Monday, March 26, 2018

Holy Excess

Counting forward from today, it is six days until Easter. Presumably that accounts for the choice of today’s Gospel (John 12:1-11) which begins: Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany.

Today's Gospel for this Monday of Holy Week does more than establish a chronology, however. It also sets a certain mood for this week. Famously, it describes how Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha) anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. When her extravagance was criticized, Jesus defended her action by referring it to his upcoming burial. To me, this has always been a great introduction to what we do during Holy Week. Like Mary, the Church this week holds nothing back, so to speak. 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. 

Ritual, by its nature, is inherently somewhat extravagant. The great ceremonies of Holy Week are, however, even more so. They are intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, over-the-top. They are extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church practices a sort of holy excess. In this case, however, it is we who are the beneficiaries.

I am just old enough to remember the 1955 Decree Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, which initiated the modern reform of Holy Week - and the initial effect which that reform had in making the ceremonies of Holy Week so much more accessible. For ordinary churchgoers, the most significant change was the rescheduling of the principal Holy Week services to the afternoon and evening. For centuries, with the single exception of the Mass at Midnight on Christmas, Mass was always - and only - celebrated in the morning. Thus, prior to the Holy Week reform of 1955, the services of the Easter Triduum were all “anticipated” in the morning hours of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Changing the hours at which those services could be celebrated gave them a new kind of authenticity, but even more importantly it made attendance more widely possible on what were then otherwise ordinary secular workdays. 

For a few years at least, attendance notably increased at those services. As with all the 20th-century liturgical reforms, a lively debate continues in the Church about their intended benefits and their unintended consequences, whether for better or for worse. Other than changing the times, none of the other alterations in the ancient services added to their accessibility and so need to be judged by other criteria. But making the principal liturgical celebrations of the entire year more accessible for many more people to be able to attend was, I believe, in itself an evident benefit. While the liturgical enthusiasm of the late 1950s has long ago dissipated and can probably never be recovered, we would all still do well to take advantage as much as possible of the opportunity to participate in these extravagant sacred rites that are so filled with ritual power and symbolic meaning.

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