The Liturgies for Holy Week
A Reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians
Brothers and Sisters, let the same mind be in your that was also in Christ Jesus though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the namewhich is above every name,that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.
Where does the Triduum begin?
Where is it about to be celebrated?
The Holy Triduum is soon to be celebrated in the world’s great cathedrals, amid triumphant ritual and celebration, men and women, children thrilled by the spectacle, the pure glory, sight, the smell, and the sound.
The Holy Triduum is soon to be celebrated in sterile hospital chapels, surrounded by the anxious, the confused and the complacent, bringing peace like the rising of the sun as the host is elevated above a simple table, reflected in the chrome of wheelchairs and weary eyes. The cross remade in round
The Holy Triduum is soon to be celebrated in quite country churches, set in the rolling hills, the mountains of Appalachia, acclaimed in cries of Hosanna, hymned with songs of praise, the dulcimer and the harp, the crescendo of the human voice crying glory as a wooden cross is raised up as a sign of hope to the world of coal mines and economic hardship. This is the wood of the cross, come let us worship.
The Holy Triduum is soon to be celebrated in overflowing African churches, dizzying heat and the rhythms of song and dance, it is celebrated on instruments strange to our ears, but beautiful to God, the voices of angels, clamoring, crying out, going upward, upward, raising the triumphal hymn. He is risen
The Holy Triduum is soon to be celebrated on every continent, in every tongue, in every place from the ancient stone churches of Egypt persecuted, to dirt floored chapels, to Quonset huts, to our abbey Church, to your cathedrals and parishes. This is the night we will proclaim soon enough
But a question remains …
Where does the Triduum begin?
Or perhaps, where does our need for the Triduum begin?
In a garden in the mist of primordial history.
Everything was perfection
There was a complete transparency in that garden
Between God and the people
Between the people and God
Between the man and the woman
And then, the snake, the lie and the fruit fallen fallow to the ground.
God had given us everything, but we wanted something else, independence, personality, false freedom.
And so we transgressed, we thought we knew better than God, the creature fancied himself the Creator and thus a legacy of woe.
The Fall initiates in the human experience the uniqueness of division and that is our inheritance from our parents.
We are divided from one another.
In the fall, there is woman and man, slave and free, Greek and Gentile, Black and White, young and old.
In the fall we have strangeness, foreignness, isolation which masquerades itself as liberty, independence, and individualism.
And yet we are isolated. We are outcast. We feel the need for God but cannot name Him because His name is not our name.
And in how many ways does this isolation flaunt itself?
Lack of communication
The cold shoulder
All the deadlies
We experience the remnants of this fall in our lives until this day
Loss which is real
Sickness which is real
Loneliness which is real
Despair which is real
Hopelessness which is real
It is real
It invades our bones, the marrow of our bones, it infects.
And no measure of sentiment, however sincere, can eradicate it.
And why must this be? Why is this?
Because God has given us everything and we throw it in his face
We try to live as though He does not exist
Does not care
Does not weep
Between God and us there is unfinished business
Listen to the words of God to the serpent
You shall bruise his heal (that is sin)
But he shall bruise your head
That is promise
There is a promise
But until the promise is fulfilled, there is unfinished business
Fast forward …
In a field stand two brothers, Cain and Abel, with the jaw of an animal Cain strikes his brother on the head dashing out his brains, Abel drops to the ground and the soil screams, the earth cries out at the first innocent blood shed.
Jealousy pits brother against brother, man against man. Death enters the human world and with death its base rattle, its wailing, its bitterness
In a field a new chapter of history unfolds
And in that field we see already the specters of violence yet to come
Starving men and women who are hungering daily on the streets of the most prosperous nation on the earth, hungering for dignity and food
Young people whose lives are ravaged by the fierce anger of vigilantes with names like meth, heroine, whatever is new this month
Young women whose spirits have been torn from their bodies by prostitution and pornography, all for the satiation of the ever more gluttonous maw of the entertainment of men
Children who lie in darkened rooms, on stained bare mattresses, their pitiful bodies wracked with sobs, unless there is no sobbing left in them, abused, alone, frightened.
How often do we read about this or that innocent child killed or kidnapped or sexually mutilated such that we are immune to it?
Abortion, euthanasia, medical experimentation, capital punishment.
The legacy of Cain
But strangely God did not will the death of Cain. Let him go forward with his sickness, with his contagion. Let him look for more naïve and innocent victims to assault. Because Cain’s death cannot change the course of history, its bloody legacy
Because between God and us there is unfinished business
Next we see this …
On a rock on a hillside a very old man and a very young man are engaged in an unusual act. The young man has been tied up like an animal and has been laid across the rock by his elderly father. The old man has raised a knife, poised it just so in an obvious act of intended homicide, when, suddenly he looks up, cocks his head as though listening to an unearthly voice, then turning he spies a ram in a bush and grasping the beast by its neck he plunges the knife into its artery and blood sprays all over the old man, the young man, the rock, the mountain, the nation and the pages of history.
And so the cycle begins …
The offerings of blood of goats and lambs and birds. Day and night their blood and entrails poured over the altar of Israel. Day and night the burning of flesh and hair choked the air. The blood flowed down the arms of the priests
But the blood of goats and bulls and a sprinkling of ashes could not save the human race
It is mercy I desire not sacrifice God cries out over the din of our useless offerings.
It is mercy I desire
And yet the sacrifices came
The biding for time
We still do it
Bargain with God as if the deal had not already been struck
We fear the perceived God of retribution
We act like a people who have never known mercy
We believe we are unworthy of redemption
We obsess about our sins (forgive the sins of my past life)
We dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell
We make deals
We make resolutions we never intend to keep
We promise things we cannot deliver, like Abraham
Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son was aborted. God did not ask the old man to sacrifice his only son. But there was nevertheless a sacrifice that needed completion, a son that needed slaying. God makes a sacrifice he never intended any man to make.
And thus for a while between God and us there is unfinished business
Now let’s go
In front of a burning bush
Who is this man, this Moses?
He is a fugitive from justice, like us
He is a killer
A betrayer of his own people
He is just like us
And God appears to him
In cryptic terms
In a bush that burns but is never consumed
Take off your shoes …
What is your name?
It means nothing
I am what
I am who I am
I am nothing
I am everything
I am you
I am me
I am Israel
God is the God of the unspeakable name
It is hushed, it is forbidden, it is unknown and God remains shrouded in a veil
Moses wore a veil whenever he addressed the people
God resided behind a veil in the temple
God’s face was shadows and insinuation
A deity of partiality
Of hope that is consumed like bitter herbs
And he spoke through the law
But the law was just a stopgap, a finger in the dam of a hemorrhaging humanity
The law was a provision so the people wouldn’t dash their heads against rocks and mountainsides
And the prophets spoke words of affliction and comfort and affliction that described their days in unerring terms and described ours as well.
If we live in exile without God, if we strive for living in a world of isolation
We if depend upon ourselves for everything
If we do not love and will not be loved
If we offer nothing but spite, jealousy, greed and grudges on the altar of our lives then we shall become like Babylon says Jeremiah
How many of those in our world inhabit Babylon?
Do we not know Babylon?
Babylon shall become a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals; A place of horror and ridicule, where no one lives. THERE IS NO LIFE WITHOUT GOD
They all roar like lions, growl like lion cubs. Are these not the voices of secularity and sin and deceit?
When they are parched, I will set a drink before them to make them drunk, that they may be overcome with perpetual sleep, never to awaken, says the LORD. Drugs, Alcohol, the internet, illicit relationships – none of these can medicate existential loneliness.
How has she been seized, made captive, the glory of the whole world! What a horror has Babylon become among nations: Let us pretend to be God.
And against Babylon the sea rises, she is overwhelmed by the roaring waves! INDEED OVERWHELMED
The kings of the earth did not believe, nor any of the world's inhabitants, That enemy or foe could enter the gates of Jerusalem.
Because of the sins of her prophets and the crimes of her priests, Who shed in her midst the blood of the just!--
They staggered blindly in the streets, soiled with blood, So that people could not touch even their garments:
"Away you unclean!" they cried to them, "Away, away, do not draw near!" If they left and wandered among the nations, nowhere could they remain.
The LORD himself has dispersed them, he regards them no more; He does not receive the priests with favor, nor show kindness to the elders.
Our eyes ever wasted away, looking in vain for aid; From our watchtower we watched for a nation that could not save us.
Men dogged our steps so that we could not walk in our streets; Our end drew near, and came; our time had expired.
O my brothers, in the midst of Babylon do we not need a respite, a place of comfort, three days of salvation?
And then, IN THE STILLNESS OF A MOMENT, WHEN ALL WAS HOPELESS and ALL SEEMED LOST.
Though he was in the form of God
Jesus did not grasp at equality with God,
But emptied himself
He became a slave for us
It is Thursday
Now stand looking at the room, the candlelight, the table which is now an altar. The smell of roasted lamb, of herbs, eggs, human sweat,
Now come and see the God who becomes enslaved
Enslaved in the act of washing feet, the dirtiness of feet
Hard and calloused feet that have trod the dusty roads of Palestine
Feet made dirty by sin, by consequence, by the garden, the field, the hilltop
And Christ enslaved himself to the bowl, the water, the towel.
Enslaved himself to humanity traipsing through Babylon
And how beautiful on the hilltop, in the field, in the garden are the feet of him who brings good news
And then went one step further
And then became enslaved in bread
And how beautiful is his body in the candlelight of an upper room, in the watery eyes of weary disciples
How beautiful today, on Thursday
How overwhelming is the body of Christ in the eyes of the old and the seasoned, mirroring wisdom and experience, love for the world that God has given us but that sometimes we take for granted. There is wonder in those eyes, because they are the eyes of Christ. On Thursday
How mystical is the body of Christ in hands gnarled and crippled by years of labor, calloused and cracked from heavy work, years of abuse and toil and yet so gentle, so quick to caress a loved one’s face, to grasp a hand in need. To hold a child. Our parishioners, our brothers, our friends and enemies have the hands of Christ on Thursday
How entrancing is the body of Christ in arms that reach out to embrace those who are in need, the lonely, the afraid, the marginalized. The arms that grasp hold when fear overwhelms the will to live, when death threatens with its cold embrace in the acrid stench of war. Arms stretched out to receive the bread and the wine, all that we have for all that we may become. The arms of Christ celebrated in so many other upper rooms this Thursday night.
How overwhelming is the body of Christ in the feet of children stampeding down the slope of a red clay hill in Mississippi, in search of treasure, laughter, innocence. The washed feet that trample out the vineyard of strife, that roam across the littered debris of human folly. The pierced feet, the feet of Christ. Moving to Friday.
How Seductive is the body of Christ in faces lined with age and care, in the young and the old, in toothless smiles and creviced tears, joy and gross sorrow mirrored in our own faces. The face of Christ on Thursday
How exquisite is the body of Christ in hearts that thunder good news
How promising is the body of Christ in the minds that dream dreams and proclaim prophecies
How wondrous is the body of Christ in us, tattered as we are, torn as we are, exhausted as we are. Here in this place, in this moment is the Lamb of God in so many eyes, hands, arms, feet, faces, hearts, minds.
Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you. This is the journey that begins this Thursday night as we wander from the upper room and out into the wild
How compelling is the body of Christ parading around the Church, coursing through the veins of the Church until it finds its resting place in a garden, a memory of a garden, a place of repose, for now.
The Church, his body may rest one night here until …
Coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.
They came against him with weapons and clubs to no avail
It is for this hour that I have come.
And the burning bush ignites again
I am he
I am he
And they fell prostrate to the ground, the weapon wielders, the club bearers.
Prostration, abject humility in the face of what we know is coming, the sacrifice so overwhelming, so blatantly generous, so brutally beautiful
In vestments of red we fall prostrate in silent awe and …
Here is the cross, here is the instrument, here is the wood.
Not loaded with its burden. That is over, but inviting the Body of Christ, inviting us to present ourselves to its Truth.
How do we approach the cross?
Like the mother, cradling memories hugging those dear feet and remembering in its pierced shadows the tiny feet that first kicked straw in a manger in Bethlehem.
Like the mother who hears in her mind’s ear angel wings, white-grey-green beating furiously an invitation
Who knew it could lead to this?
Like the mother who sees in the brow of her child the strickeness of people who have traversed gardens and fields and hilltops and heard thorn bushes speak with scarce more eloquence than these thorns as they strike the veins of the Eternal Word
Like the mother whose grief speaks secret joy because she alone knows the Truth: That her Son is dying for all, for her, for his tormentors, for these thieves.
Do we approach the cross like Joseph of Arimathea?
There is blood in the crook of my arm
This is the thought of Joseph of Arimathea
His blood is in the crook of my arm
It smells of iron, of metal
It is strangely sticky
And now I am unclean for the Passover
Unclean through the blood of the only source of healing, cleanliness
Like Joseph do we approach knowing that the old order has passed away, that the very law is passed over?
That our sins are passed over
Do we fear what this cross means for our future, for our past, for our lives of sin even as we embrace it, kiss it?
Do we fear for ourselves as we approach the cross?
Do we approach the cross like John?
Eager to prove our worth, our steadfastness, our trust
Or like Peter, not at all
Or like the women full of tears for a passion that is more ours than his?
Or like Nicodemus with his preposterous hundred pounds of tribute spices, the gift of the un-committed, the shame of the unconvinced who come to Him only under cover of darkness
Or like ourselves
Men and women in need of embracing its wood, seeing in its wood our featly to one who
Though he was in the form of God…
And after the creeping to the cross, what then?
What then indeed because now in the hushed wonder of church and chapel and cathedral, drawing a mighty breath which he exhales with the force of one who knows too well, all too well that between God and man there has been unfinished business speaks his last words
It is finished. Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.
The approach to the cross is the forging of a road
A road to Saturday
Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the namewhich is above every name,that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.
But not quite yet
Great Silence, it is the theme for this day.
We experience great silence in the wake of the cross and burial of Jesus. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. We wander all over town, in the ruins of Babylon, looking for chapels or less wholesome places that are familiar. Perhaps we don’t want to be alone. When have we ever wanted to be alone?
Last night we watched at the tomb, we offered tribute, but even in the midst of the ritual there is a kind of desperation. Why are we here?
The sparseness of the burial rite, our muted voices testify to this, and then there is nothing but sheer silence.
Great silence reigns on earth today.
On Saturday night we will gather again in a kind of bewilderment. In parishes around the world, people will not know what to do, where to sit, where to gather. Churches will be pitch dark. Their doors flung open to the world. Nothing within, nothing.
Where do I go? How do I see to get there? Everything that is familiar about going to Church is made strange. We are uncomfortable.
And so we gather somewhere else, for community, wherever we can find it, in the yards, on the streets. It is amazing how that sacramental presence in the Church forms us as a people, and when it is not there, how alien we feel, how alien the building feels, how much the building is like the people.
We gather outside, in darkness and confusion. And then, in the shadow, there is a spark, and then a flame and then a fire. It is hope and light rekindled in darkened lives.
Then a candle is brought out. The work of bees. It is the size of a man. And it represents a man, it is Jesus. The dead wax is his dead body. We thrust into it his wounds, five wounds.
Then the light of Christ rising in Glory, it moves through the people enlightening them. Slowly, slowly like conversion. It moves into the Church, transforming strangeness into home again. We become one by the light of the fire of Christ.
Tonight we celebrate the resurrection. In the plunging of bodies into the font. We have been through the passion and death and now we welcome Christ back to life in new Christians. Of course, He was never dead. We are enacting a little drama but hopefully not a pantomime.
What we celebrate in the Triduum is not the death of Jesus, he has already died and has been raised. He is alive. He has remained alive in these three days. His business his finished.
What we celebrate this week is the body of Christ that is us. We recall the paschal mystery of daily living. How Christ sometimes seems to die in us and is brought to life. How we sometimes betray him and are brought back. How our lives seem empty until they are filled with the light of Christ. How we need one another to make sense of who we are. How much we miss God when we believe him gone.
The paschal mystery is a reminder of the dynamics of discipleship for us and for the catechumens. And it reminds us every year of who we are.
Suddenly, the dour sadness of the three days is over. We knew it would be, but somehow we have to live it. We watched as Jesus washed the feet of the twelve on Holy Thursday, we agonized with Christ in the garden, were offended by his betrayal, embarrassed by those who denied him. We stood steadfastly by him at the cross, wept as we wiped the blood from our arms, cried with his mother and friends, recoiled at the sight of his dead body, anointed him with Mary, lamented him with Joseph, buried him, guarded him, sorrowed.
Of course all of this is very safe from the seeming distance of 2000 years. It is easy to be with Christ in the profound but sanitized rituals of the Church. The old song asked the poignant question. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Well, we might have been there, but we might not have been.
Of course all of this is not the point. We remember the three days, but we do not live in the three days. We live in the today, today, the day of resurrection.
Were you there when he rose from the tomb?
Of course, we were there and we are there because in a temporal slight of hand we are now standing at the entrance to that tomb and as we peer into its emptiness, PROMISE yawns in our faces and eradicates the heritage of garden, field and hilltop, even the hilltop of Calvary
On Saturday the empty tomb challenges us to become people of the resurrection a people whose question is “what if”.
What if the three days can send Babylon howling?
What if the miracle of the resurrection is the fulfillment of a promise made to Mary on the day when the drama of God’s life on earth began.
What if the angel said to her, nothing is impossible with God.
Now we know that is true but it has consequences for us and so we ask…
What if we could really believe in Easter?
What if we could let others and ourselves remain open to the gifts God wants to give us.
What if we could have confidence in conversion?
What if we could share our cloaks with the needy?
What if we could give without hope of repayment?
What if we could turn the other cheek?
What if we could be people of hope, of the open end, of the promise, of the possible?
What if we could really believe that nothing is impossible with God? Nothing is impossible, God can do with anyone of us what he likes, he can change our hearts, change our lives, change our community, our seminary, remove our sins, our habits, our idiosyncrasies, our singularity. He can take our mortal bodies and make them like his own glorified body.
What if we could hope that there is more to our lives than what we see before us in the ruins of Babylon the great?
What if we could hope for a world in which war, and hunger, and pain and sickness were but feeble memories, and beauty and truth and goodness were viable ways of living.
What if poverty could be eradicated and cancer could be cured.
What if the world could rise with God on this coming Easter day?
What if Christ was alive?
What if we could encourage others to be more than they think they can be?
What if we were endless sources of inspiration?
What if we could forgive enough to put aside the petty grudges that eat away at community living? To love our brothers and sisters in the midst of their failings and foibles because we know deep down that we are somehow connected to them through the cross. We are one because the one that gives our lives meaning is One.
What if the body of Christ rose from the tomb today?
What if we could forgo judgment and become a people committed to what if?
With God the question is more important than the answer, the quandary more attractive than the quagmire. The possible more significant that the problem.
What if we lived in a world, in a nation, in a Church, in a community of what if?
Then our lives might be transformed and those of our neighbors might be transformed in a radiant shower of forgiveness, then we might see in others the pristiness of new snow on the dogwoods and not the slush of their accidents. We might view those around us with the urgency of coming to be.
Brothers he has risen, and we have risen with him. We are the body of Christ, newly alive, preparing to meet the dawning day of what if …
Brothers, let the same mind be in your that was also in Christ Jesus though he was in the form of God,did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.Rather, he emptied himself,taking the form of a slave,coming in human likeness;and found human in appearance,he humbled himself,becoming obedient to the point of death,even death on a cross.Because of this, God greatly exalted himand bestowed on him the namewhich is above every name,that at the name of Jesusevery knee should bend,of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,and every tongue confess thatJesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.