How to cope with Holy Week when you feel less than inspired

by Thomas Reese

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I have been going to Holy Week services since I was a child in the mid-1950s. My family would go to Mission San Juan Capistrano, where we celebrated in the chapel of the soon-to-be-St. Junipero Serra. Even before the Second Vatican Council, the services were well done using the new rite promulgated by Pius XII in 1955.

I especially remember one time during Easter Vigil when the fire got so out of control it blackened the ceiling. You don't see that anymore.

The Good Friday service at the mission had something unique. They had a statue of the dead Jesus laid out on his back. We processed, singing, into the mission gardens, where he was placed in a cave-like alcove at the end of the service. Even as a child, I wondered who would sneak the statue out before Easter.

The Holy Week services put us on a spiritual roller coaster. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday warn us that bad things are coming. Then on Thursday, we are suddenly supposed to rejoice in the gift of the Eucharist. Then back downhill at the end of the service and on to Good Friday, until we are once again rejoicing on Saturday evening.

Perhaps the hardest service to get through is the Easter Vigil. The nine readings go on forever: two each from Genesis and Isaiah and one each from Exodus, Baruch, Ezekiel, Romans and the Gospel of Mark. I fear I sound like Emperor Joseph II when he told Mozart that his piece had too many notes, but the vigil has too many readings. I have heard them too many times before.

The truth is that I hate Holy Week because it makes me feel guilty. I know I should be getting more out of it, but I find myself daydreaming or dozing off during the services.

True, there are high points that wake you up. Watching the faces of the catechumens as water is poured over their heads makes the entire service worthwhile. In most churches, the music is much better than on an average Sunday. And there is something comforting about seeing the church filled with people who are not obliged to be there. Even when I am not getting anything out of it, I feel supported by a community that is.

So my resolution this Holy Week is to go with the flow. Forget the guilt. Don't worry if you miss half the words; hold on to a couple that touch you this year and treasure them like gems. Sometimes you simply have to sit patiently with the community and wait for the Spirit.

There is another reason I hate Holy Week, especially Good Friday. When I was a child, we were taught that Jesus had to die for our sins because sin is an infinite insult to God that requires an infinite sacrifice as reparation.

I am sorry, but I don't think I have ever done anything so bad that it requires me or anyone else to be crucified, let alone Jesus. While I might be grateful to Jesus for taking the blame for my sins, this theology turned God the Father into a legalistic ogre concerned about balancing the scales of justice, not mercy. The Father in this theology sounds nothing like the Father described by Jesus. Alas, some of the liturgical prayers still reflect this theology.

Today, I would rather see the death of Jesus a consequence of his commitment to the mission given to him by his Father, to preach the good news of God's love for us and our need to respond by loving one another, especially the poor. Jesus, like Oscar Romero, was killed because of what he preached, not because his Father had to be appeased. Jesus is in solidarity with all those who died for justice and human rights.

I did go to one Good Friday service in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City that truly moved me. The priest, I fear I did not get his name, told a parable about a Jewish father whose son was tortured and killed in a death camp during Hitler's attempt to exterminate the Jews.

The father was a pious Jew who had always observed the laws of the covenant. In the covenant, God had promised to be their God and the Jews had promised to be his people. They would observe the demands of the covenant, and God would protect them. The father felt he had observed his side of the covenant, but God had failed to keep up his part of the deal by not protecting his son.

The father decided to sue God for breach of contract. To make a long story short, God was found guilty. He had failed to protect the son. The judge decided that God should be punished under the terms of lex talionis -- an eye for an eye. Or in this case, a son for a son. God would have to have a son who would be tortured and killed.

This parable reverses the old theology. Rather than Jesus dying for our sins, he dies for God's failings. God created a universe in which suffering and evil are inevitable. There is no philosophical or theological explanation for evil and suffering, especially the suffering of the innocent. Rather than explaining it to us, God decided to join us in this suffering. If we have to bear it, so will he. Rather than just sitting at the sidelines and cheering us on, God joins us in the struggle against evil and suffers with us.

The crucifixion is the sign of God's love for us, but not by forgiving us our sins. The father does not need the death of Jesus to make him forgive. He already wants to forgive us. The crucifixion is the logical consequence of the incarnation. God decided to join us and take the consequences, be what they may. The crucifixion is God's way of getting our attention, God's way of saying, "Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I am with you. I love you."

But the crucifixion cannot be understood without the Resurrection, God's sign that evil and suffering cannot have the last word. He joined us in our suffering, and now he wants us to join him in everlasting life.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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