For the past 15 years, I have considered Holy Week to be the busiest, most stressful, most meaningful and most sacred of the year. As a Catholic deacon, I have looked forward to the small but plentiful flourishes for which I’m responsible. Early on, I must have been as helpless and as uneasy as the brand new altar servers who were given long lists of complicated tasks and asked to remember what to do and when to do them.
Eventually, though, my responsibilities became second nature to me. Holy Week has become less busy, less stressful… and more meaningful, more sacred. At one time, I was intensely preoccupied by the tasks that fell to me, such as announcing and receiving the holy oils, participating in the foot washings, lying prostrate before the cross, processing with my son – a helper for 14 of the past 15 years – to bear the cross for veneration, and carrying the Easter Candle into a darkened and silent church.
But perhaps most meaningfully, sometimes I have preached. And in those times, I have focused on the specific readings of one particular evening, the associated rituals, the holy importance of what took place either at the Last Supper, during Christ’s passion and death, or in the Resurrection. Each night provided ample raw material for any preacher.
But this year is different. It’s different because all those flourishes are gone. We are not gathering in person and we are waiting out something that is unprecedented in any of our lifetimes. I won’t receive the oils, I won’t process with my son toward the altar holding a crucifix, I won’t carry in a large candle, I won’t focus on any one night’s significance. This year is different.
So… let’s think about it differently. Let’s think about the entirety of the Triduum. Like one clover with three leaves, one tricycle with three wheels, one Holy Trinity with three Gods, the Triduum is one celebration with three parts. For many of us, we have prayerfully considered each of the three parts. This year, let’s think about the one celebration instead.
In that celebration, there is a progression, a story arc. Jesus proceeds, as do we along with him, through the final days of his life, across to the culmination of his ministry. We are witnesses to his great suffering and sacrifice and ultimately realize his profound love for all of us. A love that touches us so very deeply. A love that saves us, actually.
But what is the story arc?
I think it begins in the manner in which we are introduced to Lent itself, the movement of Jesus through a dry and lonely desert. Jesus confronted temptation and perhaps himself too as he transitioned from ordinary man, friend, neighbor, son of a carpenter… toward his calling. This movement required Jesus to come face-to-face with desires. He was offered bread to satisfy his hunger, freedom from suffering and a great and lasting power. Are these any different from the things all of us want? Freedom from want, freedom from pain, freedom from powerlessness. Many of us spend much of our lives trying to escape the tyranny of our human condition.
Jesus had to choose. He could be just like us… or, he could choose something else altogether.
The Triduum story arc shows just how far Jesus has come as he has put into ultimate practice that which he began in the desert. The Triddum is a culmination. Jesus emptied himself completely in order to fulfill his calling. And low and behold… he asks the same of all his disciples.
I for one would like comfort and freedom from worry. But what did Jesus say to the young man who asked how he could truly become a follower? He was told to get rid of all of his wealth and to abandon all hope of a comfortable life.
I for one would like freedom from suffering. But what did Jesus say to his disciples when they asked how they could truly become followers? He told them to pick up a cross and to follow him. They were told to put all notions of avoiding pain aside, that life has suffering in it and so if we are going to suffer, we should accompany one who would most certainly understand.
I for one would like power and influence. But what did Jesus show his closest friends on the last night of his life about power? He showed them that the only power worth having is the kind that comes from humility and service to others. He showed them by getting down on his hands and knees and washing their feet.
Once emptied… Jesus became free to demonstrate not only unbounded love for us, he was also fully capable of loving the will of his father.
On Good Friday, the church is emptied of all decorations, flowers, and candles. The lights are dimmed and the mood is somber. The space is emptied. Within that emptiness, we who are left behind are left to reflect and to pray. We kneel before the cross. We receive the Eucharist from the Lord’s Supper, prepared the evening before. We sit in quiet. We too are emptied.
Emptied until we sit in complete darkness and waiting….
… until one singular light enters into our midst and cuts through the darkness like a piercing blade. And then this is where the beauty enters. The light spreads. We spread it. To each other. The light fills the church. And it is no longer empty. And neither are we.
In the Triduum, there is an emptying. An emptying of ambition. Of desires. Of noise.
I can’t help but relate this to our current situation as we are now in a dry and lonely desert. We’re in a place where wealth, comfort, and predictability now feel… impermanent. Where confidence in our own power and mastery of science seems… misplaced. It’s as though we sit in a darkened and silent church.
But Jesus calls us forward. He doesn’t leave us empty, waiting in darkness. We only become that way so we can be filled up with something else.
Light is coming. It will be beautiful. And it will be made ever more beautiful if we are willing to help spread it.
Today we are emptied. But Easter is coming.