cloth and corporal.  The ciborium of hosts consecrated the evening before is brought to the altar for distribution to the faithful. The liturgy ends in silence and we are left to contemplate Christ on the cross.
Contrasting the starkness of Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses lift us up from despair because we know the tomb is empty and the Lord has risen.
As we complete our Holy Week journey for this year, we should reflect on this great week filled with intricate and deeply sacred liturgies. We too walk the path of our Lord as he makes his way to Jerusalem, the upper room, the garden, the cross, the tomb and finally the Resurrection.
Let us all open our hearts and minds to the passion of our Lord and the sacrifice he made for us all so that on Easter morning we can truly sing with joyful hearts – Jesus Christ is risen today! Alleluia! Alleluia!
(Mary Woodward is the Chancellor for the Diocese of Jackson.)