The "Great Week" of the Faith

Before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, Holy Week was known as the "Great Week": Maior Hebdomada. This is a fitting title, seeing how the fullness of Christ's Paschal Mystery is actualized and consummated within the span of its days. In Holy Week, Catholics celebrate the triumphal entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), his Last Supper and first Eucharist with the Apostles (Holy Thursday), his Passion and death (Good Friday) and finally his Resurrection from the dead (Easter Sunday). Certainly, these events--especially when seen together--are worthy of the title, "great."

I could write a book on Holy Week; there's just so much to say. The opportunities to reflect on the suffering, death and Resurrection of the Son of God are too much to describe in words. In fact, they transcend words, yet we only know them because of words: we know them through the Gospels and Tradition of the Church, and we live them in the Eucharist. Indeed the greatest thing about this "Great Week," then, is that we realize it's effects and mysteries perdure even until today. We are drawn into an experience of Christ's saving mission that demands our physical and mental attention; we are able to reflect on the mysteries as we participate bodily in the liturgies the Church has celebrated for 2,000 years. Here is a chance to experience completely the beauty of the Catholic faith--the same faith preached and defended by the first Apostles with blood and martyrdom--which subsists in the one, true Church, washed in the Blood of the Lamb of sacrifice, offered on the altar of the Cross. Holy Week demands more of us than just our participation in the liturgies of Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, however. If we truly wish to delve into the mysteries that we are faced with in such a proximate and real way, we are called to offer our very selves, if only for this week, to the God who offered his only Son for our sake. It is safe to say that if we fail to join Christ in his sacrifice upon the Cross, we will certainly fail to experience his true glory in the Resurrection.

To modern ears, this seems like an extreme claim. The fact is that for ancient ears the claim was no less severe. Sacrifice demands suffering, and suffering demands pain. Our lot as Christians is nothing less than the lot of Christ, who told his Apostles just before his trial and suffering that "no slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you." (Jn 15:20) As our Master tells us this on Holy Thursday, we ought to consider the rest of the Easter Triduum (the three days from Thursday to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night) as our chance to share in the persecutions of Christ. These three days, in particular, provide a time to share in the trials and tribulations of the early Apostles: with Peter, who denied the Lord; with Judas, who betrayed him for worldly gain; with John, who stood by him as he suffered; with Mary his mother, who pondered and suffered the fullness of the Passion in her heart, and whose faithful witness can be seen as the first faith of the Church during Christ's bloody Mass of the Cross. All of these mysteries become accessible to us, and all in profound depth during this Holy and Great Week before Easter.

Focusing on the day at hand, Palm Sunday provides us the chance to acclaim Christ as our Lord, and as the "Son of David" whose salvific mission will set us all free from sin. The traditional Latin chant, which starts the entire week of liturgies on Palm Sunday morning, begins with the words, Hosanna filio David, benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini: "Hosanna, O Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" The Church calls us to raise our hearts in acclaim of the Lord, riding triumphantly into the royal city of Jerusalem to take his throne; we carry palm or olive branches to join in the homage of the Israelites who did the same thing almost two millennia ago. Our adoration of the Lord will be short lived, though, for in the course of a week we will find him guilty of the harshest crimes and sentence him to a cruel death by our sins and the hardness of our hearts. His love is insurmountable, though, even by death; he raises up to life what had previously condemned innocent life to death. The "Great Week" of the Church is our participation in this drama of salvation. Indeed, let us not forget what lies before us now. Let us go forth to the altar of God--to Christ upon the throne of the Cross--and fall down in worship: Hosanna filio David! Adoramus et glorificamus te Christe, Fili Dei vivi, quoniam per crucem tuam redemisti mundum!

  1. gravatar

    # by Anonymous - March 16, 2008 at 7:18 PM

    IMHO, this is your best post yet. Thank you! Last night, I had a difficult time sleeping for feeling drawn into the mysteries you describe. When I look around me at Palm Sunday Mass, it seems like no one else is feeling that way so I wonder if its just me.

    Then I read "... If we truly wish to delve into the mysteries that we are faced with in such a proximate and real way, we are called to offer our very selves, if only for this week, to the God who offered his only Son for our sake."
    This helped me alot. Have a great Great Week.