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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Holy Week and Good Friday - a Basic Teaching.

As we approach the Paschal season in the Church, I am vividly reminded of the real reason as to why I started the Sacramental Present Truths blog to begin with - it was to provide sound teaching from a traditional Catholic (not necessarily synonymous with Roman Catholic, although as fellow Catholics our Roman brethren do share much of this with us) perspective with a renewing focus.  In the past months, I have gotten off into a lot of polemical writing, and the excesses of one of my friends who became obsessed with what she hated caused the Holy Spirit to put a check in my spirit which reminded me of this fact - what is the passion of your Christian faith all about, and why don't you share that?   That little rhema word of the Lord to me got me back into focus as to what it means to be a committed Anglo-Catholic Christian myself, and what the splendor and mystery of my faith is all about.  Of course, my Theology of the Church course through Franciscan University, taught by a great theologian by the name of Regis Martin, also inspired some of this too - I have learned so much by being exposed to some great Roman Catholic theologians and philosophers such as Henri de Lubac, Romano Guardini, and Hans Urs von Balthazar.  As I am getting so much out of the theological aspect of that wonderful course, I wanted to apply some of that to these teachings I share with you, so I hope you will find them appreciative. 

I want to focus this week on the upcoming practices and theologies behind Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Good Friday.  As the Lenten season closes, the abstinence from those things which maybe command a large part of our lives build to an anticipation of the Paska miracle, the Lord Jesus Christ risen from the dead!  We are not going to talk about the miracle of Easter though yet, as its time will come in a week or two, but rather about the events leading up to it as we in the West observe them next week.  There is a great richness to the observance of Holy Week, something that many iconoclastic Protestant Fundamentalists really miss although they would rightly affirm the truths of what we as Catholic Christians commemorate.  I don't mean to knock Fundamentalists, but at times I do wonder why they attack things they don't understand, and the only explanation I can fathom is what Bishop Malcolm Smith calls "acute Romophobia" (the fear of anything that looks too "Catholic" to them).  Hopefully, this small lesson will dispel some of that nonsense, and you can truly be open to what the Church commemorates in practice as well as in word - Christianity is not a religion of mere verbal assent to a doctrinal statement, as many Fundamentalists have reduced it to, but rather it is about living the Gospels and using something God gifted us with that our Fundamentalist brethren sometimes dismiss as a curse almost, and that is the use of physical, tangible symbols and actions.   Holy Week is all about that too, as by our participation in the various liturgies and other sacramental practices we become closer to Jesus - not for salvation either, which blows out of the water that old "salvation by works" BS the Fundamentalists often accuse Catholic Christians of when we worship with inclusion of the tangible and physical (for self-professed Biblical literalists, they also don't follow the various passages of Scripture that exhort us to worship the Lord with our whole being, and that includes sight, sound, touch, taste, and hearing!).  Rather, like Lent, the Holy Week worship traditions serve to reaffirm and renew our worship of Jesus Christ, who is indeed God the Son, in a way that is expressed through all we do.  Now that we have discredited some common Fundamentalist mythologies and accusations, let us now talk about some practices of Holy Week common to both the Eastern and Western Churches.

First is Palm Sunday.   Palm Sunday, exactly one week before Easter, marks the beginning of Holy Week and is a commemoration of the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on a donkey as recorded in the Gospels in a passage in Matthew 21.  In the narrative, Jesus is going up to Jerusalem to observe the Passover, and he sort of sets up lodging in the Jerusalem suburb of Bethphage (Matthew 21:1).  There is something very important to remember here - Jesus was not a Roman Catholic, nor was he an Evangelical Protestant.  Jesus was an observant Jew while He walked this earth, and as an observant Jew He participated in the religious life of His people.  This is important, as it goes back to the Abrahamic Covenant found in Genesis 17, in that Jesus first came to the Jews, and through the Jews the Church would be birthed, and all nations would be reached through that plan.  This was true of practically all the early Church as well, as Hebrew Catholic writer Roy Schoeman points out in his book, Salvation is of the Jews (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2003), on page 51.  Unfortunately, as Roman Catholic theologian Brant Pitre points out, for centuries Christian theologians - East and West, Protestant and Catholic, etc. - have largely ignored the Jewish context of Jesus' humanity, focusing more often on His divinity.  However, Jesus was fully both, and as Pitre correctly points out, it is absolutely necessary to also understand Jesus' humanity, and understanding it in its Jewish context is fundamental (Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist {New York: Doubleday, 2011} p. 12).  Therefore, yes, Jesus did observe and celebrate Passover!  However, as we find out later, He would reveal the true purpose of the Passover on what we in the West call "Maundy Thursday" in Holy Week, which is when the institution of the Eucharist was initiated by our Lord Himself, based on a traditional Passover Seder.   This now leads me to soapbox a little about a particularly dumb statement (one among many, I regret to report!) I heard in a New Testament Theology class at the Pentecostal university I previously attended, and anyone with any sense of Hebraic tradition or even history would laugh this professed academic out of the room.   The professor who was teaching this particular class (who is a nice guy as a human being, and actually good to get along with) is part of an emerging group of Pentecostal academics who for all intents have gone theologically liberal, although neither he nor his colleagues would see it that way.  Any rate, during this class, he actually said that when Jesus fed the 5,000 as recorded in Matthew 14, He was celebrating a Passover Seder!  First of all, Jesus fed those people with fish, which is not part of the Seder meal - as a New Testament scholar, this good professor really should have known better than that!  And, no evidence from the Gospel accounts suggests what time of year it was, and also the Seder is never celebrated by devout Jews (and Jesus was one!) as a quick lunch date with his theology class, as it were.  The Passover protocol is very intricate, and a lot of ceremony goes into its preparation.  Although I personally like this professor, he was off his beam a little when he said that!  This same professor, in discussing Jesus enacting the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana (John 2) actually said he believed Jesus was attending His own wedding!  None of this of course is affirmed by the Church, and because of hearing wild and wacky nonsense like this spouted by supposed Christian leaders, I appreciate being a Churchman now who upholds the Holy Tradition of the Church Catholic, and Holy Week is one way the Church reminds its people that the Gospels are true, and that Jesus is real. Those who don't have the benefit of an acting faith like this are deprived of so much - maybe not their salvation, but a deeper faith though.  Any rate, let's get back to Palm Sunday!

The verse in the NKJV I use for study stays they lay tree branches and clothes before Jesus as He entered Jerusalem, and does not specifically mention palms.  However, being palm trees were in great abundance in the region, it would make sense that palms would be used, and again, it is an appeal to Holy Tradition on this one.  The Church has used palms in the liturgy of this day for many generations, and they got it from somewhere - my guess is it was passed from the Apostles themselves to those they shepherded.  In some parts of the world, such as the cold Slav lands of central Europe, palms were not readily available, and therefore some people had to "make do," to utilize a concept of my Appalachian upbringing.  Therefore, in Russian and other Eastern Christian churches on Palm Sunday, pussywillows are often distributed in lieu of palms, and the important reason is this - in those parts of the world, the pussywillow flowered at around that time of the year, and was a sort of "firstfruits" after what was often a harsh winter.  Therefore, the Slavs, after they became Christian in the 7th and 8th centuries, utilized the symbol of the pussywillow.  In the US, many Slavic churches now distribute both palms and pussywillows, as it presents a powerful ecumenical affirmation, and that is not a problem - a pussywillow is a tree, and Matthew 21 says nothing specifically about exclusively using palm branches, so therefore I don't see a problem with it.  Palms and pussywillows also have other important symbolisms as well, being the palm tree is often interpreted in dreams as being a symbol of righteousness (Perry Stone, How to Interpret Dreams and Visions {Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2011} p. 232).  That would make sense, as Jesus represents the true Passover Lamb, of pure righteousness and sinlessness.  As for the pussywillow, Father Czeslaw Krysa explains it thus: "The Pussy Willow is also our Easter symbol.  One of the most prominent Easter symbols, because of the fact out of this dry, kind of twig all of a sudden bursts forth this beautiful flower of life, and it is the first bush that blooms." (accessed from http://news.wbfo.org/post/polish-legend-pussy-willow-palm-sunday on April 7, 2014).  As this Polish Catholic priest explained it, we see a picture in the pussywillow of the Resurrection!  So, when you receive palms and pussywillows at a Russian, Polish, or Ukrainian church on Palm Sunday, they should bring to mind righteousness and the fact we are granted that righteousness ourselves through the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ!  Pretty powerful stuff, if you ask me.  So, I must hand it to my Slav brethren; they "made do" with a substitutionary symbol, and made a theological application that is valid and consistent with Church tradition, as well as being appropriate to the season, and God bless them for that! 

After Palm Sunday, Holy Week goes quiet for a few days until Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper Christ had with the Apostles in the Upper Room.   So, what is this word "Maundy," and what does it mean?   After looking into that, I discovered that it is an Old English word denoting a "mandate," or a command, based on John 13:34 (accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maundy_Thursday on April 8, 2014).  That verse contains what is in essence the message of the Gospel itself - we should love one another as Christ loved us.  And, the ultimate symbol of Christ's love is the giving of Himself for us, and the Eucharistic mystery is celebrated to continue that sharing of Himself with us, as He is truly present in the elements of the Eucharist.   Again, Maundy Thursday in essence instituted the Eucharist, which is taken directly from the Jewish Passover seder, and the Church maintains that Christ is indeed our "Passover sacrificed for us."   It is another of those Old Testament covenants which finds its culmination in the New. 

Maundy Thursday also includes two vestigial practices that were lost at some point by the Church, the act of washing one another's feet and the Love Feast.   Although sacramental communions like the Roman Catholics and our own Anglo-Catholic tradition recognize and practice this on Maundy Thursday, it would be good to see both of them become part of our regular worship on a more frequent basis.  Some Protestant sects - notably the Dunkards, some Pentecostals, and some groups of old-time mountain Baptists - do retain them in some form or another, and the forms in which they preserve them hearken back in many instances to the early Church itself.  I say that because although I am fully Anglo-Catholic, I am not going to dismiss everything Protestants do as wrong - as a matter of fact, there are some good things that certain Protestant traditions practice that have a strong case in the writings of the Church Fathers, and regular foot-washing and the Love Feast are two of those.  The Love Feast, however, is not the same as the Eucharist, but on the other extreme it is also not a sanctified coffee hour or potluck dinner either.  The purpose of the Love Feast and foot-washing, as is noted by many writers, was to prepare the faithful for the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, and if you believe as we do in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, then preparation is an important aspect, as it is not to be taken for granted.  The purpose of the Love Feast was to create a unity among the worshipping community, in that sharing a meal together at a common table cemented and reinforced spiritual bonds.  This included an emphasis on reconciliation - if there was an issue among two brethren, the Love Feast was the time to resolve that, because in good conscience it was not good to partake of the Eucharist later if unresolved "ought" against one's brother was in the equation.  And, this is why foot-washing was often tied with the Love Feast, for the humble act of washing the feet of another promoted an attitude of service and humility, rather than arrogance and haughtiness.  With the Body then brought together, Christ could then reign among them as the source of their peace.  And, this feast, much like the Eucharist itself, is among the members of the worshipping community and not open to outsiders.  A general proposed order for the events of this would be as follows - 1) receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation from the priest, 2) Going to each other as brethren, and resolving any issues that may exist, 3) washing one another's feet, 4) the Love Feast meal, which is not to be eaten out of hunger but out of fellowship, and finally 5) the Mass, or Liturgy, with the Holy Eucharist at its center (note 1 Corinthians 10:16 and John 6:11).  Brethren writer Paul Fike Stutzman also notes in his excellent text, Restoring the Love Feast (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011) on page 57 that there was also a penitential element in particular to footwashing, in that it represents what Christ did for us at our baptism, and that sacramental dimension reminds us that we are to forgive others as Jesus forgave us, and that forgiveness must start in the household of faith, the Church.  And, this is a reason why Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Churches have a footwashing rite as part of the Maundy Thursday liturgical form.  As with all things though, these sacramental acts are not just for a once-a-year "housecleaning," but rather are to be practiced in our lives throughout the year and throughout our Christian lives.  Therefore, it is common practice also to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation on Maundy Thursday, and it is also a good time to have a time of healing and renewal in the local parish, a time when people can offer apologies for offenses and open up to their brothers and sisters in Christ in order to receive (and give!) forgiveness for one another's sins.  This way, we are prepared for the Paschal celebration to come on Sunday, celebrating the Risen Christ!

I now want to talk about Good Friday a little.  Good Friday commemorates the Crucifixion of our Lord on Calvary, and at its central focus is the Cross - in the Cross, we have redemption, as a perfect sacrifice - a holy, sinless God who became man and gave Himself for our sin.  Depending on whether one is Eastern or Western Christian, there are several powerful rites of the Church that commemorate this event on this day.  Perhaps the most common one in the West is the Stations of the Cross, which we as Anglo-Catholics walk as part of the Good Friday commemoration.   Any person who was born or raised Catholic, Anglican, or even High-Church Lutheran will know about the Stations, as there are 14 of them that are symbolized by small iconography or statuary around the inner perimeter of the church.  The Stations represent a sort of mini-pilgrimage that chronicles the route taken by Jesus from His trial before Pilate to His nailing to the Cross on Golgotha, and each "station" along the pilgrimage commemorates a particular moment within that pilgrimage as recorded in Holy Scripture.  It is a practice with roots that go back at least to the time of the Crusades, but may have its genesis even further.  Although customarily a private devotion with no official requirement, over the centuries it has become an Anglican tradition in particular to walk the Stations on Good Friday, and as each station is approached, often the person leading the devotion in that setting will recite the event that Station commemorates:  for instance, the first Station is the Condemnation of Jesus to Death, and after reciting the event itself, and praying the Act of Contrition ("O God, we love thee with our whole hearts and above all things and are heartily sorry that we have offended thee.  May we never offend Thee anymore.  O, may we love Thee without ceasing, and make it our delight to do in all things Thy most holy will.")  after which a verse commemorating the event is chanted, such as this one after the First Station:

By the Cross sad vigil keeping,
Stood the Mother, doleful weeping,
Where her Son extended hung.
(from Fr. Stanton's The Stations of the Cross)
Here are the actual 14 Stations as walked:
I.     Jesus is Condemned to Death                                         VIII.   The Women Mourn
II.   Jesus Receives the Cross                                                    IX.   Jesus Falls the Third Time
III.  Jesus Falls the First Time Under the Cross's Weight          X.   Jesus Stripped of His Garments
IV.  Jesus Meets His Blessed Mother                                        XI.  Jesus Nailed to the Cross
V.   The Cross is Laid on Symeon of Cyrene                           XII.  Jesus Dies Upon the Cross
VI.  St. Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus                              XIII.  Jesus Taken From the Cross
VII. Jesus Falls a Second Time                                               XIV.  Jesus Laid in the Tomb
In the Christian East, there is another beautiful and solemn Good Friday ritual that is enacted by the priest and cantors of the parish which involves an actual funerary procession.   It is called the Office of the Burial of Christ, and this hymn is sung as the procession begins and progresses:
The Noble Joseph, taking down your spotless Body from the wood and wrapping it in a clean shroud with aromatic spices, carefully laid it in a new tomb....The angle stood by the tomb and said to the ointment-bearing women, "Ointments are for the dead, but Christ has proved Himself free from decay." 
(from MR Joseph Raya and Baron Jose de Vinck, Byzantine Daily Worship {Allendale, NJ:  Alleluia Press, 1969] p. 825)
This is one of the most moving services that I have ever had the priveleges of participating in, and it is truly humbling to watch.   The normal practice in many Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches is to take the crucifix or icon of Christ, anoint it with myrrh, and lay it in a specially-made sepulcher that is draped with a shroud called an  epitaphios, as well as often being adorned with flowers, and it is processed around the perimeter of the church while the above chant is repeated before it is put to rest in its own "tomb."   Accompanying this procession, a subdeacon or cantor strikes a clacking instrument that symbolizes the nailing of Christ on the cross, and the whole ceremony serves to remind the faithful that Christ really did die for our sins, was buried, and on the third day, Easter, He rose again.  Whether the Orthodox funerary procession or the Western Stations of the Cross, the message of Good Friday is crystal - it commemorates our Lord's death on the Cross, thus shedding His Holy Blood for the redemption of our sins.  It is only through Good Friday that we can fully participate in the great celebration of Easter Sunday, and without the Cross the Resurrection is incomplete.  Both East and West also have customary fasting on Good Friday, as that hearkens back to an ancient practice where fasting was seen as a part of the mourning process.


This is by no means an exhaustive treatment of Holy Week and the events it commemorates in the final week of our Lord's life before He was slain as the Agnus Dei for the sins of the world, but it gives you a basic foundation as to why we as Catholic Christians take these events seriously.  Many Protestant Evangelicals miss an important dimension in their faith, because although they do affirm (and passionately so, I must admit) the truths that Holy Week communicates, they have also made their own faith so cerebral at times that they casually dismiss actually participating in a physical commemoration of these truths.  It is really too bad they do that, because as a Catholic Christian myself now, I have been greatly enriched by the various rites and ceremonies of our Church in regard to the events of our Lord's life.  If you are an Evangelical Christian reading this now, I have two closing thoughts to impart to you.  First, the fact you do take Scripture seriously enough to affirm the events of our Lord's life, death, and Resurrection is commendable, and as a former Pentecostal myself, those same convictions I shared with you provided the foundation for me to appreciate more liturgical expressions of these truths.  In short, Catholic Christians not only verbally affirm the eternal truths of Holy Scripture, but by the various practices we have we live them out in our own lives too.  That being said, I move onto my second point - if you are a professed Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal, or some other sort of conservative Protestant, please do not be too quick to dismiss liturgical practices as being "too Catholic," for that is only a straw man which has been oft-assaulted by many polemic-minded but misguided people in your churches for generations.  Maybe if you learn to read about them for yourself, and even observe them at your local Anglican, Catholic, or Orthodox parish, you might find out that far from disobeying Scripture, these practices bring Scripture to life by encouraging worship with our whole being and all the senses God gave us.  And, for fellow Catholics and Anglicans, I encourage you to have a blessed upcoming Holy Week, and will see you here after Easter with hopefully some more fascinating insights.