Bystanders, some named and others in groups, feature prominently in the drama of Holy Week. The enthusiasm of an unnamed crowd made Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a triumphant one. To the ensuing commotion, Jerusalem’s inhabitants—the first group of bystanders—“stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’” (Matt 21:10).
After the Last Supper, another group of bystanders, servants and soldiers in the high priest’s courtyard, “made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves” (John 18:18). Two of them accused Peter of being Jesus’ disciple, which he flatly denied.
The following day, as the Sanhedrin induced Pilate to execute Jesus, a “crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he was wont to do for them” (Mark 15:8). Then, as Jesus took up His cross to stagger to Calvary, “there followed him a great multitude of the people, and of women who bewailed and lamented him” (Luke 23:27). Along the way one bystander, Veronica, stepped forward to dry His holy face. Another was conscripted into what, at that moment, had to seem like the most odious and shameful of tasks: to aid a condemned criminal by carrying His instrument of torture. So did Simon of Cyrene become history’s most famous bystander.
With another Holy Week upon us, it is not difficult to imagine ourselves among the bystanders, for better or worse. We can be stirred by the drama of events, or perhaps even sparked into acts of devotion or charity. Or, equally possible, we can wonder complacently about the whole event, and perhaps even about Jesus Himself. We can look the other way as Christ passes by, deny Him by our sins, and refuse to carry our own crosses.
This coming week the Church invites us to relive the events of our salvation, not as bystanders, but as active participants. Doing so requires effort and sacrifice on our parts. It would be easier to stay home all of Holy Week—our presence at the Triduum liturgies is not required—and resurface on Easter Sunday, as if we were climbing out of a spiritual tomb, one that we created for ourselves through indifference. From here it may only be a few dangerous steps from being a bystander to passing on from Christ entirely.
Whether we be willing volunteers like Veronica, or forced marchers like Simon, the challenge for us is to enter the Holy Week drama ourselves. Veronica and Simon’s lives were changed forever by the tiny roles they played in Christ’s passion. The same can happen for us if we make the effort to meet Christ on the Via Dolorosa.
Palm Sunday’s Mass is designed to make us participants in the holy action. We take up palm branches as fellow members of the jubilant crowd hailing the King’s entrance into Jerusalem. There is even a rite of procession of the faithful, palm branches in hand, at the Mass’s beginning, though it is seldom done. Later, as the Gospel narrative of our Lord’s passion is read, we, as the voice of the crowd before Pilate, admit that we are the cause of His death: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Attending the three liturgies of the Triduum—Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday—then brings us to the heart of the mystery of salvation. At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we are transported to the Upper Room to sit among the apostles as Christ institutes the priesthood and the Eucharist: “This is my body given for you. Do this in memory of me.”
At the end of this Mass, there is a procession of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament around the church as the Pange Lingua is solemnly chanted. Here we imitate the apostles, who, at the Last Supper’s end, “when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” together with Jesus (Matt 26:30). Once the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament is placed on a side altar decorated with flowers, we are in Gethsemane with Him: “Sit here, while I go over there and pray” (Matt 26:36). We are invited to remain there in prayer with Him as the night continues. “So, you could not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41).
When we rise Good Friday morning, we know that our Lord is on trial, subjected to mocking, jeering, spitting, and scourging. Our churches are stripped of all flowers and decorations in mourning. Powerfully, the tabernacle door is left open, with nothing within it, a stunning declaration that “they have taken away my Lord” (John 20:13).
At 3:00 p.m., in sorrow for the death of Christ, the Good Friday liturgy begins in every church throughout the world. This is the only day of the year that the sacrifice of the Mass is not celebrated at the altar—we have lived this same sacrifice on Calvary historically instead.
If there is any day of the year to take a half-day from work, it is Good Friday. In the evening, it is fitting to keep the televisions, radios, and computers off and allow silence to fill our homes. This day is not business as usual. It is a day of sorrow, for each of us are responsible for our Lord’s fate by our sins.
Holy Saturday is a day of transition. Our Lord’s body rests in the tomb. It is important for us to take some time to sit by the large stone rolled in front of it. The tabernacle remains empty, door open. In the stillness of the day, before beginning our Easter preparations, we should offer our thanks to our Lord for what He endured for us the day before.
Holy Saturday night brings, as St. Augustine called it, “the mother of all vigils,” as we prayerfully await our Lord’s triumph over the grave. Our sadness has turned to joy. And the more we participate in the Holy Week celebrations, the greater will be this joy.
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