The Easter Triduum, When Time Stands Still

During our Good Friday liturgy this year, one of our priests commented that a parishioner once said to him, “In the Triduum, it’s as if time stands still.” This is true. The Three Days — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Resurrection — have been venerated by Christians for 2,000 years as the holiest time of the year. Appropriately, the feel of the liturgies during the Triduum is different from any other. The unity of these Three Days, and thus the “time standing still” character of them, is reinforced by the fact that in Catholicism, the liturgies are treated symbolically as one extended event from the opening of the Holy Thursday Mass to the close of the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of this, there is no formal dismissal at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which ends with Jesus waiting for his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there is not the usual beginning or any dismissal in the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death; and there is certainly not the usual beginning of Mass at the opening of the Easter Vigil. At the conclusion of the Vigil, we finally have again the formal dismissal. Only with this does the Triduum end and time moves forward again. At the Easter Sunday Masses the next day, the Church returns to the normal format.

Each of the Triduum liturgies has its own unique character and purpose. At the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the sign of his eternal presence with his people on this Earth; and we re-enact his washing of the disciples’ feet, the sign-act of his commandment for humble service of others. This is the refrain of the hymn that we sing during the washing of feet at our church: “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant… I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet… This is my commandment, to love as I have loved you… Kneel to wash each other’s feet, as I have done for you.”

It’s almost impossible for a self-aware person to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy without feeling a recognition of all the ways that we do not love as Jesus loves us, all the ways that we resist the idea of humble service or even humility in general, all the ways that we resist the idea of washing another’s feet even metaphorically. Our overly-developed sense of individualism and our self-centeredness so often get in the way. But Jesus knew that, and that is why he gave us this sign-act as an example for us to follow, and we remind ourselves of it at this time each year. If the incarnate God who has emptied himself out as a fellow human being can kneel to wash his followers’ feet — a servant’s job — why can’t we try a little harder to do so for one another?

The Good Friday liturgy, of course, is characterized most by its solemn nature. The altar is bare; the Tabernacle is empty; the suffering and death of Jesus are read aloud; we all come forward to kiss a wooden cross; there is no eucharistic consecration (Communion is taken from the many hosts that were consecrated the night before on Holy Thursday); and at the end of the liturgy, everyone leaves in solemn silence. We are mourning, and we are waiting now, for the Resurrection. Even amidst the mourning and the heaviness, we who are gathered have a joyful advantage the very first disciples did not yet have: we know already that there is a Resurrection.

This brings me to the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. Yet I really don’t have adequate words to describe the Vigil. As a kid and a young adult, I heard other people talk about how magnificent, how rich in ancient symbolism, and how moving it is. But, having always gone to Easter Sunday liturgies (which are wonderful too), I had never experienced the Vigil myself until two years ago, when my husband became Catholic and had his Confirmation at the Vigil, which is the worldwide custom for adults joining the Church. It was the first for both of us, and now even our 8-year-old daughter exclaims, “You know, the Easter Vigil really is addicting!”

You can feel the anticipation start to build when you first sit down in the dark church, holding your unlit candle and waiting. You know it has begun when the priest and the altar servers, standing in the center of the church, ignite a pillar of fire in an iron stand, light the Paschal Candle from it, and begin speaking of him who is the Alpha and Omega. From that fire the altar servers light their candles and share their flame with the first person in each pew, who lights their own candle and passes the flame until everyone in that pew — and eventually the entire church — is holding a lit candle. There are no other lights on in the church when now a solo cantor begins the Exsultet, a 10-minute-long a cappella chant recounting why we should rejoice in God’s eternal love for us on this holy night, when God revealed the ultimate impermanence of sin, suffering and death — and the ultimate promise of redemption and eternal life — with the Resurrection of his Son.

Through several Old Testament readings, beginning with Creation and going through the Exodus and finally the prophets, we arrive at the New Testament still brandishing our lit candles in an otherwise dark church. Then we know we’ve all arrived at something big when suddenly the lights are thrown on, the Gloria is sung to the accompaniment of everyone ringing bells, and (at our parish, at least) a liturgical dancer ushers in the reading of the Gospel. Now comes what is for many the most special stretch of the Vigil. This is the full reception into the Church of catechumens (unbaptized adults or older children, who will now be baptized) and candidates (adults or older children who don’t need to be baptized but are joining the Church from other Christian denominations; sometimes there are also “cradle Catholics” who simply never had their Confirmation).

This leads to a rather extraordinary time of the night. It’s during this part of the Vigil that everyone forms two lines and comes forward to the baptismal fountain. When we arrive, we reach into its running waters (one of the many benefits of electrical power!) and cross ourselves with the water in memory of our own baptism and its lifelong call to the continual journey of personal holiness. This, for me, is one of the most moving parts of the night. In our parish, we approach the fountain to the musical setting of “Come to the Water,” which everyone can join the cantor in singing. There is nothing quite like being one of literally hundreds of people all walking forward together to bless ourselves with the same water, bolstered with such powerful and inspiring music as we do it. Sitting in our pew after my husband, daughter, and I have returned from the fountain, just watching the dozens of adults and children continue to file past us, all heading for the same water, to remember the same baptism by which we all were baptized into Christ, is an experience that is impossible to encapsulate in words. It is one Christ, one God, one baptism, and in coming to the water of baptism we present ourselves to God, our ultimate Source. And we come to Christ, whose Resurrection we are there to honor and proclaim.

The spiritual journey of Lent and the Easter Triduum that concludes it are over for another year. But the season of Easter lasts a glorious fifty days, ending in Pentecost. Before we know it, we will be in Advent again, awaiting Jesus’ birth into the world at Christmas. Not too long after that, Lent will begin again. The rhythm will continue, a foretaste, we’re told, of the feast to come.

© 2015 Elizabeth Keck

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck