Monday, March 30, 2015

Entering Holy Week

With yesterday’s celebration of Palm Sunday, the Church has entered into the unique and rich experience of Holy Week. The Gospel reading appointed for today, the Monday of Holy week – six days before Easter - situates us in a chronological framework. Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany (John 12:1).  Jesus and his disciples en route to Jerusalem for the annual Passover pilgrimage, stopped along the way at Bethany. But the events which took place during that particular Passover holiday not only coincided chronologically with the Passover celebration but brought the ancient Passover story to its fulfillment, establishing once and for all a ”new and eternal covenant.”

The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the story of the Passover. While the symbolism of the Passover permeates every Easter celebration, the chronological overlap vividly adds an additional dimension to our celebration this year, when the Jewish Passover coincides with Good Friday night - just as it does in John’s Gospel. That account, which will be solemnly proclaimed in the Good Friday Liturgy emphasizes how Jesus was crucified on the Preparation Day, at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin. (His accusers, we are told, would not enter Pilate’s headquarters in order not to be defiled, so that they could celebrate the Passover supper that night.)  And, if that year the Passover was celebrated on Good Friday night, then the offering of the first fruits of the grain harvest (prescribed in Leviticus 23) would have taken place that Sunday, symbolically fitting for the day of resurrection – the resurrection of Christ, of whom Saint Paul wrote: But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Some 40 years after those events, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple. As a result, the sacrifices prescribed by the Old Testament Law ceased – including the Passover sacrifice. Since then, with no Temple in which to sacrifice, the Jewish People have celebrated the Passover with a ritual meal in the home, at which the Passover story is retold, but without a paschal lamb. Meanwhile, for us Christians, the Passover sacrifice has found its final fulfillment in Christ, who sacrificed himself for us, once and for all, on the altar of the cross.

Today's Gospel for this Monday of Holy Week does more than establish a chronology. It also sets a certain mood for the liturgy of this week. Famously, it describes how Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha) anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. When her extravagance was criticized by Judas, Jesus defended her action by referring it to his upcoming burial. Like Mary, the Church this week pulls out all the liturgical stops, so to speak, holding nothing back. Instead she employs all the rich symbols of the liturgy to invite and enable us to enter as fully as humanly possible into the drama of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, so that we may more fully participate in its benefits. 

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