Thursday, April 18, 2019

Entering Easter

Since Pope Saint Paul VI's post-conciliar revamping of the Roman calendar, Lent ends this afternoon, and the Easter Triduum commemorating Christ's death, burial, and resurrection begins this evening with the Mass of the Lord's Supper. Previously, Lent lasted until the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass. Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday were then called the "Sacred Triduum." Already in 1642, however, Pope Urban VIII had changed the status of this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from holy days to weekdays, a recognition of the changing character of modern society. While vestiges of popular folk customs continue undoubtedly here and there, the secularization of society and its calendar long ago eroded the impact of these sacred days and their special rituals on many people's ordinary daily lives. Until 1955, therefore, the solemn ceremonies celebrated in the morning on each of these days were sparsely attended - as the reform decree Maxima redemptionis nostrae mysteria acknowledged later that year ("solemnes gravesque has sacri tridui liturgicas actiones a clericis peragi solere, ecclesiarum aulis saepe quasi desertis"). That year's reform, which moved the principal services to the evening on Thursday, the afternoon on Friday, and late evening or night on Saturday, did have the immediate effect of somewhat increasing attendance, at least in the short term.

For centuries the observance of these days has seemed to run on two parallel tracks, complementary but definitely different in style and emphasis. The poorly attended but official liturgical ceremonies highlighted the the paschal mystery as a unitary whole. The non-liturgical popular devotions held at more convenient times and typically much better attended, focused more on the historical commemoration and sentimental reenactment of individual events in the Passion story. Some of these popular devotions still survive as a cultural heritage (e.g., Spanish Holy Week processions) and/or as still very valued spiritual exercises of popular piety (e.g., the Stations of the Cross, which in places is still more popular and better attended than the official Liturgy of Good Friday). Meanwhile, the way the official, reformed rites are now celebrated - the times of the services and the replacement often of ancient texts by contemporary sentimental hymns - has significantly highlighted the element of historical commemoration and correspondingly diminished the older, liturgical sense of the unity of the paschal mystery. 

Thus, for example, the ancient Holy Thursday collect (originally borrowed from elsewhere in the week), with its references to Judas and the "Good Thief," has been replaced by a prayer referencing the Last Supper. Meanwhile the reading from Exodus instructing Moses on the observance of the Passover has been moved from its traditional place on Good Friday (in keeping with the liturgy's emphasis on John's image of Jesus as the paschal lamb) to Thursday, reinforcing the popular, but historically dubious, image of the Last Supper as a Passover "seder."

Perhaps it was inevitable that a more popular, vernacular liturgy would take on more of the character and style of some of those more modern, non-liturgical, popular devotions. Humanly speaking, there is something very natural about historical commemoration. It is also obviously the case that, much like the Christmas story, the Passion accounts easily lend themselves to a sort of pious sentimentality that may be inevitable and may in fact be what providentially helps keep the story culturally relevant in our own secularized and sentimental age.

In any case, both the liturgical and non-liturgical ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter are all powerful evocations both of the momentous events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus and of their salvific significance for us. It is a very special time, when, like Mary of Bethany (cf. John 12:1-11), the Church employs all her varied ritual treasures - and invites and encourages all of us to take maximum advantage of what she offers.

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