A few thoughts on Quirks of Holy Week

Thoughts today on three “quirks” of holy week people have recently asked me about:

epa04170481 Pope Francis as he performs the traditional washing of the feet at the Don Carlo Gnocchi Foundation in Rome, Italy, 17 April 2014, during the "In Coena Domini" Mass with the people hosted in the center and their families. EPA/OSSERVATORE ROMANO / HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

Foot Washing 101: who gets washed?

Before the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a beautiful example of servant leadership by washing the feet of his Apostles and giving the command (“mandatum”) that we follow his example (Jn 13:1-17).  On Holy Thursday, most parishes recall this event in the rite of the washing of the feet, in which the Pastor of the parish washes the feet of 12 people.  There’s been no shortage of comment on this rite over the last fifty-or-so years, mainly about whose feet ought to be washed.  Until recently, liturgical law said that twelve men (viri, as opposed to homines “people”) were to have their feet washed.  Pope Francis, in a beautiful exercise of his Petrine Office has adjusted procedure so that a group of twelve people representative of the People of God should be called forward.  This brings the letter of the law in line with the practice already widely in use throughout the Church in Europe and the Americas.  I’ve heard some hail this tweak as a “triumph of the modern” (yes, the person actually used that phrase)… or a “real win for women.”  Both claims betray a lack of knowledge about the true history of this rite and a very western mindset.  What Pope Francis has done is to tap into a much more ancient tradition of this lovely rite.

For most of the Church’s history, the washing of the feet was a rite carried out separate from Mass and only in religious communities (of men and of women).  At some point on Holy Thursday, the Abbot of a monastery or the Mother Superior of a convent would, usually in the chapter hall, not the chapel, wash the feet of the other monks/nuns in the community.  The rite never occurred in parishes or cathedrals.  It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Pope Pius XII gave the option of joining this rite to the mass.  Aware that this link to the Lord’s Supper Mass  would suggest those being washed were “apostles,” the Pope specified that men be chosen.

This year’s adjustment maintains the linking of the rite to the mass as an option, and likewise gives Pastors the option to invite whomever they think represents the community.  Cardinal Sarah, Pope Francis’ chief assistant in matters of worship, and the author of his decree clarified these options aware that the Church has many cultural expressions.  The renewed policy needs to be flexible enough to respect them all.

As with so many beautiful parts of our Catholic Tradition, Pope Francis’ adjustment to the rite is a dusting off of ancient practice adjusted to meet contemporary needs.  In any given parish, no matter whose feet are washed, in whatever context the rite may take place, our focus should never be on lording participation in this rite over anyone (cf Mt 20:25).  Rather we should focus on the suffering servant Lord whose quiet humility is an example to us all (cf Is 42:1-4).

Do we have to go to all of triduum (Thur., Fri., Sat.)?  Yes… here’s why:

The celebration of the Sacred Triduum (From the Latin Tri-diem, “Three Days”) is the height of the Church’s year.  Note however, it’s in the singular… one celebration, not three.  I’m not just speaking collectively… it is actually one mega-mass!  We begin “In the name of the father…” on Holy Thursday… but there’s no final blessing at the end of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  On Friday we enter the Church in silence and pick right back up again with an opening prayer… but note, the priest doesn’t even say “Let us pray” … we already did that on Thursday.  Only on Easter Vigil crossing the threshold of Easter itself do we finally have a concluding prayer and blessing!  Be sure to come to all three portions  of the one celebration of the Triduum… it’ll be a soul-moving life-changing experience.

Why so much?

Holy Week is extravagant, no doubt about it.  It is, literally, the epitome of Catholic worship for from these events spring the whole of our religious practice.  A parishioner asked me once, “Why so much? Aren’t there more practical ways to spend our time, talent and treasure?”  At Bethany (Jn 12:1-11), Mary was so overjoyed by Jesus’ love (which had raised her brother Lazarus from the dead) that as a ‘thank you’ she poured a year’s worth of costly oil over his feet to anoint them, drying them with her hair.  This extravagance, this total self-gift, expressed bodily in action… this is the only fitting human response to God’s love.  It doesn’t negate our obligations to the practicalities of life (i.e. maintaining our physical plant or serving the poor), but rather it crowns them.  As Catholics our practical works should only ever spring from our worship and then find fulfillment in our worship.  If they don’t we have to ask ourselves why we’re engaged in them.

Holiness, the end of our pilgrimage

Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert
Jesus, victorious over temptation in the desert

Lent begins with the pleading of the Prophet Joel, “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole hear.” (JL 2:12-18)  echoed by St. Paul, “In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you.  Behold now is a very acceptable time.  Now is the day of salvation.” (II Cor 5:20-6:2)  …two Beautiful calls to the actions of self-sacrifice commanded by Christ: fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18)

And these all correspond to the first in a progression of graces (II Pt 1:5-7) from St. Peter: faith and virtue.  Faith and virtue are actions taken in response to the love of God.  Faith is a lived response to God, virtue, a disposition to do the good and avoid the evil.  As we take on these actions, Christ commands his faithful to do so joyfully.  “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites.” (Mt 6:1-6,16-18)  So right off the bat, Lent, which is a microcosm for the Christian life, is a period of joyful self-giving.  We need only look to our great saints as examples.  The early martyrs gave their lives as a response to God and did so while singing hymns in the arenas.  St. Philip Neri, an ascetic of the 16th century was never seen without a smile on his face… Bl. Teresa of Calcutta faced the most horrifying conditions known to man and did so with a smile because she was on pilgrimage to heaven with those for whom she cared.

From these actions of faith and virtue, first undertaken with a sense of pedagogy or instruction the faithful begin to find enlightenment, “the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart.”  (Rm 10:8-13)  We walk with God’s people through the deserts of self-giving and we learn how to relate to him an ongoing relationship/friendship develops (cf. Dt 26:4-10).  This is the same enlightenment Christ experiences in the desert.  He himself fasts and prays and by total dependence on the Father begins to realize – at the start of his public ministry – that rooted in the Father’s love, he can face any challenge.  And so he rejects the devil’s threefold appeals to human hunger, vanity and fear (Lk 4:1-13).  The light of the Father’s love shines brighter than the goods of this world.  Here our great example among the saints is Francis of Assisi.

Our faith and virtue grow through enlightenment from a matter of mere instructionalism to a self-propelling dynamic of growth… they become motivated from within as -like Christ- we rejoice in our new relationship with the Father.  And this is our next grace for a Lent: joy.  We need to pray for a joy… not an easy comfortable joy but a foundational joy that keeps us rolling through the hardest times.  It’s the joy of Abraham hearing from God… at the end of your journey I will make your descendants numerous…(Gn. 15:5-12, 17-18) …of Paul who proclaims “our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await the Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Phill. 3:20-4:1)   It’s the deep foundational joy of Peter a James and John who – terrified at the prospect of the crucifixion – were reassured by the Transfiguration on Tabor (Lk 9:28-36)… Each of these is a joy rooted in the future, rooted in the end of the pilgrimage, rooted ultimately in heavenly communion with God.   Such was the joy of St. Agnes.

Rafael, “Transfiguration”

Joy gives us the oomph… the boost… as it were, to move on to a higher plane of holiness and pray for the grace of continence.  Spiritual continence is, to be colloquial, the right ordering of all our spiritual insides.  The proper balancing of our desires, our needs, obligations… when it’s a choice between good and evil… and harder still when we have to choose between multiple goods.  It’s living out the justification we receive by faith (Rm 5:1-2, 5-8).  Justification: being set in “right-relationship” with God.  Continence is perfected in endurance, living out our newfound integration over a lifetime.  This is often where comfort begins to fade and the hard gritty work of growth sets in.  As St. Paul tells us, “now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light,  for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness” (Eph. 5:8-14).  It’s the movement of Moses from the early heady excitement of the burning bush, up the mountain into the cloud of God’s presence.  It can be dark, the path can seem obscure… we may be afraid of losing ourselves but the balancing of continence is the only way forward.  Here our example is St. Pio of Pietraclina (Padre Pio)

Finally, we come at the end of Lent to the entry into the Promised Land… the Passion of the Christ as he enters his heavenly kingdom… we come to the grace of holiness.  Holiness is that quality which is most properly of God.  Our self-giving at first an act of simple obedience became and experience of enlightenment… filled with joy… prompting us to an enduring spiritual continence… now we reach our great goal of our striving.  Emptied of ourselves, we are filled with Christ, “if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (Rm 8:8-11).  Here we take as our example a saint who canonized many saints, John Paul II.  John Paul picked up the invitation of the Second Vatican Council calling all men and women to holiness.  This Universal Call to Holiness, outlined in the epic teaching documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes reminded the Catholic world that entry into heaven is God’s desire for all people and that it cannot be achieved by riding on the coat tails of the vowed religious (priests, nuns, et al.)… The call to holiness must find its response in each Christian souls intentional discipleship (to use a contemporary term).  And this intentional discipleship requires intimate contemplative prayer with the Father, after the model of Jesus himself who raised Lazarus by prayer to the Father.

In closing, I hope this romp through the Lenten readings, as well as a series of saintly examples can dispel from our consciousness the culturally conditioned image of Lent as a time of blind misery.  It’s a pilgrimage… and pilgrimages are not easy, but even their challenges are couched in Gospel joy, the joy of being loved by the Father, inspired to self gift with the Son all offered up in the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Endurance, The Perfection Virtue

St. Perpetua and Felicity from their altar at the National Shrine - Washington, DC
Ss. Perpetua and Felicity from their altar at the National Shrine – Washington, DC

This fourth week of Lent we come to another grace for the Christian life according to St. Peter: endurance.

We all know that endurance means that something is sustained over time.  This grace becomes the perfection all the others we’ve mentioned.  It’s one thing to make one act of faith… one moment of humility… one period of continence… But to maintain these and the other graces on which we’ve meditated for a lifetime.  That is spiritual perfection.  Indeed, if we think of the ultimate state of perfection – heaven – we realize that is is marked precisely by endurance; it is everlasting.

So much for what endurance is… Now, how do we achieve it?  For that we turn the example of the early Church which endured three centuries of persecutions under the Roman Empire.  These first generations of martyrs are always a highlight of our Lenten journey because they endured  in faith even unto death.  Their endurance sprang from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and with each other.  Only one who has been personally touched by God has the inspiration necessary for faith that endures martyrdom.  Only one who has personally known the martyrs can pass on their torch with lasting conviction.  Two saints exemplify the case: Felicity and Perpetua. 

They were young Christian women, and friends in second century Roman North Africa.  Felicity was, in fact, Perpetua’s maid-servant.  During the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus both women were separated from their husbands and children and sent to prison.  Perpetua’s father, a local [pagan] nobleman, pleaded with her to renounce Christ for the sake of her husband and child, but she refused.  Led to the center of the ring, Perpetua called out to the crowds, “Stand firm in faith, love on another and do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”  Two women, personally touched by Christ… personally encouraged and affirmed by each other’s Christian friendship found the endurance needed to exemplify heroic virtue.

Such endurance is not just the possession of distant antiquity.  Just last week Muslim extremists in Yemen raided a convent of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s nuns).  Four sisters and twelve of aged men and women they cared for (It was a home for the elderly poor) were brutally killed for their Christian faith (note: the patients were not necessarily Christian… they were killed simply for being in the care of Christians).  Only women deeply and personally in love with Jesus and each other would (a) go to a war-torn place of deep poverty to serve the poor, (b) stay there in the midst of a civil war, and (c) endure in  their faith unto death.  They are martyrs of today, saints in eternity.  May they and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for their persecutors.

How deep does my relationship with Jesus go?  Do I have a network of Christian friendships that supports me in my faith? What would I be willing to endure for the sake of that faith?

Felicity, Perpetua and the Martyrs of Yemen… Pray for us who have recourse to thee!  -Amen

Excerpt from the Martyrdom of the Christians at Carthage

Perpetua was the first to be thrown down, and she fell prostrate.  She got up seeing that Felicity had also fallen, wen over and reached out to her and lifted her up.  Both stood together.  The hostility of the crowd was appeased, and the were ordered to the gate.  There Perpetua was welcomed by another Christian named Rusticus.  Rousing herself (so deeply had she been in spiritual ecstasy), she began to look around.  To the amazement of all she said, “When are we going to be led to the beast?”  When she heard she was already there, she did not at first believe until she saw the marks of violence on her body.  She addressed them in these words, “Stand firm in faith, love one another ad do not be tempted to do anything wrong because of our sufferings.”