Holy Week in 2020

Celebrating Holy Week, locked down at home

Prof. Tom O’Loughlin of Nottingham University has sent us these timely reflections and practical suggestions. . .

Celebrating Holy Thursday in the home

One of the skills that is not well developed among ordinary Catholics is that of taking a lead in a liturgical act: that is an action of two or more people which praises God through Jesus. Taking a lead in a liturgical act is not a widespread skill because usually there is a priest (or perhaps a deacon or a catechist) who does this – and we think of them as the experts; and tend to leave it to them. The expert acts, everyone else reacts. But that won’t work if you are in lockdown this Holy Thursday and Good Friday. So you or someone with you will have to act as a leader if you are to actually celebrate – which is more than tuning in to a celebration – these great days. Let’s not forget, everyone who is baptized is able to stand before God and lead some sort of worship – it is a basic Christian dignity.


So what are we doing on Holy Thursday? Our challenge is:

  • to experience anew (that is what we mean when we use words like ‘remember’ or ‘recall’) being the friends of the Christ around a table (Jn 15:15): so we pray at a meal;

  • to experience that we Christians have a different vision of human relationships which is based on mutual service: so we read the story of Jesus’ act of foot-washing and note that we are Christian sisters and brothers at the table; and,

  • despite the virus, we are rejoicing in God’s love and so offer him praise, blessing him through, with and in Jesus: so we will use table prayers from his very earliest followers.


These household liturgies seem strange, but recall that the Passover meal was eaten in ordinary households and that praying around a table is what we are always reading about in the gospels, not least in the story of the Last Supper which we want to experience for ourselves this night.


At your evening meal


Have your main meal in the evening and realise that it is a feast – we are thanking the Father for delivering us from sin and death through his Son: this is our Passover. What makes a feast? Simple answer: more than one course. So if it is only beans on toast, have a second course which is a scoop of ice cream or coffee and a biscuit. But I hope you can manage a much better feast than beans on toast!
When everyone who is taking part has sat down, take a small loaf of bread (a bread roll is ideal), or just a couple of slices, on a plate and bless the Father using this first-century prayer for household gatherings of Christians:

We give thanks to you, our Father,

for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us.

Through Jesus, your servant, to you be glory forever.

For as this broken loaf was once scattered over the mountains and then was gathered in and became one, so may your church be gathered together into your kingdom from the very ends of the earth.

Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

Then break up the loaf (or slices) into as many pieces as there are people around the table, and then pass the dish around for each to take a piece to eat.
The take a glass of wine (or grape-juice or just lemonade) and bless the Father saying (or ask someone else to say this prayer):

We give thanks to you, our Father,

for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you have made known to us.

Through Jesus, your servant, to you be glory forever.

Pass the glass from one to another each drinking from the one cup.


Then enjoy whatever you are going to eat, and between the courses get someone else to read this story (Jn 13:1-15):

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him,  “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.


Continue with your meal, and ‘after you all have had enough to eat, give thanks in this way’:

We give you thanks, holy Father, for your holy name which you have made to dwell in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which you have made known to us.

Through Jesus, your servant, to you be glory forever.

You are the mighty ruler of all who has created all for your name’s sake, and you have given food and drink to human beings for their enjoyment so that they might give thanks to you. But to us, from your generosity, you have given spiritual food and drink, and life eternal, through your servant.

Above all things we give thanks to you because you are mighty: to you be glory forever.

Remember, Lord, your church, deliver her from evil, make her complete in your love, and gather her from the four winds into your kingdom you have prepared for her, for yours is the power and the glory forever.


When meal is over…


Mark (14:46) tells us that when the meal was finished ‘they sang a hymn’ and then departed. You cannot go anywhere, but it is important to end on note of joy. So, what is your favourite hymn? Do all know the words? Can all sing it?

If not, when the washing-up is done, recalling that the hymn mentioned by Mark was probably a psalm, why not use this one (Ps 117 – it’s the shortest):

Praise the Lord, all you nations!

Extol him, all you peoples!

For great is his steadfast love toward us;

and the faithfulness of the Lord endures for ever.

Praise the Lord!


This is not a ‘normal’ Holy Thursday, but we may have discovered new aspects of our discipleship – and recovered long-forgotten parts of our tradition – through celebrating in this very unusual way.

Celebrating Good Friday locked down at home

Christianity – because of its use of the image of the cross – is often presented as a cult of death. Many Christians have collaborated in this presenting discipleship in terms of gloom, and prompting the wry comment from Nietzsche: ‘you Christians do not look redeemed!’ Here lies the great difference between, on one hand, what the liturgy of Good Friday wants us to experience anew, and, on the other, popular sentiment. Christianity is the religion of victory over suffering, sin, and death. This is why we call it good Friday.


While Mk 15:33-41 (followed by Mt and Lk) presents the passion as taking place in darkness (seeking to echo Amos 8:9), John – the gospel always read in the liturgy today – presents the events taking place in broad daylight: the mystery of the death of Jesus is a revelation, that which was hidden is now made clear so ‘that [we] may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [we] may have life in his name’ (Jn 20:31).


But if we see Jesus as the one who has conquered death, that does not allow us to ignore the real suffering around us, but prompts us to pray that the effects of that victory be felt more and more. So we move from recalling the death of the Lord in the Passion reading to the annual great Prayer of the Faithful.


Where to start: The Passion


Get a bible and read aloud – even if you are alone (these texts were composed to be heard rather than read silently) the The Passion according to St John

That is Jn 18:1 to 19:42. Find it in your bible, or CLICK HERE

If you have more time … Listening to the scriptures is harder than it seems. So there is probably more than enough in the Passion narrative. But if you have more time, there is one of the great Songs of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah (Isa 52:13-53:12) that we normally read today.



Making intercession for those who are suffering:

Disciples not only pray for one another, but seek to present the needs of suffering humanity before the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a set of intercessions specially for this coronavirus year.


A huge mass of suffering weighs on all minds.

  • The suffering of those crowded into hospitals struggling with their breathing, the suffering of those not allowed in, the suffering of the bereaved who were not allowed to touch or to breathe the same air as their dying relatives or friend.
  • The suffering of worry and anxiety of those working in hospitals, or just in shops or in transport, or just of those closed in on loneliness or some unhappy domestic situation.
  • The suffering of prisoners, and of prison personnel.
  • The suffering of sudden massive unemployment.
  • The suffering of the homeless, on the streets of the rich first-world cities of Europe, the USA, and Japan, and on streets of starvation in the developing world.
  • The suffering of those insulted, deceived, and cheated by irresponsible governments.
  • The whole world that is stretched on a bed of pain.
  • We hold this ever-increasing mass of suffering up you, O Father, through Christ our Lord.

Then recite the Lord’s Prayer and conclude your locked down liturgy with the Sign of the Cross.

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to John


After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons.


Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?”

They answered,  “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied,  “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them,  “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said,  “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken,  “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.”


Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter,  “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”


So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.


Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. woman said to Peter,  “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.


Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered,  “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying,  “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.


Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him,  “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said,  “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked,  “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.


Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said,  “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.”

(This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him,  “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied,  “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him,  “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply,  “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.


Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying,  “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them,  “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus,  “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.


Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews,  “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them,  “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.


So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read,  “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered,  “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfil what the scripture says,  “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” And that is what the soldiers did.


Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother,  “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home. After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture),  “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.


Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.


He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth. These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled,  “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”


After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.


A reading from the Prophet Isaiah


The Poem of the Suffering Servant

13 See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high.

14 Just as there were many who were astonished at him –
so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals –

15 so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;
for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Chapter 53

1 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

2 For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

3 He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

4 Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

8 By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

9 They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring,
and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.

11 Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.


Lockdown: the Holy Saturday experience

Thomas O’Loughlin

This year millions of us are locked in our homes. We are not going out to work, not going out to play, going nowhere to socialise. It is – so long as we are virus free and not one of those who have to try and tackle it or have to stay at their posts to keep the basics running – a bit like a big blank space. A shapeless empty time between BF (‘Before the Virus’) a few weeks ago (aka ‘normality’) and AF (‘After the Virus’) which will begin … when? … soon? … when normality, we hope, returns.

This year we can use that sense of a ‘blank time between’ to appreciate a part of the Christian year we usually skip. The Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday is the great blank space in the liturgical year!  Nothing seems to be happening: there are no special ceremonies, the Eucharist is never celebrated, and it is not even brought to the sick except as viaticum. In monastic communities the Liturgy of the Hours continues, but even here there is a sense of continuing the thoughts of Friday or a sense of simply waiting for the vigil that will herald in Easter. Most of the actual liturgical activity that does take place in communities is severely practical in nature: cleaning, polishing, preparing a fire, practicing ceremonies, arranging this and that – and complaining by the sacristan that some new idea just will not work because this is not how it is always done! But this gap in the liturgy has another value as a recollection of some aspects of our liturgy that are otherwise completely forgotten.

Sabbatum sanctum

In many European languages, and always in Latin when used in the liturgy, the name of the sixth day of the week is not the dies Saturni – ‘the day of Saturn’ – but Sabbatum derived from the Hebrew name Shabbat: the Sabbath. So in Italian we have sabato, and in Spanish sábado, both from Sabbatum. We in English, using ‘Saturday,’ are probably following the Welsh dydd Sadwrn (itself borrowed from Latin at a time when Christian terminology had not yet made inroads upon Latin culture), hence we are not easily familiar with the notion of Saturday as ‘the Sabbath.’ We tend to think of ‘the sabbath’ as a foreign name one hears about in the Scriptures or as part of the Ten Commandments: ‘to keep holy the Sabbath day.’ But, today, on the holy Sabbath of the Christian year it is a good idea to recall our links with the Sabbath.

The first, and most obvious, recollection it should call to mind is how our faith is rooted in Judaism: Jesus was a Jew who kept the Sabbath, ‘the Scriptures’ which were used to make sense of him and proclaim him by the evangelists are the books that were sacred to the Jews of the time, and despite the fact that many people find readings from the Old Testament ‘difficult’ and ‘obscure,’ we need to face the fact that without appreciating that ‘back story’ we cannot understand Jesus, his words, or his works. Likewise, we cannot understand our liturgy: we gather to bless the Father at the Eucharist, and we use Jewish table prayers to do this! We tend to link Eucharistic Prayers with the presence of Jesus – but their function is to bless God the Father through, with, and in Jesus as his Anointed One using prayer formulae that derive from the domestic rituals of Jews during the Second Temple period.

Here are few blessings of God, taken from the psalms, which illustrate the basic form of prayer that Jesus used when he ‘blessed the Father’ and which, in turn, influence us to this day: ‘Blessed be God!’ (63:35); ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things’ (72:18); ‘Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen’ (72:19); ‘Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen and Amen’ (89:52); and ‘Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes’ (119:12). Whenever prayer by Christians strays far from these Jewish prayer-forms it tends to get lost in metaphysical abstractions or pious confusions.

But there is a more obscure memory connected with the Sabbath. Why do Christians worship on Sunday – and we should note that we have been gathering for our common banquet on this day since less than a decade after the crucifixion? A simple answer is that this was to recall the resurrection, but this does not explain it: why was a particular day made the focus of the resurrection appearances within the community’s memory? The resurrection is, after all, an event beyond day-to-day time: and in choosing a particular day to recall it, they were giving an historical expression to their fundamental belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. The most plausible explanation is that the first followers of Jesus (decades before they would be called ‘Christians’) knew they had to gather and celebrate what they believed had been revealed by God in Jesus. The way to do this was to gather for a meal and bless God in the way that Jesus had taught them and to thank him for ‘the faith and full life [God] has made known to [them] in [Jesus]’ (Didache 10:2). But when were they to gather for this Jesus-meal? They were still celebrating the Sabbath and its meal, and so had to find another day for their meal as Jesus’s disciples – and so chose the next available day: the day after the Sabbath. While the Sabbath meal was a domestic, family affair with the father of the family blessing God for those around the household’s table; their meal as disciples of Jesus was a larger common affair: it was open (even to sinners and prostitutes), it established a new relationship of sisters and brothers among those who took part, involved sharing with others, and blessing God as Father in the way Jesus had. This new banquet was seen as a foretaste of the final heavenly banquet. It took place after work – Sunday was a workday – and during it these communities recalled that Jesus was not dead but risen: and they structured their memory of his resurrection and his appearances around the time of their gathering. So today we still hear of the risen Jesus coming among the very first groups on a Sunday evening – as we see in the Emmaus story found in Luke (24:13-35). Saturday continued as the Sabbath with its memories of the Creation and the history of God’s gifts; Sunday had its common meal and its memory of his gift of Jesus, the new community gathered from the four winds, and which rejoiced in his promise of resurrection.

We have all but forgotten these ‘Jewish-Christians’ (to use a modern phrase), but on Holy Saturday each year we should recall them, and the very complex origins of our religion. If we had kept these memories more clearly, some of the most brutal and shameful moments in Christian history might have been avoided. You may have looked out the window of your apartment on Wednesday night to see the big (‘Pink’) full moon. Now recall that it is this full moon that began Pesach (aka ‘Passover’) this year: it began on Wednesday evening and will end next Thursday evening (16 April). This celestial phenomenon that gives us the date of our central feast is that which gave, and still gives, the date for Passover. If only we would remember each time we see this ‘Easter moon’ that we Christians are an offshoot of second-temple Judaism, then we would be spiritually richer ––and humanity might have been spared much suffering.

Harrowing Hell

By the end of the second century this day had become associated with the notion of ‘the descent among the dead’ and Jesus bringing his good news first to all those who were waiting in their tombs for the fullness of revelation. So we imagine the Christ going to bring new life to Adam and Eve, to Moses and the prophets, and to David and the kings. Jesus greets them, as a second century preacher says, ‘holding in his hand his victorious weapon: his cross’ with which he challenged the forces of death and evil (Ancient Homily, see Breviary, vol 2, 320-2). This is a part of the Christian story that has all but disappeared from modern western Christianity, but it was part of Latin Christianity in earlier centuries when this story was called ‘the harrowing of hell.’ Moreover, it is the story behind the Eastern icon of the resurrection which shows the risen Lord, with his appearance transformed with celestial radiance behind him, trampling down ‘the gates of hell’ and greeting Adam, David, Moses, and their wives.

This memory of ‘the harrowing of hell’ is important to us for several reasons. First and foremost, it reminds us that the mystery of the resurrection is something beyond this world, beyond imagination, and not to be confused with some sort of magical trick nor some notion of resuscitation. We tend always to reduce the mystery of God to ‘facts’ which we then think we can measure – and in that action either prove or disprove them! The person who asks if Jesus rose on Sunday morning or on Saturday evening has fallen in to this trap! The mystery of the resurrection is God beckoning us with his love that we shall one day ‘stand in his presence and serve him.’ But the fullness of what that means is beyond us: so we tell stories, and the more stories we tell the better: hence all the differing resurrection stories we find in the gospels and other early Christian writings. Each tells us something, none is complete. But we should be warned: once we start trying to co-ordinate all these tales into a consistent ‘book of evidence,’ then we are seeking to replace mystery with some sort of paranormal history. Hearing the story of the harrowing and looking at the eastern icon should remind us that all the resurrection accounts are attempts to convey in human images the mystery of God’s untold love.

Second, since the late middle ages we western Christians have dwelt on the suffering Jesus on the cross, but this early story reminds us that the cross was seen as a symbol of victory. This is why we call the day of the crucifixion ‘good’ Friday and why we sing praises to the cross on that day. We sing of a victory over death gained for us by Jesus who delivers us from all bondage. Whether it is an ancient cross with jewels, a medieval cross like that of the Franciscan cross of San Damiano or a modern ‘Liberation Theology’ cross does not matter, for all these crosses convey (in contrast to renaissance crucifixes with their emphasis on a ‘realistic’ presentation of suffering) that the cross too is a mystery: all our suffering is taken up into the life of God and new life springs from it. The cross is a beginning of liberation, not a failure.

Third, we western Christians have become very imperialistic in our views of our Christianity: it is the post-Reformation or post-Tridentine style or nothing! Yet the fact that on this day we look at older ways of thinking and at eastern icons should remind us of the range and variety that exists inside the Christian circle. If we had that more embracing view of difference and did not equate unity with uniformity, our history might have been so different! We might have avoided the split between east and west in the tenth and the eleventh centuries, we might have avoided the exclusivist papal claims that have caused such problems, and the scandal of division and bigoted bitterness that has dogged so much of western Christian history since the sixteenth century.

Silence after sound

To appreciate a piece of music one must have a moment’s silence at its end! However brief, it is that moment of silence that makes the music a ‘piece’ and not simply more background noise. To appreciate a special day one needs an ordinary day; to appreciate a season one needs ‘ordinary time’! Variety is the spice of life. The coronavirus lockdown makes us aware of the things we have taken for granted.

This very different Holy Sabbath, this very different sense of a day, can become the difference that is the harbinger of new life – if we just stay with its emptiness and its starkness.

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One Comment

  1. Veronica Clerkin says:

    Thank you appreciate. May His Blessings fall on you.

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