The Season of Lent
During the season of Lent our focus as Christians is on preparation for the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. The celebration then continues unabated for the next 50 days, before the Easter season gives way to Pentecost.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus called the people to a change of mind and heart: to repentance. The people of Jerusalem and surrounds, gathered into Israel from Egypt and returned from the captivity in Babylon expected the Messiah to come. However under Roman domination they had come to desire a Messiah who would deal with the occupying power, and liberate them, perhaps paralleling the Exodus under Moses.
Despite fulfilling the prophecies which applied to the Messiah, Jesus was not acceptable to them. His challenge to the religious establishment, lack of interest in earthly power politics and his determination to engage even poor individuals in his call to change their ways led to his rejection and execution
During this time we follow Jesus as he gathers a band of disciples. He teaches as he travels around the countryside and the towns, heals the sick and provides a radical call to change ways of relating to their God and to their fellow men and women.
He is aware that his mission is dangerous. Although he is popular with the people, the authorities fear that he will disturb the status quo. But he continues to tell of a loving Father in heaven, identifies himself with that Father and reveals a new way of relating to God.
A New Model of Relationship
The relationship of Jesus with the Father gives us a new model of relationship. We can share in the life of God. Our imperfect condition, our failings and aberrations, the evil that we do, our unwillingness to see where God is at work in our lives (what we call our sin) is overcome by Jesus, whose sharing in our life reaches its ultimate expression as he shares willingly in death.
Jesus is both human (one of us) and God. Being one of us he can stand in for us before the Father and reconcile us with the Father. As God he so ennobles our humanity that we can share in the God life (grace). Through his sharing in our life (Incarnation) and on our behalf undergoing baptism (at which the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, is revealed) Jesus "buys" us back from our enslavement to sin (redeems us).
In Baptism we receive the new life of God and as we profess our faith in (Father) God and his Son Jesus, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. With this new life we are able to follow Jesus' call to live a life of love and service. We embrace the dual dimensions of love and service of God and love and service of our fellow humans.
In this time of Lent we remember these truths, take time in prayer, read our Scriptures especially the Gospels relating as they do the life of Jesus, and seek to change our own lives (to repent). Jesus actually called his hearers to change their ways. This is the continued call to us today, a call ministered through his Church.
We are encouraged to a proper attitude towards God (through prayer), to our possessions (through giving to the needy) and to ourselves and our relationships with others (through fasting).
Liturgy of Holy Week
In this year's cycle B readings the Old Testament focuses on the Covenants: promises by God to his people. Beginning with Noah, moving to Abraham and on to Moses. It then turns to the deportation to Babylon (as the people reject the covenants) and the promise brought by Jeremiah of the New Covenant realised in Jesus Christ.
The climax of our preparations is Holy Week, the week before Easter Sunday. On Passion (or Palm Sunday) at the start of Holy Week, we place ourselves liturgically with Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (acclaimed as King). We too sing Hosanna and carry palm branches. We recognise as we leave in silence how fickle we too can be.
As part of the universal church we celebrate with our bishop (successor of the apostles) and the clergy the Chrism Mass in the cathedral on Wednesday. The priests and deacons (our ordained ministers) renew their commitment to the service of God and his people in the local church of Arundel and Brighton. Oils used for the significant life events are blessed. For the receiving of new believers in Baptism (Oil of Catechumens). For the anointing of the sick following the practice the apostle James(Oil of the Sick) and for the anointing of the the faithful at key moments in their lives: Confirmation (adult commitment), Ordination as minister (Deacon, Priest, Bishop) using the Oil of Chrism.
The ceremonies of the next three days Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday form a liturgical continuum: known by the Latin name Triduum.
On Thursday, known as Holy or Maundy Thursday, we celebrate in the evening the Mass of the Lord's Supper. In Jerusalem, Jesus celebrated the Passover in advance as travellers from the countryside were allowed to do. At this meal, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 11 that "Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it and he said ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me’. In the same way he took the cup after supper, and said,’This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me’.” We continue to the present day to observe this command. This is the day on which we celebrate the institution of the Mass (the Eucharist), at which we continue to make present the saving work of Jesus on the cross at Calvary. Here is both sacrifice and sacrament.
Following the Gospel of John, which speaks of this example of humble service by Jesus, the feet of twelve parishioners will be washed by the parish priest. After the Mass the consecrated bread (the Body of Christ) is taken in procession to the chapel of repose. There, parishioners are encouraged to watch and pray, as did the apostles at the garden of Gethsemane. The church at this point is devoid of all decoration and flowers, the altar cloth is removed and the tabernacle is empty.
On the Friday known as Good Friday, in the morning we place ourselves in Jerusalem for the trial and journey of Jesus carrying his cross along the road to the place of execution. The people walk with him in sadness. This practice is known traditionally as the Stations of the Cross.
In the afternoon we gather at 3pm, the hour of Jesus' death by crucifixion. The atmosphere is solemn and restrained. We listen to the Scripture and hear the account of the events leading up to Jesus' death on the cross (The Passion). We then intercede for the needs of the church and the world. We then observe a time of veneration of the cross, which has become the sign of Christian salvation. After this we have the distribution of Communion. From this point until dusk on Saturday no services take place. The Saviour is in the grave and the people wait anxiously to see if the grave has captured Jesus.
Holy Saturday is the liturgical name for the day before Easter Sunday. After dusk on Holy Saturday the most solemn ceremony of the Catholic Christian year the Easter Vigil begins, as we move from the darkness of the tomb to the light of the Resurrection.
A completely new fire is prepared outside. It represents the radiance of the risen Christ. From it, the Paschal Candle is lighted and brought into the church in darkness. Easter is solemnly proclaimed in an ancient text known as the Exultet. The people then listen as stories of our salvation history are read from the Scriptures. These always include the account of the "Exodus"; the liberation of the people of Israel from the Pharaoh. (We generally choose four of the available seven readings)
During Lent those adults, who are being baptised or received into full communion with the Church, have completed their preparations and on this night they are welcomed for Baptism and/or Confirmation. At this time the rest of the people renew the promises of Baptism. For the many Catholics baptised in infancy, this is an opportunity to re-affirm their faith.
The Vigil continues with the first Eucharist (Mass) of Easter, where joyful music and Alleluias resound, in contrast with the more sombre fare of Lent.
On Easter Sunday the mood is one of joy and rejoicing. Pain and suffering have been endured. Darkness and sin are overcome. Christ Jesus has conquered death and the Evil One. We are set free to live in the love of the Lord Jesus.
Alleluia. The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia.
With thanks to John Farrell for this article.