Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Miracle of Miracles in Holy Week

I love being Catholic every Passiontide and Holy Week. Our Church has a series of rituals and special hymns to accompany us on the journey from Passion Sunday through Palm Sunday and the Triduum to Easter Sunday:

~Veiling the statues
~Receiving and blessing palms
~Processing with palms
~Washing the feet of 12 men
~Stripping the Altars
~Processing with the Eucharist
~Reposing the Eucharist
~Adoration at the Altar of Repose
~The empty, silent church on Good Friday, without His Presence
~The open Tabernacle doors
~Reading the Passion
~Venerating the Cross
~Lighting the Easter Fire
~Marking and Lighting the Easter Candle
~The Exsultet
~The bells ringing when the Gloria is sung at the Easter Vigil
~The Elect receiving the Sacraments of Initiation
~Candidates receiving Confirmation and First Holy Communion
~The renewal of Baptismal promises

These are the Roman Rite rituals that I'm familiar with; I know that many of these rituals are observed in other Christian communities, but they are fundamentally Catholic rituals, and they remind me how blessed I am to be a Catholic.

Robert Royal writes in a different way about the blessings--the miracle--of being Catholic in his reflection on the greatest miracle of all, that in spite of all that Catholics and outsiders do to Jesus's Church, it endures:

Ezra Pound once felt the need to observe: “Any institution that could survive the picturesqueness of the Borgias has a certain native resiliency.” But it’s not only the Borgias. The number of things that we clearly see the Church has survived is quite impressive, indeed unprecedented compared with any other human institution: The death of Jesus. The betrayal of all the apostles (not just Judas). The martyrdom of all the apostles (except for John). Early heresies (so many they would require a separate list). Persecution and martyrdom by the Roman Empire. Acceptance by the Roman Empire. Collapse of the Roman Empire. Barbarian invasions. Saracen invasions (Old St. Peter’s itself sacked in 846). Conflicts with medieval (Christian) kings and emperors. Medieval heresies (Albigenses, Franciscan Spirituals, etc.). The Fall of Byzantium. Renaissance corruption. The Reformation (Rome sacked again in 1527 by the Lutheran troops of Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Charles V). The wars of religion. Late assaults by the Turks. Baroque corruptions. Pascal’s Jesuits. Kings claiming divine rights. Revolutions claiming absolute power. Napoleon. Freemasonry. Liberalism. Socialism. Nazism. Communism. Darwinism. Limp modern liturgies. Priestly sexual abuse. “Women religious” who believe in the Goddess or the cosmic process or whatever, and are proud of it.

This is just a partial list, which would at a minimum also need to recognize the constant presence of bad bishops and priests, and an ever-fickle laity. Under such circumstances – and given the tendency of all things to decay over time, it’s a miracle – perhaps, in a way, the greatest miracle of Christianity, that the Catholic Thing has survived, as Aquinas suggested. If we believe that Jesus is the God who created the universe, his rising from the dead was mere child’s play. Keeping together billions of fallen human beings, whom God has taken the risk of endowing with the freedom to choose their own ways, in a real historical Communion via the fragile earthen vessel we call the Church, may very well require even more divine powers. 

Also, every Holy Week when I experience these rituals, I think how horrible it would be to lose these outward representations--some are sacramentals and some are Sacraments--of the great Paschal Mystery. The Catholic people of England lost these rituals, and many others in the Sarum Use, in the sixteenth century. They were taken away in the name of preventing superstition but these rituals were not superstitious; the Church had developed these rituals to remind people of all that Jesus had done for His people, the Church. 

The rituals of Holy Week were taken away because the reformers did not trust the unity between Jesus and His Church; the reformers were complicating the matter in a way that St. Joan of Arc had warned against: "About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they are just one thing and we shouldn't complicate the matter." Because the English reformers complicated the matter, the Catholic people of England ended up with palmless Palm Sundays, candleless Candlemases and ashless Ash Wednesdays not to mention Shrovetide without Confession and Communion without the Real Presence. So within a couple of generations, they weren't the Catholic people of England anymore and yet a few endured, suffered, survived and revived three centuries later--which is another miracle indeed.

Of course anything good can be abused; even replacing rituals with a non-ritual can be abused and even reading the Bible could be abused superstitiously. Our Christian faith is an incarnational religion that unites the human and Divine in the great mystery and miracle of Jesus and His Church, His Bride for whom He lived and died and rose and lives always. The Catholic Church, messy and sinful as we certainly are with people like me among us, displays that mystery most miraculously every Passiontide, Holy Week, and Triduum.

Both pictures provided and copyright by Mark U. Mann (c) 2013-2015; used by permission. (Holy Week afternoon at Blessed Sacrament; Easter Sunday at St. Anthony of Padua.)

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