Each of us in our personal lives has significant days, birthdays, anniversaries and other special commemorations. Sometimes families have their own celebrations. All these events not only remind us of our personal and family identity but nurture that awareness.
Our spiritual life follows the same pattern. The Church holds up for us each year the important moments, particularly in the life of Christ, that not only remind us of our identity but nurture our self-awareness as followers of Christ, people redeemed in the blood of the cross, a people called to the new life of the Resurrection.
Holy Week is the time of the year when the Church not only paints for us the great narrative picture of Jesus’ last days, but explains to us the story behind the events.
From one perspective, Palm Sunday is the return to a historical moment. Jesus did enter into Jerusalem amid cries and shouts of joy.
Equally true is the story of his suffering and death recounted in the Gospel as it will be retold once again on Good Friday.
But there is so much more —
We are invited to see these events through the eyes of faith.
The Church sets before us these mysteries of the faith not simply for remembrance, nostalgia, recollection and history, but because each of us, personally, is touched by the events of Holy Week in a way that we are brought into the very action of what we commemorate.
The Church calls us not just to a commemoration historically of the events of two thousand years ago, as laudable as that might be, but also to enter the mystery itself. We are not bystanders, but rather participants.
The narrative of redemption opens with the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Here we are reminded that Jesus proclaims a kingdom that will never end and of which he is Lord. But we also learn that his kingdom is of the Spirit. His realm is a spiritual one, not a temporal, political one. He has come to fashion a new creation that is formed in faith and resides, first, in the hearts of his followers.
This is not the easiest time to be recognized as a person of faith. This is a culture where religious faith is increasingly dismissed and people of faith are expected to be less visible.
Yet we also know that living our faith and visibly bearing testimony to it can have wonderful effects.
At the beginning of this Lent, as I spoke with a young adult who will be received into the Church at the Easter Vigil, I asked him what brought him to the Church. He replied that over a year ago, at the request of his girlfriend, he started going with her to Mass. In long conversations with her, now his fiancée, he said he began to grasp something of what a sacrament is and why it meant so much to her.
Eventually he concluded that he wanted to be a part of that spiritual world — the Church.
During Holy Week, we are reminded that Jesus came to announce and establish a kingdom. The kingdom of God among us is real. It is made up of the presence here and now in this world of God’s realm of truth, justice, peace and love. It is a presence of the Spirit, of grace. It will be completed in its fullness in heaven, but it begins now with us.
We are challenged to help manifest and realize that kingdom. We are not bystanders to an historical event that is unfolding in time as were so many who watched Jesus enter Jerusalem, but participants in an action that we help to realize and manifest. Thus we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Our part is not an insignificant aspect of God’s kingdom coming to be.
Just as they cheered Jesus on his way into Jerusalem, so, too, are we asked to walk with him as we make our personal renewal of faith.
Holy Thursday, the day we commemorate the Lord’s Supper, highlights for us how it is possible that we are more than bystanders during this week of saving events that the Church calls holy. Jesus instituted the Eucharist so that we would never have to look back with longing at the original Holy Week, but be able each Holy Week to enter the mystery of redemption — to share in Christ’s victory.
As the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, reminded us in his encyclical letter on the Eucharist, “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and Resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and ‘the work of our redemption is carried out.’” (11). In the Eucharist, the saving events of that other time and place are made present to us here and now.
On Good Friday, we will approach the foot of the cross. The cross is the uncomfortable reminder that each one of us, through our personal failures and sins, bears a responsibility for the ignominious death of Christ.
But what brings us to the foot of the cross is not simply a recognition of our human failure, but the realization that in the blood of the cross, our sins are washed away.
We can proclaim with grateful heart, “We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”
On Easter Sunday, we will walk from Golgotha to the Easter garden and empty tomb and celebrate our share in the paschal mystery in its fullness — the pledge of eternal life.
Holy Week marks our annual spiritual journey as we see with the eyes of faith the mystery and reality of God with us.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl is Archbishop of Washington. This article is based on his homily at a Mass celebrating Palm Sunday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew on Sunday, April 1, 2012.