Shopping at the supermarket this morning, I remembered that today is Passover eve. It's been several years now since I last attended a seder. It's such a great ritual. And filled with all sorts of things for people - of all ages - to do! I suppose that was deliberately done to hold people's attention - especially kids' attention - during the long ritual. Of course, the point of holding people's attention at the seder is to tell the story. And that is what the Church tries to accomplish with the things we do in Holy Week.
Celebrating Mass at the school this morning - preaching on Mary of Bethany's lavish gesture of anointing Jesus' feet with expensive aromatic nard six days before Passover (John 12:1-11) - I tried to suggest a link between Mary's extravagant gesture and the Church's elaborate ceremonial in Holy Week. As I wrote here at the beginning of last year's Holy Week, that Gospel story serves as a great introduction to what we do as Church during Holy Week - with our intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, deliberately over-the-top ceremonies, extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church pulls out all the stops this week - and for a good reason. Not for nothing was this week formerly called The Great Week.
We have a great story to tell - better by far than any TV mini-series - and an important one, which needs to be told with all the ritual riches in the Church's treasury.
This is my first Holy Week as a pastor. So it is my special responsibility - more than it has ever been before - to make every effort to make these powerful rituals (which are not mere symbolic ceremonies but genuinely efficacious sacramental signs) be what they are intended to be for the benefit of all who experience them. The temptation is to become overly fixated on the mechanics of ceremony - who does what, when where, and how. All that's important, of course, and it is certainly my responsibility not to neglect any of that, but its importance is as a means to an end. The means may indeed be correct, well carried out liturgy - attente, reverente, ac devote (to use a tired and true formula). The end is that the transformative mystery which the ritual signifies should actually be effective in the hearts of those who experience it.
We got off to a good start, I think, on Palm Sunday. It was cold and blustery on Saturday, which forced us to start in the vestibule of the church rather than outside. Sunday, however, was sunny and just perfect for an outdoor procession. Gathering in an unaccustomed site - in our case, the parking lot across the street - and celebrating a solemn liturgical blessing there can be a challenge. But the experience of walking in procession and entering the church as an assembled community (as opposed to privately and individually, as we necessarily normally do) can be quite powerful. Leading that procession yesterday, I felt its efficacy.