Homily for the Holy Week preparation Mass on April 12, Tuesday of the V week of Lent
The other day, Fr Fernando was talking with Fr Bladi and me about these special pre-Holy Week Masses. Their goal is to help us all to live Holy Week and Easter really well, fully aware of what we are doing. That is going to be the focus of this homily. You know I like to keep my homilies short, but Fr Fernando told me that this one has to be longer, so I can get a lot of meat in it – so be prepared!
The first thing to keep in mind is that the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord are the most important moments of human history.
At the very dawn of humanity, the first man and woman sinned and turned away from God. They lost many of the special gifts and privileges that God had given them – most importantly, God’s friendship and the gift of never-ending life in His presence. Sin brought the punishment of suffering and death to humanity in this life, and eternal separation from God in the afterlife. If God had left things as they were, we would have been stuck with a fairly miserable existence. However, God promised to send a Savior who would suffer, but would defeat sin and death.
For thousands of years thereafter, God worked with humanity in various ways to prepare for the coming of the Savior. Eventually, He started to build a small nation of His “Chosen People”, guiding, protecting, and teaching them through prophets, kings, miraculous events, and the people whom God inspired to author the Sacred Scriptures.
It was a very long road that led up to the coming of Christ. His mission on earth was the culmination and fulfillment of all those centuries and millennia of God’s work. Throughout Lent, the readings at daily Mass and in the liturgy of the hours have shown us highlights of the history leading up to the events of our salvation. We have been shown how Christ was keenly aware that He was not on earth to improvise or start something new; on the contrary, He was fulfilling the prophecies about the Savior, the Suffering Servant who lays down His life. As He said in the Gospel reading today, “I do nothing on My own, but I say only what the Father taught Me. […] I always do what is pleasing to Him.”
Human disobedience to God was the origin of sin. Jesus, as God made Man, redeemed us through His obedience to the Father’s plan. Although not without a struggle, as we see in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He freely accepted the will of the Father to bear the punishment due to the sins of all humanity. Because He was a man, He could bear the punishment of all people; because He was God, this sacrifice offered by one individual outweighed the sins of all.
He not only came down to us to bear our sins, uniting us to His expiatory death, but He also joined us to Himself in His resurrection, thus giving us the possibility of eternal life with Him in Heaven. He not only restored us to God’s presence, but gave us even greater gifts than humanity had before the first sin. It is especially through Baptism and the Eucharist that we are joined to the suffering and rising of Christ and participate as members of the Body of Christ in the New Covenant in His blood. These sacraments are symbolized by the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side on the cross.
The days from the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday, to His resurrection on Easter Sunday, were days that changed the world forever. And, as you know, those are the days we are about to celebrate during Holy Week.
Because the events we are commemorating are so important, Holy Week and Easter are the central and most solemn days of the whole year. Every other liturgical celebration either leads up to this one, or stems from it. That alone would make it worth our while participating with extra fervor and attention. I think it also helps us, though, if we remember some of the aspects of what the liturgy really is.
It is not just a ceremony that remembers the past, like Fourth of July festivities or Civil War reenactments. There is an element of that; we are remembering the past, and repeating some of the words and actions that happened long ago. The priest washes 12 people’s feet as he celebrates Mass on Holy Thursday. We pray the Way of the Cross and read the New Testament narratives of the last hours of Jesus’ life on Good Friday, and so forth. But the events we are commemorating are special. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1085),
“His Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by His death He destroyed death, and all that Christ is – all that He did and suffered for all men – participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all.
(1104) “…Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present. The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present.
This might be easier to understand if we compare it to Charles Dickens’ famous story, “A Christmas Carol”. I think we have all read it or seen one of the many TV or movie adaptations. In the story, the main character, Scrooge, is taken on a journey through the events of his life by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future. He isn’t really there, but he sees them as if he were, and he has a conversion experience, becoming generous and caring for others.
The liturgy is similar, but partly the other way around. The Holy Spirit takes us on a journey through the events of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. Unlike Scrooge, we really are there spiritually, even though we don’t see the events with our eyes. We will be really spiritually present when Jesus celebrates the first Mass with His apostles on Holy Thursday, and gives them the power and the duty as priests to do it again and again, in memory of Him. We will be there on Good Friday when Jesus is nailed to the cross, and with a loud cry, gives up His Spirit. We will be there when He rises from the dead and appears to Mary Magdalen. And through our presence, we too are affected by God’s grace and are called to have an interior conversion. Not that we are as bad as Scrooge, but we all have sinned against God to some degree, and reliving the great sacrifice that Jesus offered for us out of love, should stir our hearts to love Him even more than we have before.
For Holy Week and Easter to have full effect on us, we have to really live them well. That requires keeping our hearts and minds focused on what we are celebrating, and participating in as many of the liturgies and other events as we can. It’s hard to do that, because we have a lot of distractions and duties with work, school, and maybe vacation or visiting family. Be that as it may, let us do our best to submerge ourselves in the sacred, and let the power of Christ’s love impress itself deeply on our hearts. Let us feel the pain our sins have caused, but feel even more the joy of being loved so much by God, that He sent His only Son into the world, not to condemn it, but to save it.