Monday, March 29, 2010
Reflections on Holy Week
Wednesday of Holy Week brings us face to face with Judas Iscariot, who engineered Jesus' death by betraying him to his enemies. In recent years, there have been a few attempts to "rehabilitate" Judas, to explain away his apparently evil intentions and paint him as someone who really only wanted to force Jesus to show his power in extreme danger.
It seems to me that efforts like that say a lot more about us than about Judas. We love victims of previous era's prejudices because accepting them confirms how enlightened we are. Even Judas, whom the poet Dante put in the lowest pit of hell, becomes a foil for our sense of superiority.
Judas kissed Jesus, the Gospel tells us. Did Jesus kiss his betrayer? Jesus died praying that his Father would forgive his enemies, and that would include Judas. We don't know Judas' eternal fate, but we do know that forgiving your enemies means you can't feel superior to them.
I like to read the Psalms because they are filled with threats against the Psalmist's enemies, and I would like to see my enemies destroyed. But our greatest enemies are our own sins. It's hard to keep a sense of enlightened superiority when examining our sins. They put us in Judas' league. Rehabilitation, however, isn't a matter of finding excuses; spiritual rehabilitation follows from confessing one's sins and accepting forgiveness with humble gratitude.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Holy Week are days uniquely sacred. I like to think of Holy Thursday as the day of the great promise, of Good Friday as the day of the great sacrifice, and of Holy Saturday as the day of the great silence. Reading the Epistle to the Hebrews sets the stage for living these three days.
The Day of the Great Promise
Holy Thursday is the anniversary of a promise fulfilled. When Jesus (Jn.6) promised that he would give his flesh as food and his blood as drink, many of his first disciples left him. Those who did not leave him witnessed bread and wine transformed into body and blood at the Last Supper. But the Last Supper brings another promise: the bread and wine, separately consecrated, stand in for or symbolize the separation of Jesus' body from his blood; they are a sign of his death. Jesus' death is still to come on Thursday night, although Christ’s self-sacrifice is the meaning of the Last Supper. The new promise is that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross will be really present to his disciples each time that bread and wine are consecrated to become the body and blood of the Lord.
Our lives are lived between promises made and fulfilled. A promise is a way of marking out the future without being able to control it. You can tell the deepest meaning of a person's life by examining the promises they've made and, even more, by looking to see if the promises have been kept. Jesus always keeps his promises.
The Day of the Great Sacrifice
"Christ became obedient for us unto death, even to death on the cross." Sacrificing things is a sign of generosity; sacrificing yourself is a sign of love. Christ loved his Father and he loves us, so much so that he gives himself freely to death for our eternal life. Jesus crucifixion by others is a sacrifice of himself, "a death willingly accepted."
When we look at the crucifix on Good Friday, Christ might seize the moment to ask us who or what we are willing to die for. If we don't have a ready answer, he might then ask us whether we are capable of loving.
The Day of the Great Silence
While Jesus' dead body lay in the tomb, those who had gone before him in death came to know that the gates of paradise were open. Did they shout? Will heaven be noisy? I believe those who are saved for all eternity know whatever they have to know without speaking. The contact with God and others is immediate.
Death leaves us speechless, and Holy Saturday is a day without its proper celebration of the Eucharist. The Church on earth is silent.
A day of silence is becoming more rare. "Texting," I'm told, puts one into constant contact with others. There is no unexpressed thought or unrecorded feeling. To me, this constant and immediate contact would seem more like hell than like heaven, but that's probably just a generational difference and a difference in personal formation. When I was a seminarian, great periods of the day and all of the night were spent in silence: no talking, no phone calls, no radio, no television. Once I got used to it, I welcomed it. Silence became friendly and useful. Without it, how can one reflect on what is most important? Jesus, the Gospels often say, went apart to spend whole nights in silence, not to be alone but to be more clearly aware of his Father's presence in prayer. Yet some great saints, given totally to a noise-filled apostolate, like St. John Bosco in his work with young people, seemed to be without the luxury of long periods of silence.
At least, long periods of silence show us what interior resources we have or don't have. Jesus who, through his death and resurrection, is closer to us than we are to ourselves fills Holy Saturday and every day with his presence.
Christ's resurrection brings him into new life and promises the same for us. Not just eternal life, although that's part of it, but genuinely new life. Change is hard, as so many people tell me and as I know myself. Left to our own devices, we'd probably just settle for an improved version of our present life. But risen life, life lived in radical freedom and perfect unity with God, comes when death is suffered and conquered, which is the kind of radical change our imaginations can't handle. Even science fiction is mostly ringing changes on what we know or re-arranging things we can imagine. No wonder Jesus' closest friends and disciples were surprised.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, in his Spiritual Exercises, draws on an old belief that Jesus first appeared to his mother, Mary, when he rose from the dead. In inviting us to imagine the scene, St. Ignatius leads us to believe she wasn't surprised. Every mother knows her son, and Mary probably thought: "Isn't this just what Jesus would do?" As we get to know Jesus more intimately, we come to see that rising from the dead to give us new life is just the thing he would do. It's called seeing with the eyes of faith.
Have a blessed Holy Week!