Tag Archives: Holy Week

Holy Thursday: Eating in Silence

Over on the Friends of Little Portion Hermitage (FLPH) site today we have another terrific guest post in aid of the hermitage, this time from Matthew Leonard, author, speaker, and Executive Director of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Studies, on the sacredness of silence.  I hope you’ll take the time to drop by and read his really thoughtful post, on how it’s not just enough to be quiet or place ourselves in quiet surroundings to pray: we also have to quiet ourselves down on the inside, as well.  If you’re enjoying these guest posts from Catholic writers over on FLPH, please be sure to share them, and also please prayerfully consider a donation to help us establish a permanent Franciscan hermitage. We’re happy and grateful for any donations!

Tonight many of us will be going to church to commemorate Holy Thursday, celebrating the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  For those who have never attended a Catholic Holy Thursday Mass, it is an evening full of symbolism, from ringing of bells to washing of feet, stripping bare of the altars to the procession with the Eucharist to the altar of repose, where it will remain until the Easter Vigil.  At my parish of St. Stephen’s, during the procession around the church the altar boy holding the censer is in the lead, but interestingly he walks BACKWARDS in front of the priest holding the ciborium containing the Blessed Sacrament, so that he is constantly censing the Eucharist.

One of the points Matt Leonard raises in his piece for FLPH is that “the sights and sounds we take in are food for the imagination.”  This is something the Church has always understood.  It’s why we have particular, traditional rituals occur on Holy Thursday which do not occur at other times of year.  It’s also why for centuries the Church commissioned beautiful art and beautiful buildings, to put us into a frame of  mind where we can focus more on heavenly things rather than earthly concerns.

However it’s also why when we take in the Food of God Himself, we do so quietly, rather than boisterously. When we receive Communion, we go back to our seats and remain in silence, rather than standing around chit-chatting like one would do at a normal meal.  We are sharing in a different kind of meal together, which though communal, simultaneously each of us is experiencing in a very personal, intimate way, differing from person to person in its impact.

At the conclusion of Holy Thursday Mass tonight, all will depart in silence. There will be no music, no bells, and indeed no Mass again until the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening, when the Church erupts in song and the ringing of bells to mark the Resurrection.  So for those of you able to make it to church this evening, consider how that exterior silence, as you receive Communion and as you leave to go home, is something you can keep with you over the Triduum, to allow God to speak to your quieted self in a way that perhaps is impossible for Him to do in your busy, everyday life.

Detail of "The Last Supper" by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896) Private Collection

Detail of “The Last Supper” by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1896)
Private Collection

 

 

 

 

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Spy Wednesday: There’s No Place Like Hell

In the classic 1900 children’s book and 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz”, there’s a lot of rubbish.

For example, the Wizard tells the Tin Man, “A heart is not judged by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”  Really? Christ was jeered all the way to his execution on Calvary by crowds of people who, only a few days earlier, were crying out how much they loved him.  What an utter failure He must have been.

Or then there’s Dorothy’s “lesson”, which she learns after getting bumped on the head.  “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,” she vows, “I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”  What sort of lesson is that? Enjoy suffocating in the Dust Bowl, Dorothy.

Frank L. Baum, author of the “Oz” books, abandoned Christianity in 1892 to join a sect known as the “Theosophical Society”.  Originally founded for the purpose of studying the occult, it expanded to become one of those mutual admiration societies, where people with more money than sense sit around congratulating themselves on how much more enlightened they are than the rest of us.  Among other things, it mixed the study of dead religions with universalism, racial theories, cosmic evolutionary potential, and so on.

I say all of this because we are at Spy Wednesday of Holy Week, when Judas strikes his bargain to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.  We know this is coming, because Judas has been listening to the bad voices in his head for a while now.  The next night, at the Last Supper, we learn from the Gospel of St. John that instead of changing his mind at the last minute while he still could, Judas allowed Satan to enter into his thoughts and actions, and he went off to arrange Jesus’ betrayal that evening.  We also know that Satan hung around long enough to persuade Judas to commit suicide over what he had done, instead of seeking forgiveness.

In his magnificent series of panels “Four Visions of the Hereafter” in the Palazzo Grimani in Venice, the great Hieronymus Bosch depicted scenes of what happens after we die.  Two of the paintings deal with Heaven, and the other two with Hell.  In the latter, I’ve always thought that the demons dragging the souls of the damned to their eternal punishment are reminiscent of the Flying Monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”.  The difference of course, for Christians, is that unlike Baum’s characters, these fellows are all too real, as Judas found out.  And for that matter, so is the place where they reside, which is where they want us to end up.

With the Easter Triduum beginning tomorrow, you still have time to get to confession. Many dioceses, such as here in the Nation’s Capital, will have confessions tonight through programs like The Light Is On For You.  Check with your local chancery, or call your parish priest to make an appointment.

And for pity’s sake, don’t listen to those trying to tell you that Hell is just an old, scary story, like something Frank Baum might have dreamed up for one of his fairy tales.  Ignore such talk, even if those doing the talking have a bunch of impressive-sounding letters after their name or – even worse – are sporting clerical garb.  Such people are not going to be accountable to you, when it turns out they were wrong.  Because in the end, there’s no place like Hell – and we really, REALLY don’t want to end up there.

Detail of "Hell" by Hieronymous Bosch (1500) Palazzo Ducale, Venice

Detail of “Hell” by Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1486)
Palazzo Grimani, Venice

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Monday of Holy Week: Following the Right Path

What sort of path are you on right now, as we begin Holy Week?

Yesterday’s Passion reading at Sunday Mass came from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  In St. Matthew’s account, after Jesus is arrested and brought before the chief priests and the elders, He does not respond to their questions and accusations, until the High Priest Caiphas orders Him to answer under oath before God.  In other words, if he but had the humility to know it, Caiphas is ordering God to swear by Himself.

This type of oath, in which God swears by Himself, occurs in a few places in Scripture.  For example, fed up with the selfishness of the Jewish people, God makes the oath, “I swear by Myself” via the prophet Jeremiah, that they will be punished if they do not turn away from their path of unrepentant sin and paganism.  When they choose not to listen, Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed.  The Jews are quite literally taken off their path, and forcibly marched off down another: that to exile in Babylon.

When God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac – which of course is paralleled in the Father’s sacrifice of the Son in the Gospels – Abraham humbly and, one suspects, a bit sorrowfully, takes the path up into the mountains in order to do God’s Will.  When he is about to act and kill his son, God stops the sacrifice, and forms His covenant with Abraham.  “I swear by Myself,” God promises, that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, or the sands on the seashore, and be a blessing for the whole world.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Caiphas is so intent on protecting his position, that he doesn’t want to hear anything that will make him have to change the path he is on.  He tears his clothes when Jesus tells him the truth, because he is not willing to humble himself, let alone be obedient.  The signs pointing to Jesus as the Messiah have been before Caiphas for years, both in the prophecies from Scripture and in the words and deeds of Jesus Himself.  Yet Caiphas has fallen so far off the path of seeking God’s Will in his life, that if he was truly open to considering the possibility that this was the Messiah, he would have been a bit more careful with his words.  For clearly, having God swear by Himself is not something to be taken lightly.

Holy Week is the perfect time to follow the signposts in your life leading you back onto the path of humble obedience to the Will of God.  After all, this is the path Christ Himself trod, and what we as Christians are called to imitate.  And the best way that you can do that this week, is by following the signs to your local church’s confessional.  I’ll be in line there myself, and afterwards, we can all go get back on the right path together.

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A Little Sugar in My Bowl

This being Holy Week, as usual I am going to take the time over the next few days on this blog to share some reflections on this most sacred time of the year for Christians. However, I hope that my non-Christian readers will not wander off, to wait until after Easter for me to ruminate on more secular subjects. I believe that even non-Christian readers may find this week’s posts to be worth a read, because I intend to look at some cultural matters related to the events Christians are recalling this week, which I think may prove of interest to all.

The text I will be using as a touchstone for this week’s writing is the retelling of Jesus’ Passion and Death in St. Mark’s Gospel, which we heard at mass yesterday.  You can read St. Mark’s entire account on the USCCB website by following this link.  Today, I would like us to focus on a small detail from the early part of this passage, in which Jesus is anointed with oil by a woman who is traditionally identified as being St. Mary Magdalen.

Before we begin, let us all agree to take The Magdalen as herself, and not some twisted fantasy of diseased minds.  She was a disciple of Jesus – not a mistress, a wife, a female priest, a freemason, a space alien, or anything else you may have heard from those who, like Dan Brown, hate the Catholic Church in particular or Christianity in general, or who are simply ignorant and prone to accept the ridiculous as truth. If you are looking for anti-Catholic, heretical conspiracy theories with your morning coffee, then I suggest you look elsewhere.

Now, turning back to the matter at hand, St. Mark tells us that Jesus and His Disciples were in the town of Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, and He had been invited to dinner at the home of a friend:

When He was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on His head.

Rather than focus on the spiritual significance of this event as understood by Jesus, which becomes clear if you read the rest of the passage, I want to focus our attention on the jar, if the reader will indulge me. The connections that we make between everyday objects and more complex concepts when we are children, often have an impact on the perceptions we have and the choices we make as adults. In this case, The Magdalen’s jar of perfumed oil is something that I am reminded of almost every day, because of just such a connection I made when I was little.

When I was growing up – and indeed still now – my parents kept the household sugar in two places. A bulky, large sugar bag was kept in a canister in a high cabinet in the kitchen, along with the flour, salt, and so on. From this large container, a much smaller, lidded, sterling silver sugar bowl was filled for everyday use, and kept on a lower cabinet to reach easily. So for example, when I go home for Easter this coming weekend, I will get the sugar for my morning coffee out of this silver sugar bowl; if it is empty, I will have to fill it from the large canister in one of the high cabinets.

This particular sugar bowl has a very pleasing shape, looking very 18th century, yet it was also somehow vaguely exotic in my mind. As I grew older and I began to look more closely at the objects one could see depicted in paintings and sculpture, I noticed that St. Mary Magdalen was often shown with a jar that looked not unlike a taller version of our sugar bowl. Indeed, in the back of the church connected to my primary school, there was a life-sized, very Victorian-looking Crucifixion sculpture group, with Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John, and with The Magdalen sitting at the foot of the Cross with her alabaster jar. When I was very small, I always wanted to go over and take off the cover of the jar, and see whether I might find some tasty sugar inside.

When I moved into my present house some years ago, I had to purchase a number of household items, including a coffee service. I did not really think about it until I got home, but of all of the different sugar bowl options available, I chose one that most closely resembled the one that my parents have. The ones with more squat lids, or with side handles, or with simpler lines simply did not appeal to me. My brain had made the connection between the sugar bowl it had known growing up, and the symbolic connection of that sugar bowl to the Passion and Death of Jesus, through the gift of St. Mary Magdalen, and so of course I wanted to have that iconographic reminder in my own home.

The point here is something which I think is worth all of our noting. Whether it is a sugar bowl that reminds me of The Magdalen, and thereby of Holy Week and the central matters of the Christian Faith, or a bald eagle that reminds me of the United States when I see it in a documentary film or carved onto the side of a building, human beings have a unique ability to express and to comprehend complex concepts by distilling them into simple objects. Even if I myself am not creating these objects, by “reading” them I am giving them meaning beyond the obvious. Finding sugar in the sugar bowl may be a pleasant discovery, but remembering Christ when I pick up that sugar bowl affords me an opportunity which is even sweeter.

The importance of our understanding and passing on the meaning of symbols in this way cannot be overestimated. Forming these connections may get a child to think about, understand, and retain mature concepts, and then be able to recall them as an adult. This is why our creative output in things such as art and architecture, literature, film, and music, are vital elements of culture, which we ought not to ignore. When they can be seen as something more than just intrinsically pleasant, they serve as powerful tools for reminding us of who and what we are.


“The Magdalen” by Bernardino Luini (c. 1525)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Beating Them At Their Own Game

For many years much of the news out of Spain, at least as reported by the allegedly “mainstream” media, has been rather bad.  The most recent evidence of this was last summer, in the laughably awful media coverage of World Youth Day in Madrid.  Yet rather than throw up our hands and ask, “What can we do?”, a new story out today from Spain should give us not only cause to hope that all is not lost in that country, but also provide us with a good lesson on how to use new media to our advantage.

It was a real pleasure this morning to read that, for the second year in a row, city authorities in Madrid have denied a group of atheists, anarchists, and other leftists a permit to march in protest of the Church on Holy Thursday. In rendering their decision the authorities issued a press release which states, in part [translation mine]:

The date, time, and place chosen by the organizers, although in principle having a legitimate purpose, in reality is being sought for a demonstration on a day of special significance for Catholics, in the same place and time when many religious ceremonies will be held, and which indicates, at the very least, a clear intent of provocation.

For those of my readers who are not Catholic, or who have not been in Spain during Holy Week, a little explanation is in order. It is a very ancient tradition in Spain for the major towns and cities to hold religious processions during Holy Week, i.e. the period from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. This is the holiest time of the year for Christians, as we remember the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

However these processions are not simply parades, like one might have for a sporting event or secular holiday. Most of these very special processions feature gigantic parade floats decorated with hundreds of flowers and candles, and bearing life-sized crucifixes, tableaux showing scenes from the Bible, or figures of the Virgin Mary and other Christian saints. The processional groups accompanying these floats, which are usually the property of individual churches across each city, are huge, and include such people as clerics, musicians, local dignitaries, and so on. For example, Spanish actor Antonio Banderas has, for many years, participated in the Holy Week processions in his home city of Málaga, in southern Spain. Thousands of people attend these processions, or watch them on television, and those on Holy Thursday, when Catholics commemorate the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist, take place on one of the most important days of this very important week.

As the authorities correctly held, the only reason why a group of leftists would want to hold an anti-Catholic protest march in downtown Madrid on Holy Thursday, in the middle of the sort of atmosphere I have just described, would be to try to pick a fight with those participating in or watching the religious processions. I am obviously very pleased that the local government had the sense to see sense on this point. However it should come as no surprise to anyone that the “mainstream” media in Spain has been wringing its hands and whinging about this decision all morning.

In tone, the reporting on this has been similar to Pope Benedict’s recent visits to Spain, when the media deliberately ignored or under-reported on the tremendous numbers of people who came to cheer the head of the Catholic Church. In 2010 such gatherings happened in Santiago de Compostela, home of one of the most important historical religious sites in Christendom, as might have been expected. However it happened again in ultra-hip Barcelona, which has a long history of anti-clericism, when the Pope came to dedicate the famous Sagrada Familia basilica, and it happened again the following year in the supposedly swinging capital of Madrid during World Youth Day. The result was reporting that so downplayed the numbers supporting the Pope, and so played up the tiny number of those protesting his visit, that the media frankly covered themselves in shame by being unable to hide their bias against Catholicism.

Of course, Catholics in Spain are not alone in experiencing this kind of biased reporting: it happens to any group which large news organizations do not like. For example, apparently the presence of around half a million people at the March for Life in Washington earlier this year, peacefully protesting against legalized infanticide, did not deserve mainstream media coverage. We can complain about it, as I certainly did, but the reality is that this type of reporting is not going to change, at least not anytime soon. So how we do we beat them at their own game?

The answer, it seems to me, is in fact what you are doing right now: making use of new media. If the role of the so-called mainstream media is to question authority, then I would suggest that one important role for new media content providers is to question the mainstream media. Where needed, it is now possible to produce media content that dismisses mainstream media coverage of events and issues that matter to us, as being biased and fundamentally untrustworthy.  Through the use of blogging for example, in both macro and micro format, anyone can be a reporter or commentator.

Yet that reporting via new media platforms will not have any real impact if those who read it do not take on the task of sharing that content with others. Therefore if you care about an issue, and feel as though the mainstream media is misreporting, burying, or otherwise ignoring that issue, even if you yourself are not a new media content producer, you have an important role to play. By sharing that content with others, you can help to get the word out that, among other things, maybe The New York Times or The BBC is not the best place to get your news on the Catholic Church.

Combining the tools available to us through new media with the wider outreach possible through social media can provide greater encouragement to those who find themselves questioning news reporting on issues that matter to them. And as bizarre as it might seem to state, the type of biased reporting which we are questioning – or at least I am – in fact provides a wonderful opportunity to draw attention to that bias. We live in an age where we are no longer bound to accept, due to a lack of alternatives and as a kind of secular gospel, what we are told to think about an event, or a subject, or a policy, by the mainstream media outlets. Therefore, let us use their content, as untrustworthy as it often is, to create our own.


Part of a Holy Week procession passing through central Madrid

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