March 26, 2021

Christ the Cornerstone

Preparing for the ‘holiest week in history’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Christ became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Phil 2:8-9).

In just a few days, we will once again accompany our Lord on the tragic but, ultimately, triumphant journey of his passion, death and resurrection. Sunday of the Lord’s Passion begins the process.

With Jesus, we relive his bittersweet entry into Jerusalem to greetings of “Hosanna in the highest” (Mk 11:1-10); then, as if to prevent being carried away by the false hero-worship of the crowd, we recall in some detail his humiliation, suffering and brutal death (Mk 14:1-15:47).

The late Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John J. O’Connor, referred to this week we are about to celebrate as “the holiest week in history.” It is certainly the week that transformed all human history.

Even now, 2,000 years later, the faithful observance of this week has the power to help us overcome the sadness and suffering of human existence—even in times of pandemic. By “reliving together with Christ” key moments in this most painful week of Jesus’ life, Cardinal O’Connor said we can “find meaning in his suffering, death and resurrection” and, so, prepare ourselves for the freedom and joy of Easter.

The Gospel readings for Holy Week provide us with insights into the final days of Jesus’ life. By reflecting prayerfully on these separate—but intimately connected—events, we can participate in the Lord’s passion, death and resurrection in a way that speaks directly to our own time and our personal experiences.

These Gospel readings disclose that Holy Week is filled with days of extraordinary spiritual significance. On Monday of Holy Week, we learn that the atmosphere in Jerusalem was toxic. Chief priests were plotting against Jesus (and his friend Lazarus), and the perfumed oil that Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used to anoint the Lord’s feet was, in reality, an anticipation of his burial (Jn 12:1-11). Mary’s generous and extravagant gesture is one of the last acts of human warmth and kindness that Jesus will receive until his body is taken down from the cross.

On Tuesday of Holy Week, we learn that Jesus’ hand-picked band of followers will not be able to support him in his hour of need. Jesus will be betrayed by Judas, and Peter will deny him three times (Jn 13:21-33, 36-38). The deeply felt human emotions of isolation and abandonment, which Jesus will experience most powerfully on the cross, develop and intensify as the week progresses.

On Wednesday of Holy Week, we learn the price placed on the head of Jesus (Mt 26:14-25). For a mere 30 pieces of silver, he will be handed over to the chief priests. Of course, the ransom that Jesus himself will pay to redeem us sinners is worth infinitely more than this. He will give up everything in exchange for our salvation, and he will never question if we are worth the price.

On Holy Thursday, Jesus will celebrate his final meal with his disciples before his passion and death. He will wash their feet as a sign of humility and servant leadership

(Jn 13:1-15). He will also institute the holy Eucharist, his enduring gift of self to all who love him. Later that evening, he will sweat blood as his human desires cry out to his Father to relieve him of the suffering he must endure—but only if it is God’s will.

On Good Friday, Jesus will be mocked, tortured, abused and humiliated as he makes his way to Golgotha (the skull place) where he will hand over his spirit to his Father and breathe his last (Jn 18:1-19:42). In a gesture of supreme irony, we will be invited to venerate this same cross, which was once the cruel, profane instrument of his persecution and death, but which is now called holy.

On Holy Saturday, we will experience the profound silence of Jesus’ descent into the darkness and loneliness of death. Finally, we will be invited to celebrate the Easter Vigil and to sing alleluias as we experience the overwhelming joy of Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

The “holiest week in history” concludes with Jesus’ victory over sin and death and with the assurance that nothing we have to suffer now can cancel the joy of Christ’s resurrection, or the profound hope this means for each of us and for our world.

Let’s celebrate the coming week with seriousness but also with a lightness of heart that affirms our unshakable hope in Christ. Have a blessed Holy Week. †

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