These three days of celebration focus on the mysteries central to Christian faith: Christ’s gift of his body and blood, his dying on the cross and coming to new life after death. While each day focuses on a different aspect, it is one mystery of our deliverance. Unlike some ways we use the word ‘mystery’ in common speech, a ‘mystery’ of faith is a depth of meaning that does not show itself readily. It is not meant to conceal or confuse, but to lead towards what is not easy to grasp. The revelation is so profound we have to work at understanding all it means. (This distinction is from Herbert McCabe’s analysis in God Matters.)
The liturgy as we come back to it again year after, allows us to find deeper and more meaningful levels as we journey to the final living in God’s love for eternity
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jump to Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil)
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Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday. The ‘Last Supper’ and the Gift of the Eucharist
Today is almost a preview of the whole, as Jesus anticipates his death and coming back in a new kind of kingdom. It draws us into the unity of the whole mystery, his gift of himself as bread and wine that nourishes our fullest life.
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
This reading is the Older Testament background for the feast of the Passover. Although presented as instructions given in Egypt, it seems to be ‘liturgical directions’ for the celebration of the Passover feast once the people were settled in Israel. Two originally separate feasts were joined and celebrated as the great liberation from servitude. Both names are used in the gospels: ‘Feast of the Unleavened Bread’ and ‘Passover’, the meal with a sacrificial lamb representing deliverance of the last plague when the Israelites were spared the death of their first born sons by the blood of the sacrificed animal. Death had ‘passed over’ the sons of the Hebrews while striking the Egyptian oppressors. It was a common belief of that time that blood sacrifices had the effect of saving human lives and this was part of the religious background of the Hebrews. Christians now see that Jesus’ self-offering of his life made real what had been symbolized in the older rites: reconciliation with God after our sinfulness has separated us from his love.
Psalm 115:12-13, 15-18
This psalm has both the ‘cup of salvation’ which we see as the Eucharist cup, and the precious value of the death of a holy one. We can see Jesus’ death as the ultimate ‘sacrifice of thanksgiving’.
I Corinthians 11:23-26
Although the first three gospels give an account of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, the reading chosen for this night is from St Paul. He adds to the words of Jesus, what may be his own conclusion: our taking part in the Eucharist is to ‘proclaim’ the saving death of Jesus, as showing our acceptance of Jesus’ and the gift of his life.
John does not write of the giving of the Eucharist and instead has the symbolic action of the foot-washing. John has earlier in the gospel, however, made even more clear than the other three, the reality of the sacrament, in a long explanation in chapter 6. His community would know that the Eucharist had been given at the meal, but writing at a later time, he sees their need for another teaching, which has meaning for us as well.
Jesus waits till the ending of the meal, rather than the usual time of arrival when the feet were dirty, and that in itself signals that what he is going to do is symbolic. Feet get soiled walking on dusty roads, and so it was a custom for a host to offer a foot washing to the guests. This was a task performed by a slave/servant, probably one of the least important of the household. This explains Peter’s protest: he does not think it right for Jesus to do for his disciples a task so lowly.
Jesus afterward tells them that, while they are right to call him ‘Lord and Master’, he has shown something about the kind of ‘Lord’ he is that and they are to take this as a model. Compare his words in Matthew 20:28: ‘I came not to be served, but to serve and give my life for all.’ While the church takes Jesus’ command to celebrate the Eucharist is one to be repeated over and over, this is the only day of the year in which foot-washing is re-enacted. ‘Wash one another’s feet’ is a symbolic way of saying ‘do whatever services fellow humans have need of’. While such service is something to be especially observed by those in positions of authority and power, it also is a call for everyone whenever we see someone in need. Catherine Doherty says, ‘Christians are people of the towel and the water.’
Good Friday – the Passion and Death of Jesus
This is the ‘Song of the Suffering Servant’, the most profound expression in the Old Testament of the meaning and value of the suffering of the innocent and of those who are persecuted for their dedication to God’s service. The opening words ‘be lifted up’ are used in the Gospel of John for Jesus on the cross. Echoes of this passage are found in various parts of the gospels. I find it a moving passage that calls more for meditation than comment.
Psalm 30: 2, 6, 12-13, 15-17, 25
There is also in this psalm as it were, ‘pre-echoes’ of the Passion, and the words, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’ are quoted by Jesus at his death in Luke’s gospel.
Letter to the Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
The writer of this Letter sees Jesus’ death as making him the High Priest of the new covenant, an advocate that knows the depth of human temptation and suffering and so is always ready to help us. We are reminded that it was through Christ’s death that our salvation comes.
Here comments are mostly on how John differs from the other three gospels. As an overview, John has chosen to stress not so much the weakness which was spoken of in the Letter to the Hebrews, but to show Jesus’ total command of the entire event, even at the moment of his death.
While relating the history and the tradition of the Passion, John has also throughout the gospel found ways to bring out the theological understanding of the events. He dramatizes scenes, as the dialogue with Pilate, to make even clearer what kind of King Jesus is, and how he reaches his kingship through suffering and death. The use of misunderstanding, as so often in John allows clarification; and the use of irony and allusions to the Old Testament are other John techniques all present in the passion. One scene that may be more symbolic than factual is during the arrest of Jesus in the garden: when the arresting party says they seek ‘Jesus the Nazarene’. In the Greek text his response is simply ‘I am,’ and although this could mean (as translated) ‘I am he’, it also echoes the divine name of the Old Testament, where God says, ‘I AM.’ Jesus previously used this divine title for himself in John 8:58. The soldiers fall to the ground like the awe of those who have witnessed the presence of God. They can only arrest Jesus after he has made his control of events clear.
‘The disciple whom Jesus loved’ (or ‘the Beloved Disciple’) is a figure only in John, and never given a name. There is unending speculation on who it actually was, with no agreed identification. It may have been a real person, or a symbolic role as the ideal, or be both. If we think he/she as a picture of how the perfect follower would be, John is contrasting that to the failings of the actual disciples, such as showing Peter’s misunderstandings and his denial of being a disciple during the trial scenes. The beloved disciple is given the care of Jesus’ mother (who is also never given a personal name in this gospel) and she then is to be mother of the disciple. The Church sees this passage as making Mary the mother of all Christians, which fits the kind of symbolism frequent in John.
The incident of the soldier piercing the side of Jesus is only in John and it obviously was intended to have deeper meaning than just proving his death, but the significance has been debated. John may have intended it to have multiple resonances. Blood and water representing the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism is one interpretation. John gives us one quotation that links to the Passover (‘not a bone shall be broken’) and in his timing of the Passion, Jesus’ death occurs at the hour of sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the temple.
To Joseph of Arimathea at the burial, John adds Nicodemus; both were secret disciples. Nicodemus figures in chapter 3 in the discussion of baptism, and this subtly links Jesus’ death with the life given to the disciples. All the gospels have a pause over the next day after Jesus is left in the tomb.
The Easter Vigil as Christ takes up a glorious new life
The liturgy of the vigil night goes back to the early church, and expresses the eagerness of Christians to start celebrating Easter as soon as possible. It was the traditional time for admitting ‘catechumens’ (new members) into the church and this practice has been revived in modern times. When possible, parishes bring in those who are being baptised or joining the church and sacraments.
Many of the ceremonies specifically recall events in the Old Testament which are seen as foretelling all that Jesus was and came to do. They begin with the new fire, and the lighting of the Paschal candle, with the theme of Christ the Light of the World. Then come readings; there are eight in the liturgy but in our parish, we usually hear only three. All are followed by a response from a relevant psalm.
1: Genesis 1:1-2:2
This is the beginning of our Bible, going back to the moment before there was anything of the world and the universe but only the presence of God. It is a poetic meditation rather than scientific explanation. The dramatic words, ‘Let there be light!’ are a tie to the ceremonies of fire and candle just preceding the reading. It also fits with the idea of the early Church that baptism (celebrated later in this liturgy) is ‘enlightenment’. This selection is a majestic meditation on the relation of God to all creation, and of the perfection God desired to bring forth. There is no death in this ideal – even the animals are vegetarians! This account of perfection is followed in the rest of the Old Testament by ‘what went wrong’ and how God works in a world very different from the intended unity.
2: Genesis 22:1-18
This is a difficult text, and can be taken on several levels; first it may be a lesson against child sacrifice, practiced by some of the cultures of the time. With Herbert McCabe, we can try to enter into the mystery which casts light on Christ’s sacrifice. Not only is Abraham faced with a personal loss, but it is through Isaac God has promised that he will be the ‘father’ of many peoples. So he is faced with a contradiction. He responds moment by moment, somehow trusting that the God who is love is at work where it seems impossible. It for this faith that he is praised by St Paul (Romans 4). Jesus has been sent to bring God’s Kingdom or Dominion to this world, but he is destined to die before this can occur. Yet through his death, some entirely new way of living in community with God and other humans will come about. The paradox is that the destruction becomes the way the mission is carried out.
3: Exodus 14:15 – 15:1
Here a lively account, dramatically staged, of God’s rescue of the people from Egyptian oppression. This ties the theme of salvation, and of the Passover, to our Easter celebration. And it is a reminder which fits the Easter season: that when things seem most desperate, God is still there to save.
4: Isaiah 54:5-14
A poetic account typical of this prophet uses the image of marriage for God’s relationship with his people. The people have been faithless, and seemingly abandoned by God from the blessings of the land they inherited, but God’s love always still reaches out to them. We too are constantly sought out by such powerful love, as shown in Jesus’ life-death-resurrection.
5: Isaiah 55:1-11
A rich text, one I think merits much reflection, one to extend beyond the reading of one night. God’s abundant, everlasting love is expressed in various images, free food and drink, moving beyond Israel to all peoples, his ‘availability’ at all times, forgiveness – all happens though God’s will to bring it about.
6: Baruch 3:9-15, 32:4-4
A book rarely heard in the mass, it first describes the reaction to the Babylonian Exile, when the kingdoms had forgotten God’s law. Then it moves into the ‘Wisdom’ tradition of describing the beauty and power of God’s Law.
7: Ezekiel 36:16-28
Ezekiel gives an angry description of ‘what went wrong’ with God’s creation and previous offers of salvation – people turning away from love to many kinds of sinfulness. This leads to a new promise of salvation, which begins with the symbol of cleansing water and so is most appropriate for this night of blessing of water and the rite of baptism. And for all of us, the gift of a ‘new spirit’ and a loving heart is promised.
8: Romans 6:3-11
After the readings from the Older Testament, the mass begins with a reading from St Paul, especially appropriate when there are candidates to be baptised. He sees baptising as a ‘dying’ to the power of sin over us, and as Christ came to a new life after his death, we should live as if dead to all that separates us from God, now we are alive in the new life that comes to in Christ Jesus.
None of the Gospels describe the actual resurrection of Jesus, for it was seen by no human person. There are various witnesses however of the new reality of Jesus ‘risen from the dead’ when in some ways what he had been but what he is now in a new kind of life. We see the disciples still bewildered as they begin to understand something of what this is like for Jesus and also for them. It is through their partial witnessing that we too can realise that this Jesus is present still to us. That presence we have been celebrating through the Mystery of these three days. We have the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, we find Jesus in one another, and in the depths of our faith and trust in God’s love.
Year C has Luke’s account of finding the empty tomb, which appears in all four gospels with varying details. All agree that it was women who came to the burial place, with the spices that were used to prepare a corpse. No one is expecting to find anything but the dead body of Jesus. The previous day had been a Saturday when all the disciples observed the Sabbath rest (as was featured in the first reading from Genesis as part of creation). They come as early as they can when the Sabbath is over, at the first light.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer describes the stone that had been rolled away. Tombs have been found around Jerusalem ‘fitted with huge circular stone discs that were set in a channel hollowed out of stone, along which the discs would be rolled in front of a rectangular doorway opening on to the tomb proper.’ We can imagine the puzzlement of the women at finding the tomb they had seen secured on Friday night now open, and then the further shock that Jesus’ body was not there. Luke describes ‘two men’ in dazzling clothing, which is a more-than-earthly brilliance. Later in Luke, they will be called ‘angels’. The woman recognized them as more than humans, as they bow in reverence. Luke has the striking words of ‘Why look among the dead for one who is alive!’ They remind the women that Jesus had predicted both his death and his resurrection, though none of the disciples had been able to understand the meaning of this at the time.
The women go to report to the Eleven – the Apostles minus the traitor Judas. Luke now names three of the women who had been mentioned earlier in the gospels, but adds there were more women disciples with them. Peter in Luke is the only one to check out their words, and is left ‘amazed’ at what he finds. Belief comes in stages. Luke tells us that later Jesus appeared to him but does not describe that.[In Year C, we do not hear from Luke again at Sunday masses until Ascension Thursday. You may during this season like to read the verses following today’s selection (13:35) which tell of Jesus’ appearing to two disciples on the road, and teaching them the meaning of his death as foretold by scripture, and how they recognized him ‘in the breaking of the bread’ – showing Jesus is alive for all generations who recognize him in the Scripture and Eucharist.]
Mass on Easter Sunday
Acts 10:34, 37-43
This is Peter’s teaching in his first experience of taking the Good News beyond the people of Israel. The visions of Peter and Cornelius that bring about this encounter start with Acts:10-1. This reading gives a summary of the life-death-resurrection of Jesus.
There are two choices for the second reading, either Colossians 3:1-4 or 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. Both speak of how we now should live in the presence of the risen Saviour.
As so often, this Gospel gives us a different take from the first three. Only Mary of Magdala is mentioned as coming to the tomb. She does not see a heavenly messenger but only the empty tomb, and thinks his body has been removed. Then she runs to tell Simon Peter and the ‘other disciple’ (maybe the ‘Beloved Disciple’ of the Passion story). They too find the empty tomb. That convinces the other disciple that now the scripture can be understood as preparation for understanding the resurrection. Later in the Gospel, Mary meets the risen Christ and he predicts his Ascension.
The liturgy is designed to bring us into the events it presents, and the following weeks will continue to explain what the resurrection of Christ means for us.