An Invitation to Holy Week

A homily given in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Boston, Palm Sunday 1983

Resurrection icon Today's homily will not be so much a sermon as an invitation -- an invitation to "come up to Jerusalem", to participate in the liturgies of Holy Week which we have begun today and will continue through the week. I must confess, also, that I feel a little like the fourth century bishop, Gregory of Nyssa, who began one of his sermons as follows:

The poor who love feast days and frequent assemblies with an eager heart and an air of expectancy, even if they have not as much holiday finery of their own for the occasion as they would like, borrow from their acquaintances and friends all the finery that they want so as not to be short of anything on such occasions.
I do not have much finery of my own for this task today, so I will feel free to borrow frequently from "acquaintances and friends" of other ages for much of what follows.

We began our liturgy today with an invitation in the form of a prayer: "Assist us mercifully with your help, O Lord God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby you have given us life and immortality." We have certainly entered with joy, but I sometimes wonder about that word "contemplation". There doesn't seem to be much time for that during Holy Week, especially for those of us who are involved in the liturgy. It is a very busy time. Perhaps simply "enter into those mighty acts", into a turmoil and confusion not unlike that which attended our Lord's passion and death, is more like it. We will be busy, and we will assemble here again and again.

In fifth century Jerusalem, according to the Spanish nun Egeria, a deacon arose at the end of the Palm Sunday Eucharist and immediately before the dismissal raised his voice, saying, "Throughout this whole week, beginning tomorrow at the ninth hour, let us all gather at the major church!" And gather they did, every day, for hours on end, with very little time for eating or sleeping, until the week was over.

We, too, are invited to assemble here, in our church, those who can on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and all of us, we hope, for the major liturgies on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. We will have it easier than they did in Egeria's day. There, the same deacon on Palm Sunday raised his voice a second time and cried, "Today let us all be ready to assemble here at the seventh hour [1:00 pm] at the Eleona [Mount of Olives]!" And so they went home after mass, snatched a quick bite to eat, and returned for the Palm Sunday procession. Egeria describes it -- I won't go into details. It was quite similar, in the main, to what we did this morning, except, of course, that it began at 1:00 pm and went on until well after sundown.

But for us, Palm Sunday is over; we have had our procession and put down our palms. The remainder of today's liturgy focuses on the Passion which we have just heard sung. The liturgy now looks forward, approaching the hour of the Cross on Good Friday. We enter now into the great conflict, the warfare in which "life and death have contended". Someone has described ministering at the liturgy as "ministering at the storm center of the universe", and it certainly feels like that sometimes. It is certainly true of this week when we enter into the very heart of the tremendous conflicts which center around our Lord's passion and death and his resurrection on the third day. We shall enter this week into a kind of retreat from our usual activities, but it will be a retreat filled with activity, a busy time in which we will assemble often to live out these mysteries together.

Maundy Thursday

Our next major assembly will be on Maundy or Holy Thursday, when we will come together to celebrate what is called the "Mass of the Lord's Supper". This evening, the theme of suffering and conflict will be lifted somewhat; the theme of our Maundy Thursday liturgy is on Christ's new commandment, that we love one another as he has loved us. This theme of mutual love in the Body of Christ takes precedence over any other theme, and is shown quite clearly in the text we use to accompany the offertory procession: "Since the love of Christ has brought us all together, let us rejoice and be glad together . . . and let us love one another with sincere hearts."

As recently as ten or fifteen years ago, this feast had a very different theme [a kind of subdued Corpus Christi celebration] , but today it focuses clearly on the "Supper of the Lord", an intimate family meal among close friends who love one another and whose pastor washes their feet as an intimate symbol of that love. Remember that the Sacrifice of the Mass was not instituted on Maundy Thursday -- the Eucharist springs from the events of Good Friday and the Resurrection/Ascension of our Lord, as well as from the simple meal around his table.

The Eucharist will not be celebrated on Good Friday -- the Good Friday liturgy is really a continuation of that of Maundy Thursday (they, with the Great Vigil of Easter, form one long liturgy lasting three days). So, at the end of the Eucharist we will carry the Eucharistized Bread, the sacrament of our Lord's Body, to a place of repose in one of our chapels. Later -- not yet -- later, we will return to keep watch there for a space. But first we will all gather in the parish hall for an Agape Meal which will continue the theme of loving unity begun in the mass upstairs. This is not yet the great Paschal banquet; it is a sparse and austere meal, a gathering of intimate friends with our Lord.

The meal ends quickly and in silence after the reading of the 17th chapter of John, after which those who desire may go to the chapel to keep watch until midnight. At one time, this vigil was continued all night and day until the beginning of the Good Friday liturgy and inevitably took on some of the characteristics of a watch at the grave. Today, it is seen as representing the Garden of Gethsemane, and the watch continues only until the betrayal of Jesus in the middle of the night. At midnight, we close down our watch and go to our homes to rest for the events of the day to come. Like our Lord's friends and the crowds of followers who cheered him on Palm Sunday, we will be locked outside the gates; events are beyond our control, and when we next return to the city -- into this assembly -- our lord will already have been condemned to death and we will find him hanging on a cross.

Good Friday

If you will notice it, you will see that this week is shaped like an hourglass. We go from the crowds of Palm Sunday, expressing all the hopes and expectations of a Holy People, to a gathering of friends, to a single man on the cross. And we will assemble here on Friday evening to celebrate his Church's liturgy as Christians have done for centuries on this day.

There isn't time to describe everything we will do -- these liturgies are so rich and complex! But one thing we will do is quite similar to what Egeria saw in Jerusalem:

The bishop sits on his throne, a table with a linen cloth is set before him, and the deacons stand around the table. The gilded silver casket containing the sacred wood of the cross is brought in and opened. Both the wood of the cross and the inscription are taken out and placed on the table, the bishop, remaining seated, grips the ends of the sacred wood with his hands, while the deacons who are standing about keep watch over it. There is a reason why it is guarded in this manner. It is the practice here for all the people to come forth one by one, the faithful as well as the catechumens, to bow down before the table, kiss the holy wood, and then move on. It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest anyone would dare come and do that again.

All of the people pass through one by one; all of them bow down, touching the cross and the inscription, first with their foreheads, then with their eyes; and, after kissing the cross they move on.

We won't have a squad of deacons standing around, but something similar survives even in our liturgy today: two servers stand on either side of the table forming an honor guard. It is done to honor the cross, of course, and not because we don't trust you. But we'll be watching, just in case!

Think of the wonderful particularity of this ceremony. We do not worship a mere abstraction, but an Incarnate God who died at a particular time on a very particular piece of wood. We will not have here an actual piece of the cross, and it really doesn't matter whether anybody does. What we will have is a plain wooden cross, and we will sung "This is the wood of the cross" and for us it will be the cross on which our Savior died for us all. We will come to the cross to show our love for Jesus and to be with Jesus at the hour of his death.

In thinking about the events of Holy Week this year, I was struck by something written by a mentor of mine, the late Rev. Frederic Hastings Smyth. In a passage talking about "the Incarnation and the world's violence" he is thinking about Christian warfare -- the kind of conflict inherent in the events of this week -- and of what he calls "warfare with the weapon of the cross". He says:

This will be a strange warfare from a worldly point of view. There will be no bands to play or banners to fly on the church's march. 'Behold, we go up to Jerusalem', said our Lord. The church, like him, must begin to stretch herself upon the cross. She must place herself, with him, on the under side of the nails.
The under side of the nails!

We will have opportunities, this week, to place ourselves on the under side of the nails. There is food to be shared with the hungry, soup and sandwiches to be given out, and the many opportunities for personal and corporate ministry that come our way every week of the year.

The groups who use our parish hall will continue to meet this week. This may, at times, inconvenience us, but we must welcome them and support their work. It is not for us to take hold of the handle of the hammer. We will place ourselves, with them, on the under side of the nails.

I know that one of these, the AA group, will go one evening this week to spend some time with patients in the alcoholism unit of a local hospital. In so doing, they will say to these frightened, hurting people: your pain is the same as ours; our hands, too, are there, on the under side of the nails of this terrible disease. But the God who raised us up from the living death which was ours can give you your lives back again, as well. And there, even though the cross of Jesus Christ may never be mentioned, there in a dingy room over cups of not so good coffee, the Paschal Mystery will be celebrated and proclaimed.

On Friday, after the noon service of readings and meditations, we will have an opportunity to go to the Common for a Peace demonstration. No, not a demonstration -- what we did here today was a demonstration, a protest march proclaiming our allegiance to a Sovereign who is not the world's! No, Friday's will be a quiet vigil, a witness for peace. In going there, we will identify ourselves not with those who are preparing for nuclear war believing that they themselves will survive. We will count ourselves among the tens of millions who will suffer and die in such a conflict; we will place our hands on the under side of the nails.

We will do all this looking always to Jesus, to Jesus alone on the cross, yet summing up in his broken body the sufferings and longings of all humanity, the single figure through whom all human history passes. Listen to Melito of Sardis (second century):

This is he who is the Passover of our salvation; this is he who suffered many things in many people. This is he who in Abel was slaughtered, in Jacob was exiled, in Joseph was sold, in Moses was exposed, in the lamb was immolated, in David was persecuted, in the prophets was maltreated. This is he who in the virgin was made incarnate, on the cross was suspended, in the earth was buried; from the dead was resurrected, to the heights of heaven was lifted up . . .
This is he who on the cross was not broken, and in the earth did not decay, but from the dead rose again, and raised up humanity from the depths of the tomb.
The Great Vigil

Father Smyth, whom I quoted earlier, died on Holy Saturday of 1960, while his brothers and sisters were preparing to celebrate the Great Vigil. As was typical of him, he seems to have been thinking of the liturgy, and his last words were. "Don't forget the Alleluias!"

Well, yes. Even at the hour of death, even now, we can't forget the Alleluias, We may not be able to sing them just yet, but Saturday night when just before the Gospel the celebrant begins the Great Alleluia -- the first since Lent began -- we will show that we haven't forgotten how.

Saturday night we will assemble in the darkness in this great Eucharistic banquet hall to celebrate the Feast of feasts, the Vigil of vigils, and the hourglass will burst wide open, wider than we can possibly imagine. Asterius of Amasea says of this Night: "A single grain was sown and the whole world is nourished."

He goes on to sing its praises:

O Night brighter than day;
O Night brighter than the sun:
O Night whiter than snow:
O Night more brilliant than torches;
O Night more delightful than paradise;
O Night which knows not darkness;
O Night which banished sleep;
O Night which has taught us to join vigil with angels;
O Night terror of demons;
O Night most desirable in the year;
O Night of torchbearing of the bridegroom in the church;
O Night mother of the newly baptized;
O Night when the devil slept and was stripped;
O Night in which the Inheritor brought the beneficiaries into their inheritance;
An inheritance without end.
For the liturgy, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not just "the exceptional destiny of a man who was God, but the wholesale entry of [all humanity] into a new life: the Lord is risen and gives resurrection to the whole world."

The Great Vigil of Easter celebrates not so much Jesus' resurrection as it does our own. It is preeminently a baptismal liturgy and is the normal time for baptism to be celebrated.

At the end of the vigil we will go out into the streets to proclaim to the world the good news of its own resurrection. We will remember what Peter Chrysologus has our Lord say to his disciples after his resurrection:

Then the Lord seeing them retired from the world recalled them and sent them back into the world: Go into the whole world proclaiming the good news to every creature. Come into the world so that you who thought your heads were only covered by a roof may suddenly see the whole of creation extended at your feet. Go into the whole world proclaiming the good news to every creature, that is to say, become the hope of every human being, you who were yourselves a cause of despair. You will discover the magnitude of your incredulity when you see a world accepting your testimony . . . You will see men divided on earth, confined on islands, perched on rocks, lost in the desert, you will see pedantic soothsayers, prating Greeks, and eloquent Romans seeking faith by faith alone . . . I send you forth as witnesses of my passion, death, and resurrection.
"Christ became obedient unto death, even death on a cross; therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name." Come back, this week, come back again and again to celebrate these great Mysteries. As the fifth century deacons would say, "Come back; we will assemble here again, all of us, on Thursday evening." Assemble here, in this place, where the Paschal liturgies of Christians will beat like a heart at the center of the Cosmos. Come back, and then go forth into all the world to tell what you have seen in Jerusalem. For, as Melito says,
It is not in one place or a narrow piece of land that the glory of God resides, but his grace has been spread to the ends of the earth, and there the Almighty has pitched his tent, through Jesus Christ to whom is glory for ever and ever. Amen.

-- Ted Mellor

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