So how did you get over the Easter? Not a question we’re often asked, unlike its Christmas counterpart. But, even though it might sound a bit previous on Easter Monday, it’s a fair question nonetheless. Or could I put it another way: had you an Easter to get over?
There was the holiday weekend. Family members drifted home There were the usual great sporting events. Pubs did a roaring trade. Shops and restaurants were busy. But what about the real Easter? Not Easter the bank holiday weekend but the real Easter – for Christians the great religious feast of the year. Or did its religious significance really impinge on your consciousness?
Yes, I know there were great crowds at Masses on Easter day. Visitors were home and mothers and grandmothers bid the reluctant from bed to pew as mothers are (or were) wont to do. But marking Easter Sunday is a bit like marking Christmas by eating a few turkey sandwiches a few days after Christmas. You soon realise that that while you get the flavour, somehow you’ve missed the essence. You may even imagine you were there but you know you’ve missed the experience.
Part of the difficulty with Holy Week is that for many it’s either ignored in its entirety or regarded as a form of penance to be endured. ‘Excitement’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
Even for those charged with the responsibility of leading people in celebrating what’s the greatest feast of the year, excitement is often in short supply. The difficult truth is that Holy Week is often a marathon that we struggle through rather than an opportunity to remember and celebrate the great events at the heart of our faith.
Uninvolved officially in Holy Week – for the first time in 46 years– I’ve been mulling over our failure to create some kind of reasonable engagement, even of regular Mass attenders, with the ceremonies. Why is it that parishioners who would never contemplate missing Mass on a weekend, ignore some or sometimes all of the Holy Week ceremonies?
The first thing that strikes me is that the ceremonies are too long. Sometimes far too long. If we know anything about Irish Catholics, it’s that they have an impatient gene that expresses itself in their appreciation of what’s called ‘a fast Mass’.
I’ve always thought myself that, with church ceremonies, no matter how significant they may be, extending beyond a base-line of 60 minutes means that you’re sure to lose in extra time.
One reason for the extended length of the ceremonies is that priests often regard them as an exam where every question has to be attempted. So rather than estimating realistically what a congregation can deal with, they leave nothing out, even though this compromises powerful symbols that are stacked one on top of the other. It seems sensible not to try to do everything in every ceremony.
Trying to cover every wicket can lend the celebrant to explain over and over again what the symbols mean, thereby milking them of substance. And choirs can end up singing too much, not embellishing the ceremony at appropriate times but giving a swerve of their own. Less is sometimes more.
In recent years it’s remarkable how little creativity has emerged in our presentation of the central events of our faith. Occasionally there are Passion Plays, like the annual one in Ballintubber Abbey, which has a natural amphitheatre for staging such a dramatic event. And this year Crossmolina parish impressively put its toe in the water for what hopefully will become an annual event.
But most parishes are put off by the complex organisation, the huge workload involved and, not least, by those who demand that their church has the full complement of traditional ceremonies. What may be needed is parishes, especially smaller parishes, coming together to have one imaginative event drawing larger crowds rather than a declining and ageing clergy driving furiously from church to church trying to provide Holy Week ‘cover’ coverage for declining and ageing numbers of people.
The popularity of the ‘Dawn Mass’ on Easter morning is an indication of the appetite there is for a creative and imaginative engagement with experiences that speak to us, rather than having them explained.
When the late John O’Donohoe took to the Burren landscape many years ago, people wondered what he was at. Now on Easter morning as the dawn breaks and the light of the sun gradually increases, breaking away the darkness of the night, more and more parishes are gathering in places of significance – old abbeys, sea shores, pilgrim paths, cemeteries – to get a sense of the light/darkness motif that’s at the heart of our cruxifixion / resurrection faith. And simply too to be able to savour the experience of gathering and of faith, punctuated by a full silence before the dawn chorus of birdsong that God sends every year.
I think we need to give ourselves permission to be creative in ritual. We can be so stuck in routine and in rubric that we almost instinctively avoid what might give new life to ceremonies like Holy Week, now so often embedded in numbing repetition and predictability.
Just as the preaching of the Gospel can be inhibited by the predictable pattern of pulpit and parson and needs to escape from its musty surrounding to stand its ground in an outside world, so too ritual, especially religious ritual, needs to spread its wings and soar into the distance.