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He is risen: the great drama of Holy Week

It’s one of the busiest times for a priest, but also one of the most wonderous, as Christ fills our churches with joy, by Fr Jamie McMorrin

On the afternoon of Palm Sunday, I was talking to a fellow priest about Holy Week. We’d each already celebrated Palm Sunday, with its processions, blessing of palms, Gospel of the Passion and everything else three times already and were preparing for an afternoon Mass the archbishop was celebrating for the young people of the archdiocese.

As we set up (for the fourth time) the palms, the holy water, the thurible and everything else, my brother priest perfectly summed up what was going through my own mind: “I love Holy Week. But I’m really looking forward to Easter Sunday afternoon.”

 

Easter relaxation

If you’re actually reading this article on Easter Sunday afternoon, know that I’ll already either be tucking into Easter Sunday lunch and a glass of wine at my sister’s house, or having a post-prandial snooze on her couch and terrifying my nephew with my snoring.

If you’re reading this pre-Easter, then there’s a good chance I’ll still be running around the cathedral, with a checklist in my hand and a pained expression on my face as I try desperately to remember where I’ve put the Paschal Candle.

Right now, at the beginning of Holy Week, as I write this article, like priests all across the world, I’m given the same instruction by the Lord as was given to the first priests, all those years ago in Jerusalem: “Go, and make the preparations for me to celebrate the Passover with my disciples.”

 

Much to do

Thankfully, we don’t have to source a borrowed donkey (in short supply in the city centre of Edinburgh) but there’s still plenty to be prepared: homilies to be written, Confessions to be heard, sick to be visited and sacristies to be arranged.

Like my friend, and like most priests, I love Holy Week. I love the very human drama of the events we celebrate: of friendship and betrayal, of gifts given and rejected, of the man who lays down his life for those he loves, the King who sacrifices himself for his people, and the God who dies to save sinners.

I love the rich symbolism of the Church’s liturgy: the bread broken and the wine poured out, the washing of world-weary feet and the altar of repose bedecked with flowers.

 

Good Friday

On Good Friday, I’m struck by the starkness of a church stripped of all beauty and deprived of the presence of the Bridegroom, whose dying feet we adorn with kisses.

And then on Holy Saturday, the apparently interminable waiting before, on the holiest of nights and the mother of all vigils, the triumphal bursting forth of the Risen One, whose uncreated light conquers the darkness, whose holy presence fills the Church with joy and makes our hearts burn within us as we see the story of Israel fulfilled perfectly in ‘the Lamb once slain who lives forever.’

But even before we get to the Sacred Triduum there’s another, often-overlooked, celebration: the annual Chrism Mass, celebrated by the bishop, surrounded by his priests and people.

During this Mass, the oils that will be used to celebrate the Sacraments in the year ahead are blessed and distributed to parishes: the oil of the sick that will anoint the foreheads and hands of those who suffer, to give them strength, comfort and healing; the oil of catechumens that will anoint those who will be Baptised, fortifying them to follow the Lord into the mystery of his death and resurrection in a life of discipleship; and the oil of chrism that will anoint the newly Baptised to a participation in Christ’s royal and prophetic priesthood, that will seal those to be confirmed with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that will consecrate in a new and distinct way those ordained to the ministerial priesthood.

 

Renewing promises

For this latter reason, the Chrism Mass is an opportunity for priests to renew the promises made on the day of their ordination. To remember the day when the oil of ordination was still fresh and sweet smelling, and to ask the Lord to renew the grace of His priesthood in our hearts, pouring out afresh the overshadowing power of the Holy Spirit.

Pope Francis, in his homily at the Chrism Mass in 2013, reminded priests that the oil of ordination, like the oil for the other Sacraments, was not their own private property: it was destined for the good of God’s holy, faithful people.

He reflected on the image of Aaron, the first priest of the Mosaic covenant, and how the oil which anointed his head, flowed down his beard, and his vestments, and reached out to others.

This, he said, is the sign of a good priest: a priest who anoints his people. Not only literally, but especially spiritually, with his teaching, with his prayers, with his very presence.

I pray that all who read this article, all my brother priests and the faithful people we try to serve, will be blessed richly with all the graces of the Lord’s passion, death and Resurrection this Holy Week, and that we’ll all of us be renewed in his service to proclaim, joyfully, the Good News to the waiting world: Jesus is alive! He is risen! He lives and reigns forever!

 

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