Saturday, January 12, 2013

Reflections on the Rites of Holy Week

Passion Sunday or Palm Sunday
The Rite

Passion Sunday or what we commonly call Domingo de Ramos is the sixth Sunday of Lent and ushers in the Holy Week.  It is called Passion Sunday because it is devoted to the contemplation of the passion of Christ.  This liturgy however is the most difficult in the Church calendar because of the opposite emotions it depicts in rapid succession.

The celebration starts outside the church commemorating the triumphal entry of Jesus.  It is a joyful ritual.  Palm branches are waved high in the air to welcome the messiah, and the atmosphere is full of jubilant hosannas which means “save your people.”  The atmosphere is mob like almost close to a riot (that is if we discard the Roman formality so typical in our liturgies).

Then the people enter the church, and with fickle of hearts of which the messiah is always received, the passion narratives are read from the agony of Christ in Gethsemane until he breath his last on the cross.  In the narrative the atmosphere is also almost riotous, but instead of a welcoming mob Jesus meets a blood-thirsty one.  The liturgy however does not provide any connecting feature that will link the first emotion to the second, and there is a danger (as it is happening now) that these will be viewed as different rites totally independent from each other.  Thus, some people come just to have their palm branches blessed and after shouting their hosannas, go straight home.

To make this rite comprehensible and emotionally possible without destroying its unity, we must identify ourselves to the triumphant mob welcoming the messiah in our lives.  And so like the Hebrews we cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David - Lord, save your people.”  As we enter the church, Jesus will answer our cries of Hosanna. He will answer it with his passion.  Our cry for a savior is met with an answer which God himself gives, an answer so unlike many of our expectations of God, for it will be answered in his weakness, in His suffering and death in the hands of his people.  This is how he will save us.


One time I was called for a sick call.  It was not the best of time considering that my moods are as varied and as fickle as the passion Sunday liturgy.  I was not ready, I was irritated, angry, tired, and my legs were painful.  But due to a resolution I made, I went despite all these.  It was not easy but my mood was further dampened  when I found out that the car has no driver.  It was like being thirsty and after finding a cold coke I could not find an opener. 

As I walked I was complained bitterly to God, “Lord if you can just give me a better feet I could have done this without so much hassle, without heaviness of heart, and serve you joyfully too.  Lord, when will you give me a better feet?”  He did not answer back.  But when I arrived I came upon a woman sitting upright alone in her room on the floor made of bamboo slats.  She welcomed me with a smile but I disregarded the greeting and  told her to stand up and sit on her bed.  She looked at me and smiled.  She told me “Father, indi ako ka tindog . . . lupog ako.”  She was for forty years.  I went home silent trying to control my tears. But I was no longer bitter.  I found the answer to my prayers and to my cry for a savior - God sent me one - in the passion of another.

Holy Thursday
The Rite

This commemoration marks the end of Lent and the beginning of the so called Easter Triduum (Triduum meaning a three day celebration).  This triduum forms a unity - the mass of the Lord’s supper on Thursday, the celebration of the Passion of the Lord and ends in the Easter Vigil.

Holy Thursday is more often called Maundy Thursday.  The word Maundy is an old English word derived from Latin - mandatum - command.  This is so because the rite especially commemorates the giving of the new commandment - “mandatum novum do vobis” - “a new commandment I give unto you. . .” taken from the farewell discourse of Jesus found in John 13.  This commandment is symbolically reenacted in the washing of the feet of 12 men (or women) who represent the apostles and every person for that matter, in imitation of Jesus himself.

So also, since this is the Mass of the Lord’s supper, we commemorate in a special way the institution of the Eucharist - the memorial sacrifice of Christ’s saving love for all of us.  What we commemorate here is not just the bread which became the body of Christ, but rather the whole event - the whole institution of the Eucharist - our gathering together in the one altar of the Lord to be nourished by his word and by his body and blood.  We are gathered to celebrate “this, my body” - the mystical body of Christ, where priest and parishioners, poor and rich, men and women, are all gathered together in the one community of faith, all sharing the one bread and the one cup.  And the foundation of this unity is the new commandment, love, brought into reality in the washing of each others feet.
 A young girl came with a problem (I’m a magnet to problems!).  Her mother and father were separated.  Her father got himself a new wife and her mother got involved with another man.  She was living with her father and stepmother.  Her father was away and because of some past mistakes her relationship with her stepmother turned sour to the point that the girl could not be trusted anymore by the former.  There was no more money for her tuition nor for her school fees. Added to this is her problem in school.  She was neck deep in bad debts.  She was looked upon with suspicion, treated with disgust and nobody trusted her anymore.  In short she was nobody’s friend and felt that she was nobody’s child.  And to be so young with nobody, is worst than hell.

Of all the problems I have encountered this one is the worst, because in most of these my only capital is, as they say “laway lang.”  But here I was pushed into a tiny corner where I was forced to do something - to act and not just to speak.  I have to show her that I trusted her. 

After listening I became silent.  Deep inside I was struggling: Can I trust her? Can I lend her my money?  Can I believe her story?  What if she’s just fooling me?  I wanted to have time to think things over and I told her to come back to me in the morning.  That night I became afraid, the debt amounts to a few thousand pesos and I just have more or less exactly that much which I’m saving for my medicines.  Can I trust her?  Will she pay me back?

When I celebrated the mass that morning, as I held up the host, the name Jesus engraved on the bread struck me.  I was holding him, and He permitted me to hold him.  It was a risk Jesus took, and yet he trusted me.  I am weak, I have my own share of sins but Jesus trusted me - he made me hold him, he made me his priest.  Right there and then I understood why we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, the new commandment to love, the washing of the feet in one and the same rite of Maundy Thursday.  To love, to stoop down in service, is essentially related with the Eucharist.

Till now I was never paid.  Yet I have no regrets.  The girl needed to feel that she was to be trusted. The question whether I was right or wrong, does not bother me anymore.  God never regretted when he made me a priest, when he entrusted to me his body.  And yet it is the most precious thing in this world.

Good Friday
Celebration of the Passion of the Lord

During this day and on Holy Saturday the sacraments are not celebrated because as Tertullian once said, “It is not fitting that we should celebrate a feast on the day on which the bridegroom is taken away from us.”  Following this venerable tradition we do not have a mass on Good Friday.  Instead we have a celebration of the Lord’s Passion.

This celebration has three parts.  First the celebration of the Word.  Again we read the passion of Christ from the gospel of John.

Second is the veneration of the cross.  The priest proclaims, “Yari ang kahoy sang krus . . .” three times.  Everybody kneels and adore the cross from which salvation came.
The Third part is the communion.  The Eucharist which was consecrated on Holy Thursday is distributed to the faithful.

What is so noticeable in this celebration is its dryness and eerie silence.  The priest enters the bare sanctuary in silence, prostrates himself while the people kneel.  No candles can be found, no candelabras, no linens on the altar, no carpets, no bells nor musical instruments can be heard.  Everything is left to the barest essentials.

Then after the celebration, everybody goes out of the church in silence - no blessings, no greetings and not even a send off.  Just mere silence.  This celebration has no beginning nor end.  “Bitin” as we usually say.  The Good Friday celebration is never done with because the celebration serves as a bridge in the Triduum, linking the liturgy of Maundy Thursday with the Easter Vigil.


 Most of my cherished memories with my lola are the times we spent together in silence.  When I was a little boy a strange thing happened in the house something that existed only in the imagination of an adult mind.  But it was real for a child.  Somebody saw a ghost!  Amidst the confusion and the shouting, my lola reached out her hand to me and said, “uyat lang sa kamot ko.”  I did, and not a word was ever exchanged after that, but my fear subsided.  We just sat there in silence as the confusion mounted to a panic.  But I never felt afraid again, I was assured by that gentle hand. 

Whenever a quarrel erupted in the house it was her reassuring silence that kept me calm.  When something beautiful happens she would gently smile in silence.

Silence is so eloquent and nakedness reminds us of the vulnerability which a person assumes in the name of love.  It is the language of lovers.  It communicates trust, care, love, assurance - something which words could not fully communicate.  And this is the language the liturgy uses to communicate the highest expression of God’s love on the cross - the silence of God’s unmediated presence, his reassuring touch.  It is the symbolic way of saying reassuringly “uyat lang sa kamot ko,” and that is what exactly Jesus did for us on the cross.

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