Today is a strange day. The drama of the crucifixion is over and we are left, tired, empty, devoid of the sacraments and the conventional rhythms of church life, to ponder what we do not see: the coming of the light, Christ’s harrowing of hell, and the promise of the resurrection. It is a day when we do nothing because God does everything. An early Christian writer captured the essence of this time by speaking of its silence and stillness:
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve . . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’
It is hard for us to do nothing. We seem to think everything depends on us, and life would certainly come to an end were we to fold our hands and expect food, shelter and everything else to fall into our laps. The kind of nothingness I am talking about is a recognition of God’s supremacy. It requires the silence of humility, the stillness of love, but we find both difficult. We tend to fill the universe with our noisy chatter and busy plans for this and that. One of the lessons of Holy Saturday is to let all that go, to allow God to be God in our lives, to own the mystery. Only then can we embrace the resurrection.
Today, just before 3.00 p.m., we shall go into the oratory and either prostrate or kneel before the altar for a minute or two before celebrating the Solemn Liturgy. That silence, that abandonment of our usual posture, expresses what could never be put into words: the utter transcendence of God and our complete reliance upon him. Today, of all days, that is brought home to us by our reverting to a primitive form of liturgy made up of long readings from scripture and prayers in which we pray for all the world’s needs. For us, there will be no Communion of the Presanctified. With the death of Christ on the cross we enter a world devoid of sacraments, a time of waiting, of radical emptiness.
And then? More emptiness. There is only the soft soughing of the wind as it passes over Calvary to remind us of the epic duel between good and evil we have witnessed, the unadorned cross in the oratory and a lassitude of spirit that goes beyond the ordinary. We are numb with shock and horror, yet even at this moment, we know that this is not the end of the story. As day passes into night, a great change is being worked but we are as yet unaware of it and its consequences. For us, there is only the waiting, and the emptiness.
Last year, I was drawn to write about the mothers of Jesus and Judas and their experience of the crucifixion. It may be worth re-visiting. If so, please click the link below (opens in new tab). There is an audio version at the end.
Early this morning, before dawn, I went into the kitchen and made some unleavened bread. It does not take long. The whole process should be completed in about eighteen minutes, after which the dough begins to ferment and ceases to be unleavened. Like making the wine used in the Eucharist, bread-making has always been for me deeply symbolic: the place where everyday life and theology intertwine and become one. The bread I made will be our bread of affliction, eaten while still sweet and tangy at a commemorative meal* later today, then stale and crumbly tomorrow on Good Friday, and finally rock hard, with all the bitterness of loss and death, on Holy Saturday. It is a way of literally absorbing the meaning of these three days into our flesh. On Easter Sunday morning we shall feast on fresh white rolls, a rare delicacy in the monastery, made in the same kitchen, from the same flour, but completely transformed by the action of yeast and the addition of a little butter and milk.
The passion, death and resurrection of Christ, celebrated during the Paschal Triduum, is the pivotal event in human history but so full of incident that we have difficulty registering more than a fraction of its significance at any one time. It too is transformative, and we are given these three days, liturgically one day, to try to grasp the mystery they contain. We begin with Maundy Thursday, the institution of the Eucharist and the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. It is a dark time but also a time of hope. This is the the story of our redemption and we enter into it with every nerve stretched, poised to receive the greatest of all gifts offered by our Saviour, life itself.
Last year on this day I wrote about the loneliness Jesus experienced in Gethsemane and mused on the part played by Judas. We forget that when Jesus looked into the darkness ahead of him, he acknowledged his need of help. He sweat blood at the thought of it; but just when he might have expected his disciples to be most alert to his need, the only help he received came from an angel.
Many have felt a similar loneliness and vulnerability during the past year. They have experienced the darkness of not being able to share fully in the liturgical celebrations of the season, a painful isolation from family and friends, or gone through some other sorrow or deprivation that has left them sad or anxious. Add to that the horror of political and religious repression, violence and corruption, and the terrible toll exacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the effect can be overwhelming. That very human and familiar experience parallels the gathering darkness in the gospel narrative. Judas steps out into the night; Jesus prays alone while his disciples sleep; only a few soldiers seem to be abroad, tasked with apprehending malefactors.
It is not surprising if we feel weariness at the thought of what lies ahead of us during the Triduum. We grieve for all that Christ must undergo for our sakes. Our feasting will be changed into lamentation and we shall be left confused, sad, uncertain for a while. But tonight, as we turn our gaze towards the Upper Room and the Mount of Olives, let us not forget the promise of light. Jesus is moving inexorably towards death and resurrection, but for us that means freedom, redemption. We need fear no longer. Soon the darkness will be scattered, never to trouble us more.
*Our commemorative meal is not a seder, simply a meal at which we serve unleavened bread and wine (or, in our case, unfermented grape juice) as a reminder of the Eucharist.
Many call today ‘Spy Wednesday’, the day when Judas finally betrayed Jesus and went in search of those who wanted him dead. Matthew’s account (Matthew 26.14-25 ) is a familiar narrative, but I wonder whether it is not a little too simple, too inclined to portray Judas as the arch-traitor beyond redemption. We know that despite the deal made earlier with the Chief Priests, there was still time for a change of heart, for a renewal of the old love and friendship between Judas and his Lord. But it didn’t happen, not then, at any rate, and we are left pondering the dynamic of what did occur. How we interpret that says as much about us as it does about Judas.
For generations, Christians have taken delight in placing Judas firmly in hell. We have off-loaded onto him all the betrayals and broken trust that has afflicted the world throughout the ages, and we feel safe doing so because what could be more villainous than to betray our Saviour for a paltry 30 pieces of silver? It is vicarious justification for actions that would otherwise seem harsh and unforgiving. But notice the image that stands at the head of this post. It is a lost toy, a sad little bear. It wasn’t chosen arbitrarily.
To me the photo is a reminder that Jesus and Judas were friends, and Jesus never stopped loving him. What might that mean? There is an innocence, a playfulness, about friendship we often forget when we think of Jesus and the disciples. Judas, himself possibly a Zealot, may have been disappointed in Jesus’ failure to become the political leader he hoped for, but was Jesus disappointed in Judas? Did Judas’s company bring him joy right up to the end and that painful parting of ways? Was Judas a friend still, lost in some ways, but always close to his heart? In other words, is it possible that we see the relationship between Jesus and Judas in ways that fit our own narrative rather than what truly occurred between them?
We cannot answer such questions with certainty, but those words of Jesus, ‘Better for that man if he had never been born!’, suggest to me not the prospect of eternal punishment but of eternal anguish. If true, Jesus did not approve of what Judas had done but forgave him and grieved at the suffering that lay before him. That is an important point, because it leaves open the question whether Judas is condemned to hell for all eternity in the way we tend to assume. In any case, we must remember it is Judas’s despair of God’s mercy, not his betrayal, that has always been considered the greater sin. We can see why. Such despair is to doubt the very nature of God, his love, mercy and forgiveness.
That thought should make us uncomfortable. The way we see Judas says a great deal about how we ourselves see God and the trust (or lack of it) that we have in his love and forgiveness. God does not approve of sin, anyone’s sin. He does not endorse the wrong we do or pretend it doesn’t matter, but he does forgive — utterly. It is we who hold others (and sometimes ourselves) to account, we who say ‘I cannot forgive X or Y’ as though it were a virtue in us; and we habitually assume God is of the same mind. Perhaps today we might spend a few moments thinking about that. Jesus on the cross suffered and died for us while we were still sinners. How dare we be less merciful than he? How dare we make ourselves, or anyone else, to be lost? We are not discarded toys. We are infinitely precious in God’s eyes, and his desire is that we should be with him for all eternity.
Today, as we eavesdrop on the dialogue about betrayal between Jesus and Peter (cf John 13) we are confronted with a bleak truth. We all know the pain of being betrayed, but we are less likely to ackowledge the pain of betraying others. Yet that is exactly what we do, all the time! The tragedy is that we do not always recognize the ways in which we let others down, or we impersonalise them so that they remain ‘other’ and never take on an individual, human face. The UK’s reduction in its aid budget, from 0.7 to 0.5% of GDP, is not just a scaling down by one of the world’s most generous givers, it is also a betrayal of those who were relying on it to fund healthcare and education projects, for example. Then there are the more obviously personal betrayals: the broken promises, the cheating on relationships, the selfish choice we make.
As we go deeper into Holy Week, it would be good to take stock. Instead of worrying about how others have hurt us, perhaps we could spend a few moments thinking how we have hurt others, asking forgiveness if we can, but at any rate resolving not to fall into old patterns of behaviour. It can be helpful to look at what drives us to betray others. It may be money, the need to appear successful, even laziness. For each of us it will be different, but discovering our own weakness may enable us to understand better the betrayals of Judas and Peter, and the loneliness Christ experienced as a result.
Yesterday we wreathed our processional cross with bay leaves as a sign of Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and his ultimate victory over sin and death. Today starts more soberly, with the alabaster jar of nard Mary poured over the feet of Jesus to prepare him for his burial.
None of the disciples demurred at yesterday’s marks of rejoicing. They cost nothing as far as they were concerned, and they may even have felt some reflected glory. It would have been better if their leader had entered the city in a more obviously dignified way, but the applause of the crowd was sweet to their ears. Jesus was, however briefly, undeniably a class act, a celebrity. Today’s more private anointing among friends at Bethany was another matter and Judas, diligent steward that he was, pointed out that a better use might have been made of the money spent: ‘Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor?’
Poor Judas, he was always getting things wrong. Of course the poor matter; of course we must share with them; but there is also room for that jar of nard, and for the love of which it is a sign. Mary has understood what Judas has not. Her reckless, extravagant act is a response to the love Jesus has shown. It has no other purpose than to delight the Lord — a moment of humanity and care at a bleak and dangerous time. Holy Week will take us into some dark places, will confront us with betrayal and disbelief, torture and death, but we cannot accompany the Lord in his Passion if we do not also accompany him with our love and prayer. Just as that broken jar of nard filled the house at Bethany with its scent, so our prayer should fill the whole world with its fragrance. We too may need to be broken, poured out, pay a great price, but we know an even greater price has been paid for us. ‘To ransom a slave, you gave away a Son.’ (from the Easter Exsultet) There is no greater love than that, and it is that love which draws us today.
Once again we are faced with a moment of choice. Are we going to follow the Man on the donkey, or stand among the onlookers? Are we going to take to heart his message or merely allow ourselves to be entertained by the unusual spectacle? The confusion on the disciples’ faces and the incomprehension on those of the bystanders mirror our own mixed feelings. This is not what we expected. Only the Man and his donkey go serenely on their way, certain of their purpose.
Modern Britain is not so very different from the Roman Palestine of two thousand years ago, and this morning Roman Palestine and modern Britain are one. The liturgy is not just an act of historical recall; it is an act of participation. We are there, on those busy streets, among the crowd that has gathered to witness this strange sight. More than that, we are sharers in this drama.
Do we understand what we are seeing or how to measure its significance? We don’t always see clearly, and the last twelve months have been so difficult for everyone, it is hard to recognize what is being asked of us this morning. Yet we feel the heightening tension, experience the hint of menace, and know that we must make a decision, without being able to reckon the consequences.
We must make the journey to Jerusalem with Christ, there to suffer and to die with him, that we may rise again on Easter night. We may drag our footsteps, or we may be like Giotto’s donkey, and gladly allow ourselves to take the Lord wherever he wishes to go. In the end, it does not matter. What does matter is that we go with Christ, that we are with him every step of the way, no matter how brutal or horrifying this week becomes. For Catholics celebrating Palm Sunday in Makassar, Indonesia, the brutality and horror are real enough. Let us pray with and for them as Holy Week 2021 is already stained with blood.
Today will be a day of hustle and bustle throughout the land as we prepare to celebrate Holy Week — with slightly fewer restraints than last year, but still with a number of restrictions. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has issued detailed guidance on what may or may not be done, and what it recommends should be done. You can read it here, and I would urge you to do so if you can (it includes the revised intercession IXb for Good Friday). It is a reminder that the liturgy is not a private possession, as it were. Whether we celebrate as one among thousands or on our own, we do so as part of the Church. Having the mind of the Church, acting in accordance with her precepts, her tradition, is not an arbitrary matter. It doesn’t mean we can’t innovate or adapt, but it does mean that we do so in accordance with the principles she gives us.
Domesticating the Liturgy
Tonight our Jewish friends will celebrate the first night of Pesach or Passover. More than any other group, I think Jews understand the domesticating of the liturgy. Martin Buber often spoke of the dinner table as an altar — something many Christians have forgotten with today’s trend towards fast food, takeaways and the Netflix supper eaten in front of a screen. I suggest we need to re-think that. For many Christians this year, home will be where Holy Week and Easter are principally celebrated, and we need to find ways of doing so with dignity and recollection. Here in the monastery we have always had a substantial domestic liturgy accompanying every day of Holy Week but especially the Paschal Triduum. We revert to an older, simpler form of prayer, much of it chanted monotone save for the achingly beautiful Christus factus est and so on. We read the Last Discourse before Compline and huge quantities of scripture and psalmody at other times. It is a demanding week, as it is for everyone, but because our domestic liturgy takes place in the monastery, in our home, it blurs the distinction between public and private, and because what we do strives to be always consistent with the Church’s tradition, it illumines the public liturgy in a way nothing else could.
As you prepare for Holy Week, may I suggest you give some thought to how you can ‘domesticate’ the liturgy without making things complicated or burdensome or adding loads of devotional elements that will merely tire you out? For example, I’ve mentioned reading the Last Discourse from the gospel of St John; or perhaps you could pray Psalm 118 (119) over the course of the week. As it ducts and weaves around the theme of the Law, it reminds us of the New Covenant made in Christ. And if you find you can’t do any of these things, if for you Holy Week is just getting through as best you can, do not berate yourself. Holy Week, like redemption itself, is his gift to us. Receive it gladly.
Christ is risen! Alleluia! There are no words adequate to this great joy. So, instead, here is an image of the Risen Christ meeting the women who came to anoint his dead body, and the nuns of Jouques singing the introit to the Day Mass of Easter, Resurrexi. The late D. Hildelith Cumming used to describe this chant as being like a ping-pong sitting on a fountain of water, serene not shouty, as the deepest joy always is. A blessed Easter to you all!
Holy Saturday: we are used to this being a time of silence and stillness, when earth awaits the resurrection and we do nothing because God is doing everything. We are used to its being a day without the sacraments, but this year we plumb the depths of emptiness and loss more deeply than ever. Even our churches are closed. There is no busy preparation of altar and font, no careful placing of flowers and candles, no last-minute rehearsal of music and ceremonies. We have only the weariness of death, the coldness of the tomb, and the long, dry psalms of the Divine Office, chanted recto tono, to sustain us. Tonight, when we might have expected a blaze of glory from the kindling of the new fire and the glad tones of the Exsultet, there will be only darkness, emptiness, silence. But if we think nothing is happening, if we think that God has somehow abandoned his people, that Easter is cancelled, so to say, we are very much mistaken.
Holy Saturday is the time when Christ descends into the underworld to preach salvation to those who died before his coming. He goes to seek and save the lost. Today is a day of mercy, a mercy beyond compare. Traditionally, artists have portrayed Christ leading Adam and Eve out of Sheol, followed by a whole band of prophets and patriarchs and a nameless throng of people now rising to new life. On such a day as this, I like to think of Moses, with whom the Lord spoke face to face, as to a friend, of the unknown persons who form a distant part of my own family, of all the generations that existed before Christ, whom he desires to be with him in his glory. This is the day when captives are freed, when new life and hope spring up in the darkness, when the resurrection begins with the harrowing of hell.
It may be fanciful and probably bad theology to say that tonight, when we gather in choir to pray the Great Vigil, the church across the way and all churches throughout the world will not really be empty. They will be filled with the spirits of the just, risen to newness of life and singing the praises of God. And it will be because Christ has experienced death for all mankind and thus brought to completion his work of redemption. Even now, he is acting, awakening the dead, bringing joy and gladness. An ancient writer expressed this better than I ever could. Christ says to those who sleep in death, as one day we trust he will say to us also: ‘Rise! I am the life of the dead.’
Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. . . He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him – He who is both their God and the son of Eve. . . ‘I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. . . . I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.’