Passiontide and Holy Week
Condensed from "The Liturgical Year" by Abbot Guéranger, OSB
The History of Passiontide and Holy Week
The most ancient sacramentaries and liturgical books of the Church attest, by the prayers, lessons and the whole liturgy of these two last weeks of Lent, that the Passion of Our Lord is now the sole thought of the Christian world. The second of these weeks, called Holy Week, furnishes us with abundant historical details; for there is no portion of the liturgical year which has interested the Christian world so much as this, or which has given rise to such fervent manifestations of piety.
This week was held in great veneration, even as early as the Third Century, as we learn from St. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria, who lived at that time. In the following century, we find St. John Chrysostom calling it the great week, "because of the great mysteries which are then celebrated."
The severity of the Lenten fast was traditionally increased during these, its last days. In the early ages, fasting during Holy Week was carried to the utmost limits that human nature could endure. We learn from St. Epiphanius, that there were some Christians who observed a strict fast from Monday morning to the dawn of Easter Sunday. Of course it must have been very few of the faithful who could go so far as this. Many passed two, three, or even four consecutive days, without tasting any food; the general practice was to fast from Maundy Thursday evening to Easter morning. Many Eastern schismatics continued this practice, even in recent times. Would that such severe penance were also accompanied by a firm faith and union with the Church, outside of which the merit of such penitential works is of no avail for salvation!
Another of the ancient practices of Holy Week were the long hours spent, during the night, in the churches. On Maundy Thursday, after having celebrated the Divine Mysteries in remembrance of the Last Supper, the faithful continued a long time in prayer, in honor of the Agony in the Garden. The night between Friday and Saturday was spent in almost uninterrupted vigil, in honor of Our Lord's burial. But the longest of all these vigils was that of Saturday night, which was kept up till Easter Sunday morning. The whole congregation joined in it -- they assisted at the final preparation of the catechumens, as also at the administration of Baptism; nor did they leave the church until after the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, which was not over till sunrise.
Cessation from servile work was, for a long time, an obligation during Holy Week. The civil law united with that of the Church in order to bring about this solemn rest from toil and business, which so eloquently expresses the state of mourning of the Christian world. The thought of the sufferings and death of Jesus was the one pervading thought; the Divine Offices and prayer were the sole occupation of the people -- and, indeed, all the strength of the body was needed for the support of the austerities of fasting and abstinence. We can readily understand what an impression was made upon men's minds, during the whole rest of the year, by this universal suspension of the ordinary routine of life. When we recall the severity which used to be practiced during the whole of Lent, we can imagine the simple and honest joy wherewith was welcomed the Feast of Easter, which brought both the regeneration of the soul, and respite to the body.
As early as the Fourth Century, all legal pleadings were forbidden during the seven days before and after Easter. But Christian princes were not satisfied with the mere suspension of human justice during these days, which are so emphatically days of mercy; they would, moreover, pay homage, by an external act, to the fatherly goodness of God. The Church, on Maundy Thursday, granted reconciliation to repentant sinners, who had broken the chains whereby they were held captive; Christian princes were ambitious to imitate their Mother, and they ordered that prisoners should be loosened from their chains, that the prisons should be thrown open, and that freedom should be restored to those who had fallen under the sentence of human tribunals. The only exception made was that of criminals whose freedom would have exposed their families or society to great danger. We learn from the Capitularia of St. Karl the Great, that Bishops had a right to exact from the judges, "for the love of Jesus Christ", that prisoners should be set free on the days preceding Easter; and should the magistrates refuse to obey, the Bishops could refuse them admission into the church. It was in consequence of this deep Christian feeling, that we find so many diplomas and legal charters of the ages of faith speaking of the days of Holy Week as being the reign of Christ; such an event, they say, happened on such a day, "under the reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ" (instead of whatever ruler then living).
When these days of holy and Christian equality were over, did subjects refuse submission to their sovereigns? Did they abuse the humility of their princes, and take occasion for drawing up what modern times call the rights of man? No, that same thought which had inspired human justice to humble itself before the Cross of Jesus, taught the people their duty of obeying the powers established by God.
And yet the Fourth Century, which, in virtue of the Christian spirit, produced the laws we have been alluding to, was still rife with the pagan element. How comes it that in modern times, though the world has seen the full light of Christianity, men give the name of progress to a system which tends to separate society from everything which is supernatural? Men may talk as they please, there is but one way to secure order, peace, morality, and security in this world; and that is God's way, the way of faith, of living in accordance with the teachings and the spirit of faith. All other systems can, at best, but flatter those human passions, which are so strongly at variance with the mysteries of Our Lord Jesus Christ, which we celebrate during Holy Week.
We must mention another law made by the Christian Emperors in reference to Holy Week. If the spirit of charity, and a desire to imitate divine mercy, led them to decree the liberation of prisoners; it was but acting consistently with these principles that, during these days when our Savior shed His Blood for the emancipation of the human race, they should interest themselves in what regards slaves. Slavery, a consequence of sin, and the fundamental institution of the pagan world, had received its death-blow by the preaching of the Gospel; but its gradual abolition was left to individuals, and to their practical exercise of the principle of Christian fraternity. As Our Lord and His Apostles had not exacted the immediate abolition of slavery, so, in like manner, the Christian Emperors limited themselves to passing such laws as would give encouragement to its gradual abolition. We have an example of this in the Code of Emperor Justinian, where this prince, after having forbidden all law-proceedings during Holy Week and Easter Week, lays down the following exception: "It shall, nevertheless, be permitted to give slaves their liberty; in such manner, that the legal acts necessary for their emancipation shall not be counted as contravening this present enactment." Indeed, the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, had enacted a similar law regarding all Sundays of the year.
The Mystery of Passiontide and Holy Week
During these last two weeks of Lent, we shall see our Holy Mother the Church mourning, like a disconsolate widow, and sad beyond all human grief. Hitherto, she has been weeping over the sins of her children; now she bewails the death of her divine Spouse. The joyous Alleluia has long since been hushed in her canticles; she is now going to suppress another expression, which seems too glad for this time of sorrow. Partially, at first, but entirely during the last three days, she is about to deny herself the use of that formula, which is so dear to her: Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto. There is an accent of jubilation in these words, which would ill suit her grief and the mournfulness of her chants.
Her lessons, for the night Office (Matins), are taken from Jeremias, the prophet of lamentation above all others. The color of her vestments is the one she had on when she assembled us at the commencement of Lent to sprinkle us with ashes; but when the dreaded day of Good Friday comes, purple would not sufficiently express the depth of her grief; she will clothe herself in black, as men do when mourning the death of a fellow-mortal; for Jesus, her Spouse, is to be put to death on that day: the sins of mankind and the rigors of the divine justice are then to weigh him down, and in all the realities of a last agony, He is to yield up His Soul to His Father.
The presentiment of that awful hour leads the afflicted Mother to veil the images of her Jesus: the Cross is hidden from the eyes of the faithful. The statues of the Saints, too, are covered; for it is but just that, if the glory of the Master be eclipsed, the servant should not appear. The interpreters of the liturgy tell us that this ceremony of veiling the crucifix during Passiontide, expresses the humiliation to which the Savior subjected Himself, of hiding Himself when the Jews threatened to stone Him, as is related in the Gospel of Passion Sunday.
Practices During Passiontide and Holy Week
The past four weeks seem to have been but a preparation for the intense grief of the Church during these two. She knows that men are in search of her Jesus, and that they are bent on His death. Before twelve days are over, she will see them lay their sacrilegious hands upon Him. She will have to follow Him up the hill of Calvary; she will have to receive His last breath; she must witness the stone placed against the sepulchre where His lifeless Body is laid. We cannot, therefore, be surprised at her inviting all her children to contemplate, during these two weeks, Him who is the object of all her love and all her sadness.
But our Mother asks something more of us than compassion and tears; she would have us profit by the lessons we are to be taught by the Passion and Death of our Redeemer. He Himself, when going up to Calvary, said to the holy women who had the courage to show their compassion even before His very executioners: "Weep not over Me; but weep for yourselves and for your children" (St. Luke 23, 28). It was not that He refused the tribute of their tears, for He was pleased with this proof of their affection; but it was His love for them that made Him speak thus. He desired, above all, to see them appreciate the importance of what they were witnessing, and learn from it how inexorable is God's justice against sin.
During the four weeks that have preceded, the Church has been leading the sinner to his conversion; now she would perfect it. A few days hence the Son of God is to be in the hands of sinners, and they will put Him to death. The Church no longer needs to urge her children to repentance; they know too well, now, what sin must be, when it could require such expiation as this. She is all absorbed in the thought of the terrible event, which is to close the life of the God-Man on earth; and by expressing her thoughts through the holy liturgy, she teaches us what our own sentiments should be.
The pervading character of the prayers and rites of these two weeks, is a profound grief at seeing the just One persecuted by His enemies even to death. The Church does not aim at exciting idle sentiments; what she principally seeks is to impress the hearts of her children with a salutary fear. If Jerusalem's crime strikes them with horror, and if they feel that they have partaken in her sin, their tears will flow in abundance.
There are two objects most dear to the Church, which she, during these two weeks, recommends to our deepest veneration; they are the Most Precious Blood of Jesus and the Holy Cross -- the altar upon which our incomparable Victim is immolated. The Church would also have us keep close to the Lamb Himself, and that, more faithful than the Apostles who abandoned Him during His Passion, we should follow Him day by day -- nay, hour by hour, in the way of the Cross that He treads for us. Yes, we will be His faithful companions during these last days of His mortal life, when He submits to the humiliation of having to hide from His enemies. We will envy the lot of those devoted few, who shelter Him in their houses, and expose themselves, by this courageous hospitality, to the rage of His enemies. We will compassionate His Mother, who suffered an anguish that no other heart could feel, because no other creature could love Him as she did. We will go, in spirit, into that Sanhedrim, where they are laying the impious plot against the life of the Just One. Suddenly, we shall see a bright speck, gleaming on the dark horizon; the streets and squares of Jerusalem will re-echo with the cry of Hosanna to the Son of David. That unexpected homage paid to our Jesus, those palm branches, those shrill voices of admiring Hebrew children, will give a momentary truce to our sad forebodings. Our love shall make us take part in the loyal tribute thus paid to the King of Israel, who comes so meekly to visit the daughter of Sion, as the prophet had foretold He would: but alas! this joy will be short-lived, and we must speedily relapse into our deep sorrow of soul!
The traitorous disciple will soon strike his bargain with the high priests; the last Pasch will be kept, and we shall see the figurative lamb give place to the true one, whose Flesh will become our food, and His Blood our drink. We will take our place there, together with the disciples. Then, we shall have to turn our steps toward the fatal garden, where we shall learn what sin is, for we shall behold our Jesus agonizing beneath its weight, and asking some respite from His eternal Father. Then, in the dark hour of midnight, the servants of the high priests and the soldiers, led on by the vile Iscariot, will lay their impious hands on the Son of God; and yet the legions of Angels, who adore Him, will be withheld from punishing the awful sacrilege! After this, we shall have to repair to the various tribunals, whither Jesus is led, and witness the triumph of injustice.
Finally, after seeing Him struck and spit upon, and after the cruel scourging and the frightful insult of the crown of thorns, we will follow our Jesus up Mount Calvary. We will draw near to the Tree of Life, that we may lose neither one drop of that Blood which flows for the cleansing of the world, nor one single word spoken, for its instruction, by our dying Jesus. We will compassionate His Mother, whose heart is pierced through with a sword of sorrow; we will stand close to her, when her Son, a few moments before His death, shall consign us to her fond care. After His three hours' agony, we will reverently watch His sacred Head bow down, and receive, with adoring love, His last breath.
The Son of the Eternal Father was not satisfied with emptying Himself and taking the form of a servant. He foresaw that He would not win our love save at the price of such a generous immolation, and His Heart hesitated not to make it. "Let us, therefore, love God," says St. John, "because God first loved us" (1 John 4, 19). This is the end the Church proposes to herself by the celebration of these solemn anniversaries.
Let us hope that, by God's mercy, the holy time we are now entering upon will work such a happy change in us, that, on the day of judgment, we may confidently fix our eyes on Him we are now about to contemplate crucified by the hands of sinners. The death of Jesus puts the whole of nature in commotion; the midday sun is darkened, the earth is shaken to its very foundations, the rocks are split. May it be that our hearts, too, be moved, and pass from indifference to fear, from fear to hope, and, at length, from hope to love; so that, having gone down, with our Crucified, to the very depths of sorrow, we may deserve to rise again with Him unto light and joy, beaming with the brightness of His Resurrection, and having within ourselves the pledge of a new life, which shall then die no more!
Prayer: The Chief Duty of the Christian
But, someone will say, since God can give and wishes to give me the grace of perseverance, why does He not give it to me at once, in the instant I ask Him for it?
The holy Fathers assign many reasons for this, and among them the following:
1.God does not grant it at once, but delays it, in order that, first of all, He may better prove our confidence in Him.
2. And, further, says St. Augustine, that we may long for this grace of perseverance all the more vehemently. Great gifts, he says, should be greatly desired; for good things soon obtained are not appreciated as much as those things which have been long sought: "God wills not to give quickly, that you may learn to have a great desire for great things; things long desired are received with greater pleasure, but things soon given are cheapened." (Serm. 61 E.B.)
3. Again, the Lord God does so that we may not forget Him. If we were already secure of persevering and of being saved, and if we had not continual need of God's help to preserve us in His grace and to attain salvation, we should soon entirely forget Him. The great poverty and want of the poor cause them to keep resorting to the houses of the rich. It is thus that God, to draw us to Himself, as St. John Chrysostom says, and to see us often at His feet, in order to be able to do us greater good, delays giving us the complete grace of salvation till the hour of our death: "It is not because He rejects our prayers that He delays, but by this contrivance He wishes to make us careful, and to draw us to Himself." (In Gen. Hom. 30)
4. Again, He does so in order that we, by persevering in prayer, may unite ourselves closer to Him with the sweet bonds of love: "Prayer," says the same St. Chrysostom, "which is accustomed to converse with God, is no slight bond of love to Him." (In Ps. 4) This continual recurrence to God in prayer, and this confident expectation of the graces which we desire from Him -- oh, what a great incentive it is to spur us on, inflaming our souls with the chains of love, and binding us more closely to God!
But, until what time do we have to pray? Always, says the same saint, till we receive the favorable sentence of eternal life, that is to say, until our death: "Do not leave off till you receive." (In Matt. hom. 24) And he goes on to say that the man who resolves -- "I will never leave off praying until I am saved" -- will most certainly be saved: "If you say, I will not give in until I have received, you will assuredly receive." The Apostle writes that many run for the prize, but that he alone receives it who runs until he wins: "Know you not that they who run in the race, all indeed run, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain." (1 Cor. 9:24) It is not enough for salvation, then, simply to pray; but we must pray always, that we may come to receive the crown which God promises, but promises only to those who are constant in prayer until the end.
Thus, if we wish to be saved, we must do as holy David did, who always kept his eyes turned to God, to implore His aid against being overcome by his enemies: "My eyes are ever towards the Lord, for He shall pluck my feet out of the snare." (Ps. 24:15) The Devil is continually spreading snares to swallow us up, as St. Peter writes: "Your adversary the Devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about, seeking whom he may devour" (1 Peter 5:8); so we ought ever to stand with our spiritual arms in our hands to defend ourselves from such a foe, and to say with the royal prophet, "I will pursue after my enemies; and I will not turn again till they are consumed." (Ps. 17:38) I will never cease fighting until I see my enemies conquered. But how can we obtain this victory, so crucial for us, yet so difficult? "By most persevering prayers," says St. Augustine, -- only by prayers, and those most persevering; and until when? As long as the fight shall last. "As the battle is never over," says St. Bonaventure, "so let us never give up asking for mercy." (De uno Conf. S.5) As we must be always in the combat, so should we be always asking God for aid not to be overcome by our enemies. Woe, says the Wise Man, to him who in this battle leaves off praying: "Woe to them that have lost patience." (Ecclus. 2:16) We may be saved, the Apostle tells us, but on this condition, "if we retain a firm confidence and the glory of hope until the end" (Heb. 3:6); if we are constant in praying with confidence until death.
Let us, then, take courage from the mercy of God and His promises, and say with the same Apostle: "Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or danger, or persecution, or the sword?" (Rom. 8:35, 37) Who shall succeed in estranging us from the love of Jesus Christ? Tribulation, perhaps, or the danger of losing the goods of this world? The persecutions of devils or men? The torments inflicted by tyrants? "In all these we overcome" (it is St. Paul who encourages us), "because of Him that hath loved us." (ibid) No, he says, no tribulation, no misery, danger, persecution, or torture, shall ever be able to separate us from the love of Jesus Christ; because with God's help we shall overcome all, if we fight for love of Him Who gave His life for love of us.
Hippolitus Durazzo, the day when he resolved to relinquish all of his dignities at Rome, and to give himself entirely to God by entering the Society of Jesus (which he afterwards did), was so afraid of being faithless on account of his weakness that he said to God, "Forsake me not, O Lord, now that I have given myself wholly to Thee; for pity's sake, do not forsake me!" But he heard the whisper of God in his heart, "Rather, do not thou forsake Me;" said God, "Thus do I say to thee, forsake Me not!" And so the servant of God, trusting in His goodness and help, concluded, "Then, O my God, Thou wilt not leave me, and I will not leave Thee."
Finally, if we wish not to be forsaken by God, we ought never to cease praying to Him to remain with us. If we do thus, He will most certainly always assist us, and will never allow us to perish, and to be separated from His holy love. To this end, let us not only always take care to ask for final perseverance, and the graces necessary to obtain it, but let us, at the same time, ask God by anticipation for the grace to go on praying; for this is precisely that great gift which He has promised to His elect by the mouth of the prophet, "And I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and prayers." (Zach. 12:10) Oh, what a great grace is the spirit of prayer; that is, the grace which God confers on a soul to enable it to pray always! Let us, then, never neglect to beg God to give us this grace and this spirit of continual prayer; because if we pray always, we shall certainly obtain from God perseverance and every other gift which we desire, since His promise of hearing whoever prays to Him cannot fail. "For we are saved by hope." (Rom. 8:24) With this hope of always praying, we may believe ourselves to be on the path of eternal salvation. "Confidence will give us a broad entrance into this city." (In Solemn. Omn. SS., hom. 2) This hope, said the Venerable Bede, will give us a safe passage into the city of Paradise.
St. Thomas' conditions for prayers to be heard by God:
(1) to pray for ourselves; (2) for the graces necessary for salvation;
(3) piously, that is, with humility and confidence; and (4) with perseverance.
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