Today, the Church enters liturgically into its greatest mystery, the Sacred Triduum, in which we celebrate the events that, together, have brought about our salvation. Here, in these days, is the answer to all varieties of Pelagianism for these days are about God’s great deeds. In the accounts of the Passion, the humans do not come off very well and we are all kidding ourselves if we think we would have done any better if we had been there at the time.
At the close of tonight’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, there will be no final prayer and closing blessing or dismissal. After the Sacred Body of the Lord is carried to the Altar of Repose, and venerated there, the ministers will depart in silence. Tomorrow, at the beginning of the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday, the ministers enter and leave in silence and there is no “In the name of the Father…” at the beginning of the liturgy and no closing blessing at the end. After the profound reverence before the cross, the presider immediately intones the opening prayer. At the end, all is silence. On Saturday evening, at the Great Vigil, the service again begins abnormally, with the lighting of the Paschal fire. Only at the end of the Vigil Mass do we return to normal when the presider imparts a blessing and the people are dismissed by the deacon. I am not sure the origins of this practice – in the long years when the Easter Vigil was suppressed, was it done differently? – but the significance is obvious: The Triduum is one, long, continuous prayer just as the work of salvation, the Paschal Mystery, is one event, one mystery.
Why is this important? We have all met fellow Christians who over-emphasize Good Friday, who lead self-flagellating lives, who nail everything to the cross, who can be very miserable and joyless disciples of the Lord. We also know fellow Christians who go to the opposite extreme, people for whom everything is Easter and sunrise, and there is no dark side to the human soul, no Satan biting at our heels, no cross to be borne. And, we know other Christians who forget about that evening of communion and instruction that was the Last Supper, for whom the salvation Jesus brings is an individualistic salvation, me and Jesus, or a Christian for whom salvation is entirely an abstraction of the mind, something that God did, but which we do not really experience as the disciples experienced it in the Upper Room. These latter do not take the Lord’s body to eat and the former think one can dine on the Lord’s body alone. Both are wrong.
The Church, on the other hand, sees the light of Easter through the shadow of the Cross, and confronts the Crucifixion in the sure hope in the resurrection, and both Cross and empty tomb we experience as men and women with newly washed feet. The Church is just conservative enough to insist that no matter how smart, how compassionate, how thoughtful, we are, still the Cross will manifest itself in our human lives. We will be broken and the most dangerous breaks, as Pope Francis made clear again this morning in his homily at the Chrism Mass, are those breaks that lead us into spiritual worldliness, which is much more dangerous than standard worldliness. Pity the man who knows not the divine, for whom this coming Saturday night is like all other nights. But, pity more than man who, unwilling to accept or even acknowledge the crosses he is given to bear, and the human sympathies that result from learning to bear one’s crosses, lords over other people his own spiritual powers or claims the power to empty the spiritual life of crosses altogether with some new-fangled ideology of human-driven liberation. The Church conserves the scandal of her founding on a hill in Jerusalem, in all the grim humanness of an execution brought on by the religious leaders of His day whose verdict against Jesus exposed their own preference for spiritual worldliness and their consequent unwillingness to trust that God might be achieving something different and something new.
The Church is just liberal enough to still be startled by God’s verdict on the events of the Triduum which brings the deepest kind of liberation we humans can actually experience, the liberation from death and sin. Instead of rationalizing the events of the Triduum, there is still that instinct in the life of the Church to accept the mystery of divine love and convey it in signs and symbols more than syllogisms or slogans. Instead of “making sense” of the Triduum, the Church is just liberal enough to revel in the freedom it bestows to turn the whole world upside down. And, so, in the Exsultet, we are told that the fall of the human race is now the “happy fault” and “necessary sin of Adam.” We find that the hillside in Jerusalem, forever marked by the cross is now also marked by an empty tomb. We are free to look at death henceforth as a door not a wall, and liberals like opening doors. Our sense of freedom, our Catholic liberalism, is not to be confused with a secular liberalism. That, too, would invite spiritual worldliness, not least these days when liberals tend to be such a dour, grumpy lot. No, our Catholic liberalism is a deeper freedom, a freedom that warms to justice but which exults – Exsultet! – in mercy.
So, here is the first thought for these holiest of days: The Triduum is one event in the history of salvation and the Church recognizes this in the liturgy. Any attempt to over-emphasize the one over the others will lead to grief. But, here is the second thought for these days: We must let ourselves experience these events sequentially, as the disciples did. Tonight, we must go into the Upper Room for a meal, aware that something is in the offing, but unsure of what that something might be. We must acknowledge that side of us which, with Peter, does not want to permit the Lord to wash our feet and then, in such quintessentially human overcompensation, asks that the Lord wash not just our feet but our whole bodies. We must sit at table and let the Lord feed us, trying to imagine what it was like for the disciples not to know what we have come to know, that the bread and the wine truly is His body and His blood, and that He has given the Church a priesthood to bring His body and blood to us throughout our human journey. On this night, let us accept the mandate to love, the grace of communion and the blessing of a presbyterate.
Tomorrow, we must find within us the honesty to admit that we would be standing with the crowd, shouting “Crucify Him!” just as last Sunday we stood with the crowd shouting “Hosanna!” We must acknowledge our role in bringing this verdict of condemnation and execution to its completion, the countless ways we scourge others or let our pride rob others of their humanity, the ways we connive to stamp out life we find inconvenient. Tomorrow, we must acquaint ourselves with the despair, the fear, and the confusion of the apostles: This was not how things were supposed to turn out! Tomorrow, most of all, we must let ourselves feel the painful humanity of Jesus crying “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” God did not come down and save His own, yet how quickly we expect God to come and save us from our crosses. Jesus died, and He died alone, and that is why death ultimately is so terrifying, on account of its abysmal loneliness. Tomorrow, let us not run from the desolate feeling, the sense that all is lost, such reflections bring upon us.
At the Great Vigil, or Sunday morning, whichever service you attend, try and wonder at the sense of surprise the disciples must have felt. When we discover the empty tomb, do we feel the need to go and search for the Lord? Do we recognize Him when we encounter Him? Do we let Him call us by name, so that we might recognize it is He? Can we admit that there is no joy like this joy, the flip side of the coin of love which manifested itself as suffering amidst the evil of Good Friday and now manifests itself as joy amidst the joy brought on by the recognition that God’s verdict on this man Jesus was different from man’s verdict. Can we, all of us, commit to trust in the Lord who defied the Pharisees and endured the cross and grave to achieve this unexpected, even unexpectable, victory? Can we say and sing with Paul (and with Handel): Death is swallowed up in Victory. O Death, where is thy sting? O Grave, where is thy victory?
Yes, the work of our salvation is one great event, but let us experience it sequentially, as the disciples did so that we might never emphasize the one aspect over the other. A Blessed and Holy Triduum to you all.