Holiday Weekend or Holy Week?

Here’s a question for Holy Week: is Easter a holiday break or a religious experience? Or is it both?
At this time of the year, there’s usually some controversy about how Good Friday has become more a sporting or recreational occasion than a significant feast on the Christian calendar.
Like this year when another effort was made by the vintners to have pubs opened on Good Friday, to facilitate their customers – nothing as self-serving as a greasy till. Or like a few years ago when a judge in Limerick allowed pubs to open on Good Friday to facilitate patrons of an important Heineken Cup rugby match. Or when an important Mayo under-21 match was scheduled for 3.00 p.m. on Good Friday, the time, tradition has it, that Jesus died on the cross.
While for people of the Christian faith Good Friday is at the heart of everything and remembering it and celebrating it is obvious, logical and necessary, in recent years Holy Week has become for many little more than a mix between a sporting occasion and a holiday break.
And while there’s no obvious incompatibility between going to a football match on Good Friday and kissing the cross a few hours earlier (and while it’s possible for an Irishman to worship at the shrines of the two Irish religions on the one day), the gradual erosion of the sacred at the heart of the ordinary continues apace. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is.
At the heart of human experience are events which resonate with the deepest reaches of our being.
Three o’clock on Good Friday. A day and a time that reaches beyond us, down the avenues of history, back through the centuries, all the way to Calvary.
There is, at the very least in most of us, an echo of a belief – however diluted or compromised – that what happened on Calvary, at that time and on that day, is at the cross-roads of human history and at the epicentre of human experience.
For anyone who believes in Jesus Christ, time stood still on Good Friday and, like Christmas Day, the mood of Good Friday creates in us a need to somehow affirm its importance in our lives. This is why so many find themselves drawn towards a church on Good Friday. Even those whose faith may be uncertain and whose religious practice may have ceased can find themselves in reflective mood on Good Friday.
One reason is that the Cross of Jesus, that elemental image of the suffering Christ that reverberates down the centuries, has indelibly imprinted itself on our consciousness. It is part of what we are. If it was possible to unpack the Irish psyche, we would find that the cross is part of the basic furniture of our minds.
Crosses, of course, are everywhere. Yet, even though the very familiarity of the cross should lessen its impact, somehow this hasn’t happened.
Even though we have, in a sense, domesticated the cross – the warm texture of its wood and the piety in which we embed it anaesthetising us to the awful reality it represents – it retains the capacity to impact on us.
Even though we have turned an implement of retribution and torture into a fashion icon that we wear around our necks rather than an emblem of human suffering that we carry on our backs, its message retains its awe-inspiring clarity, especially on Good Friday.
Even though we have sanitised the cross by removing the body of the dead Christ and even sought to diminish the impact of the graphic image of a man nailed to a cross, Calvary has survived.
The other reason, I think, for the ‘survival’ of Good Friday is that the older we get the more we realise the connection between the Cross of Christ and our own struggles, especially our own sufferings, the more we realise that to make any sense of the human condition we have to travel by way of Calvary.
Calvary sets in consoling relief the experience of all who suffer – whether the nightmare of physical pain or the emotional trauma of significant loss or the prospect of imminent death. The human Jesus, struggling to come to terms with the reality of his predicament, echoes every human experience of suffering and of loss and reflects the complexity and confusion of emotions that attend all those caught in the slipstream of pain and loss and death.
This Friday, in homes and in hospitals all over Ireland, those who experience pain and desolation in whatever form, all those who like Mary stand at the foot of the cross, will sense something of the complexity of emotions that were present on Calvary: the same confusion, the same disillusionment, the same desolation, the same anger, the same reproach. How many indeed this Friday will, in whatever shape or form, echo the great lamentation of Jesus as he died on the cross: My God, what have you done to me, answer me?
All who are suffering in whatever form this Good Friday, all who struggle to make sense of what, by any human estimate, seems to be senseless will find an echo of their pain in the sufferings of Jesus because the contradiction of the cross is that what it represents – the sufferings of Christ – continues to save and to heal and to comfort.
Contemplating Jesus on the cross brings comfort and resilience and strength to those who need it. And it reminds us that it is through his suffering that everyone and everything is redeemed, that the power and the presence and promise of God are now accessible to us in our suffering and in our need. Contemplating Jesus on the Cross reminds us that in our present frail and redeemed bodies we carry the saving power of God.
Kiss the cross on Good Friday, not for God’s sake but for your own.

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  1. Hi Brendan,
    What an excellent, thoughtful reflection, both on the significance of Good Friday and on the current trend of Irish society away from celebrating the central core of Christianity, or indeed any public recognition of the sacred. If you’ll allow, I’ll be citing from and paraphrasing parts of your article in my several homilies this week; also in the ACP Homily Resources for Good Friday. Many thanks indeed.
    Pat Rogers cp

  2. Sarah houston says:

    Very nice reflection. One correction though: Jesus did not address His question towards God (what have I done to you?), but to the people, in the ancient Reproaches, as follows: ”My people, What have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me!”
    In the Gospel, Jesus did say on the cross, ”My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” quoting from one of the Psalms.

  3. Thanks for bringing that “Nothing Sacred” series to our attention, Joe. Great fun, and thought-provoking too. Clear echoes of many a parish I’ve visited in California and other places. I’m loving it and think it could also serve as Easter viewing for those who’ve not seen it before.

  4. Having lived through another Good Friday, I am reminded once more, that the “suffering of Christ”, on the cross, is a constant reminder of what the devoted follower of Christ, mainly the Lord’s prophets, will inevitably endure.

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