When I worked for Colonial Williamsburg the powers that be introduced a curriculum in which the events of four important days leading up to the Revolution were recreated in the streets and buildings of the Historic Area. On Wednesday the royal governor’s wife arrived in with much fanfare to show that Virginians were still loyal subjects in 1774. On Thursday, it is April 1775 as Peyton Randolph prepares to attend Continental Congress in Philadelphia and news arrives of bloodshed in Massachusetts. It’s November 1775 on Friday and Governor Dunmore is offering to liberate slaves who will fight with him against their rebel masters. Finally on Saturday, it’s May 1776 and Virginia votes to declare independence. Then we started all over again.
Instituting the new program was tough and repetition made it even harder to keep things fresh. That the program debuted during Holy Week that year meant I was extra busy both at work and church. It also made me realize that Colonial Williamsburg’s new idea wasn’t that new. The Church had been doing the same thing every Holy Week for nearly 2,000 years. On Palm Sunday, Christ is received in glory in Jerusalem. On Holy Thursday he dines with his friends, washes their feet, and is betrayed. On Good Friday, Jesus is put to death. And finally, with great huzzahs, Christ rises from the dead on Easter Sunday. Each year we recreate the stories the bear repeating (although I’m glad we don’t have to reenact them twice a week from March to October).
Here’s the story of my Holy Week for 2007.
I’d not been on a retreat for a long time, so around Christmas I began looking for somewhere to take a prayerful weekend. I discovered Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham would be holding a weekend of quiet prayer the last weekend of Lent and immediately signed up. I find that I’m all too often a human do-er rather than a human being and while I serve several ministries in my church community, volunteer regularly, and try to read scriptures and reflections daily, I fail at the simple act of praying and loving God, so this retreat seemed ideal.
I did have the problem that Glastonbury Abbey is not currently on any public transit lines. So I sailed on the harbor ferry from Rowe’s Wharf and then walked about 3.5 miles to the Abbey. This added a fun cruise and a bit of a pilgrimage to my retreat. I regularly walk three miles to work so that wasn’t such a big deal to do the walk although I was unpleasantly surprised that some roads in Hingham have no sidewalks. It’s evidence of the preponderance of car culture that the other retreats were aghast that I walked and insisted on giving me a ride back to Hingham Center on Sunday.
Glastonbury Abbey’s grounds are beautiful and the monks are friendly and easygoing. I imagined them filing into the church in rows while chanting, but it turns out there are only eight Benedictines in residence with one guest monk. The retreat itself was lead by Fr. John Kelleher, OSB. He taught a type of contemplative prayer called centering prayer which dates back at least to medieval times and is taught by people like Thomas Keating and William Menninger. This type of prayer is simply loving God with no strings attached, and the best part is that one cannot do it wrong. Fr. John emphasizes that it’s not for everyone but I found it very satisfying to what I had come to the retreat looking for.
I also enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow retreatants, a group of kind people with interesting stories. I also enjoyed participating in the various prayer services of the liturgy of the hours. The monastery is very much part of the neighborhood and many local people are involved in praying and working with the monks. On Palm Sunday we had a beautiful liturgy beginning with a procession up the hill to the church. In a personally beneficial example of “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first” I was one of the last people to enter the Church from the procession. The hospitality ministers asked me to join several people standing in the corner. They searched for seats for several of the more elderly people and by the time the first reading was about to begin, only another retreatant and myself were left standing. Then one of the hospitality ministers told us he had two seats, and they were in the stalls, where the monks sit!!! They may call them miserichords but I found my seat comfy and a unique place to be during Mass.
All in all a most blessed weekend.
Here are my photos from the weekend.
Monday through Wednesday are kind of a calm before the storm in Holy Week, three days of quiet anticipation. Then Thursday comes, Lent ends, and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper kicks of the Triduum. Martha, Martha has a good explanation of what the Triduum means.
The Mass on Holy Thursday is bittersweet. On the good side it is a commemoration of a simple meal that Jesus shared with his friends, one that is recreated each time we celebrate and share the Eucharist. Equally powerful, Christ demonstrates what it means to serve by getting down on his knees and washing his disciples stinky feet. Peter, of course, doesn’t get it. Peter usually stands in for most of us, because speaking for myself I can assure you that I don’t understand the magnitude of what Christ teaches us.
At my church we have a tradition that everyone has their feet washed. The person who has just been washed washes the next person in line. Everyone is a servant and everyone is served. I attended one of the foot washing stations and so I got to see men and women wash the feet of their spouse, parents wash the feet of their children, and most touching people washing the feet of complete strangers. That was the case for me as a man I’ve never met before and whose name I still don’t know washed my feet. It was a busy Mass for me as I also processed with the Cross and proclaimed the scripture from Exodus, but that moment sticks out most for me.
The sad side of course is that Christ is betrayed, arrested, and abandoned. In the Mass, the Eucharist is carried out of the chapel and the door of the tabernacle left wide open. In solemn procession Jesus is taken away from us.
I was moved by Dawn Eden’s reflection on The Last Kiss on Busted Halo. It’s long been a mystery to me why Judas had to betray Jesus. I don’t mean the historical or symbolic reasons that Christ was betrayed by a friend, but why the Jewish authorities even needed Judas to find Christ. I know there are several instances in the Gospels of Jesus being protected by the presence of the crowds, but on the other hand he never hid either, so I wonder why the authorities needed Judas to find him.
The most solemn day of the liturgical calendar remembering when Christ was tried, mocked, abused, and put to death on a Cross. A sad and harrowing tale. Since it is believed that Christ died around 3 in the afternoon, that is the time the Lord’s Passion begins at all the area churches. If they wanted to go for real synchronousness the Passion would start at 8 am which is 3 pm in Jerusalem time, and then I would have been able to attend. As it was I was stuck at work and with desk shifts to cover I could not even sneak out for a long lunch. Instead I made do listening to the New American Bible and Pray-as-you-go podcasts while I worked.
In the evening, Susan and I attended Tenebrae, the service of darkness. In a mostly darkened chapel, prayers are read, scriptures proclaimed, and lamentations sung. After each reading one of seven candles is extinguished. Finally the last candle is removed from the chapel and everyone makes a terrible noise of slapping the pews, stamping feet, and banging drums and sheet metal in the balcony to represent the earthquake at Christ’s crucifixion. It’s a beautiful and moving service.
The mood swings 180 degrees for the marathon Mass on the eve of Easter. Fr. Kelly, the chaplain of Catholic campus ministry when I was at William & Mary, always mentioned that the early Christians would stay up all night before Easter reading scripture and sharing stories of Christ. A woman at Glastonbury Abbey told me that the monks and the community have started the Easter Vigil at 4 am on Easter morning so that the natural sunlight floods into the church at the appropriate time. By comparison, our 3 1/2 hour Mass is pretty lightweight.
I was not as involved in Easter Vigil as I was with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, but Susan lead the Sacristans for the Vigil so I had a front-row pew on all the behind-the- scenes action. This includes the inevitable gaffes which were many but inconsequential. All the important things happened:
- The three elect were baptized.
- These same three women received the sacraments of Confirmation and first Eucharist.
- And most importantly, Jesus rose from the dead.
The Easter Vigil is so amazing in so many ways. It starts in darkness with the Service of Fire. The Paschal Candle is blessed and lit and the flame is passed from candle to candle among the congregation (try to resist singing “Pass it On” in your head as this happens). Then it’s story time. Nine, count ‘em, nine readings from scripture going through our entire faith history culminating in the resurrection of Christ. You don’t realize how much you miss those Alleluias until your belting them out as the lights come up.
The big moment for me during Easter Vigil each year is when the elect come forward to be baptized. They lay prostrate on the marble, and every year I end up weeping. It’s such a powerful thing to see, especially since I cannot remember my own baptism. Their actual immersion is something great to see as well. I asked one of our neophytes after the Vigil what it was liked to be baptized. She said that she couldn’t tell me right now other than it was wet and short. “The marble was really long, but the baptism was short.”
John Dear, S.J. wrote this great reflection on Easter and the resurrection.
To complete the weekend(but only begin the Easter Octave) we attended the Paschal Vespers service on Sunday night. This service is the antithesis of Tenebrae. Candles are lit by each person and placed in a bowl of sand. They are not snuffed but instead allowed to burn brilliantly merging together into one consuming flame. The service alternates between prayer, scripture, and song, all of it joyous celebration of Christ’s ressurection. It’s really one of the most beautiful events that happens in the Church year.
And so, on Tuesday of the Easter Octave I finally complete writing this post. Happy Easter, Alleluia, Alleluia!