March 18, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Our Holy Week rituals enshrine
the gift of Christ himself

I have an extraordinary bishop’s cross that I wear on the Solemnity of Easter. It has an enamel center-piece of Mary and the Christ Child and enamel medallions depicting the four evangelists in exquisite detail. There are tiny green gem stones and gold filigree design on the vertical and horizontal crossbars. In a word, it is a stunning pectoral cross.

I inherited it from Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara, my predecessor. He had inherited the cross from his friend, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the renowned televangelist of the 1950s. Apparently, the cross had been a gift from Pope Pius XII to Archbishop Sheen.

Stunning as the cross is, far more precious is what is hidden inside the cross—a splinter of the Cross on which Christ died. When I first saw the cross, I thought this extraordinary decoration must signal something precious inside.

The splinter of the Cross of Jesus is not splendid or stunning in appearance. Yet, in reality the exterior splendor of this cross pales in comparison to the treasure it contains, a 2,000-year-old trace of Jesus.

God walked the earth as his Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus left traces of himself, his “footprints” if you will. We are in God’s debt for sending his Son because we are a sensate people—folks with bodies—who need to see, to taste, to hear and to touch. Through Jesus, God came to be with us.

Jesus Christ not only left traces of himself, he left his very himself, not just a trace of himself, not just a relic, not just a splinter of the victorious Cross on which he died. Jesus gave us himself, body and blood, soul and divinity. Indeed, he left himself in the great eucharistic mystery: the re-presentation of the Passion-Death-Resurrection itself. In giving us the Eucharist, he gave us a far more awesome gift than the relic of the Cross.

As we embark on the week called “holy,” we experience in ritual the mystery in which Christ gave us the gift of our redemption; we celebrate with wonder that the mystery of that redemption is re-presented every time we celebrate the Eucharist. The dramatic rituals of Palm Sunday and the Triduum of Holy Thursday evening, Good Friday and the great Easter Vigil culminating on the Solemnity of Easter enshrine the gift of Christ himself; something like the way the splendid pectoral cross encloses the splinter of Christ’s Cross.

In this Year of the Eucharist, I hope we approach the ritual of Holy Thursday with more fervor than ever. On the night before he died, when Jesus celebrated the Passover meal, he changed that ritual decisively. When the priest at Mass prays the eucharistic prayer, he is not recounting the story of something that is past; he is not just recalling what happened that evening of the Last Supper; he is evoking something that is taking place in the present.

“This is my body” is what is said now, today. These are the words of Jesus Christ, who is the celebrant of the Eucharist in the person of the priest. This saying, in the first person—my body—only Jesus himself can say. On the evening before he died, Jesus established the memorial of his Passion, Death and Resurrection to be re-presented in the gift of the Eucharist until the end of earthly time, and he connected his sacrifice with the commandment of love and the witness of washing the feet of the Twelve. When we celebrate Mass, the mystery that is unseen under the appearances of bread and wine is far more precious than a splinter of the Cross on which the sacrificial victory took place.

Yet the enactment from Palm Sunday through Holy Thursday and Good Friday to the great Easter Vigil and Solemnity is meaningful. The enactment of the ­procession with palms at the beginning of Holy Week and the washing of feet at the Holy Thursday Eucharist are so helpful. Hearing the lamentations ascribed to Christ in his hour of suffering and venerating the cross on Good Friday are meaningful for our spiritual growth. The beauty of the Easter Vigil, beginning with the holy fire, the lighting and celebration of the paschal candle, followed by the story of our salvation history, is powerful. The wonder of receiving new sisters and brothers through the baptismal ritual, confirmation and first Eucharist rejuvenates our faith.

When all is said and done, the ritual enactments of Holy Week usher us toward the deepest of all realities in all of history. Christ gave us himself in the Eucharist, both as an ever-present sacrifice of his love and as a communion of fellowship for all whom he calls to communion with himself.

A precious gift awaits us in the mysteries of Holy Week. Come, let us adore him! †

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