I live for Holy Week.
I know that I’m not alone in my love for Holy Week and the Triduum. While an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame, I was one of many students who would line up outside the doors of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for hours before they were opened for the Triduum liturgies. I was not the only one who would rush in to claim a seat. And I wasn’t the only one who occasionally had to take whatever seat she could find – even if that was a spot on the floor.
I have attended Triduum liturgies in different states and different dioceses, and although few are quite as extreme in their enthusiasm as my fellow Notre Dame undergraduates were, in every parish that I have belonged to I have found fellow devotees of these most holy liturgies of the year. I have missed only a few scattered Triduum liturgies since reaching the age of reason, and never an entire Triduum. Even when pregnant and sick with hyperemesis gravidarum, I couldn’t bear to miss the Triduum.
But this year, I find myself in the same place as many laity across the United States and around the world — in a diocese where public Masses have been suspended, as part of an effort to “flatten the curve” and slow the spread of a global pandemic. This year, the only Triduum liturgies that I will be able to participate in will be streamed on my laptop, propped on a makeshift home altar in our living room.
But even if my local county weren’t under a stay-at-home order and I was able to attend a Triduum liturgy, I would not find the exact same beautiful liturgical practices that I have memorized by heart. Even the liturgies of the Triduum have been altered by this strange time that we’re living in.
I am not alone in grieving this. Social media is full of many laity who are heartbroken that they won’t get to participate in the liturgies of Palm Sunday, the Triduum, or even Easter Sunday.
Although this certainly won’t be the Triduum that we wanted, it may be our most authentic Triduum, yet.
The Paschal Mystery, Re-presented
The Paschal Mystery is not just a historical event that we remember each year. The purpose of Holy Week and the Triduum is not to simply recall things that happened two thousand years ago. Rather, Holy Week makes present again those sacred mysteries. This is actually what happens every time that we go to Mass. When the priest elevates the host at consecration, it isn’t just like we are at the foot of the cross — we are at the foot of the cross. Christ is not sacrificed over, and over, and over again. His one, perfect sacrifice was enough. The gift of the Mass is that sacrifice being made present again (“re-presented”) to us. That, too, is part of the gift of Holy Week. Through the celebration of those liturgies and Masses, we realize that we are a part of the Paschal Mystery — a living reality that is still unfolding.
We participate in the drama of Holy Week each year, but it is easy to fall into the habit of partaking in it as a bystander. It is easy to see it as a mere commemoration of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ, without recalling the role that we are invited to play in that mystery.
A Pandemic and an Invitation
Every other year, we must find ways to stay focused during Holy Week. We make sure to bring home enough palms from Mass on Sunday, tucking them behind holy images and crucifixes in our home. We go to Mass, fast on Good Friday, have a priest bless our Easter food…but we remain distracted. In the absence of suffering, it is easy to forget that we need the cross, too.
But this year is different.
People all around the world are suffering – suffering from illness, suffering from the illness of a loved one, suffering from caring for those who are ill, suffering from loneliness or from separation from family and friends. Suddenly, we aren’t just remembering the events of Holy Week. We are living them. Like the Apostles, we are separated from the presence of Christ, our churches closed and the Eucharist not in our physical presence. We are hovering in the upper room, scared and not daring to hope. We are, like those at the foot of the cross, trying to stand strong but on the verge of collapse. Suddenly, there is so much suffering. Suddenly, suffering is unavoidable.
But hovering in our own upper rooms on Easter morning, we must listen and be still, so that we can hear the risen Christ speak those words of hope to us, too, “My peace I give you. Not as the world gives do I give it. Do not let your hearts be troubled, or afraid.”
This Holy Week, we are invited to a very real experience of the cross — embracing whatever manifestation of suffering we are currently experiencing in our lives. But we are also invited to be reminded that the cross is, truly, our only hope.
Christ has conquered death. And like those fearful Apostles, he extends his hand to us — that hand bearing his glorified wounds — and tells us, “Take courage. I have conquered the world.”