The Easter Triduum, the high point of the liturgical year, is full of lessons on how we might “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
Holy Thursday: To Be Served and To Serve
When I was in second grade, the pastor at our family’s parish invited me to be one of the 12 people to participate in Holy Thursday’s foot washing.
The night was special and important. I remember almost everything. After the homily, I took a seat near the altar, took off my new Easter shoes, and Fr. Greg washed and dried my feet. He smiled warmly, calmly. This didn’t happen at other Masses.
I think of that night and my seven year-old sense of curiosity every Holy Thursday. The foot-washing still catches me off-guard when it starts.
Maybe, by saving it for one time a year, it’s meant to jolt us awake and inspire some child-like wonder. By breaking from the norm, the washing signals: this is crucial. Don’t miss this. There’s a big lesson here.
The practice has its biblical roots in Holy Thursday’s Gospel reading from John 13. It’s the only Last Supper account of the four that does not have the institution of the Eucharist. Jesus takes no bread, takes no cup, says no blessing.
Instead, during the meal, he gets up, and ties a towel around his waist. He washes the feet of his friends.
Feet in First-Century Palestine must have been repulsive – dirty, blistered, cracked. This sort of washing was the work of servants.
This is where and how Jesus, our Lord and King, wants to spend his time. He goes to places that are ugly. He models love through self-giving service.
Holy Thursday’s foot-washing at church reminds us of how Jesus wants to be involved in our lives.
First, Jesus calls us to himself to be washed: to be cared for and nurtured. How difficult it can be to allow ourselves to be served, to admit that we need help.
Second, Jesus sends us out: serve others as I have served you. “Do this in memory of me,” he says during the other three Gospels’ Last Supper accounts. It applies here as well. We are to go to the margins of our societies, leaving our comfortable places frequently, because that is what Jesus did.
What a powerful example Pope Francis set on Holy Thursday a year ago, as he celebrated Mass at a juvenile prison, washing the feet of 12 inmates – young men and women, Catholics and Muslims. We see in that symbolic action and in the words of Jesus an urgent call to let ourselves be served and to serve.
Good Friday: Pardon Your People, Lord
For the past few Good Fridays, my wife and I have participated in the Way of the Cross at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral in East Camden. The event is a bilingual living stations of the cross throughout the parish’s neighborhood. Hundreds of people walk together through the streets, and parishioners act out the Passion story along the way.
Each station includes a series of intercessions that connect the moment in the Passion story to the life of the community. When Jesus meets his mother, we pray for the mothers of Camden, especially those battling addiction. When Simon helps Jesus carry the cross, we pray for the people and agencies throughout the city who serve those who are materially poor. The Passion story has felt more real during this pilgrimage than it ever has in my own reading, life experience, or suburban liturgical participation. Too real, honestly.
As we process from station to station, filling the street and stopping traffic at each intersection, we pray a rosary and sing. One refrain that is repeated over and over again, in Spanish, loosely translates to “Pardon your people, Lord.”
As we pass homes that do not look livable, and children cluster with their noses pressed at second-floor windows…Pardon your people, Lord.
As we walk by abandoned houses that quickly attract all sorts of crime and can threaten an entire block…Pardon your people, Lord.
As we cross sidewalks and grassy places, littered with glass and television sets and everything else…Pardon your people, Lord.
On Good Friday, our suffering as individuals and as communities is bound to the suffering of Christ. But this is not the end of the story. The hope for justice abides, because we are an Easter people.
Holy Saturday: Love is Stronger than Death
“Baruch ata Adonai…” recites my grandmother in Hebrew, as she lights the Passover candles.
Her son, my Jewish father, sits to my left. My Catholic mother is at the other end of the room. About 15 friends and relatives are crammed around my parents’ dining-room table, where I sat every Sunday night for CCD during middle school.
Each year, united with Jews all over the world, we retell the story of how God led Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We read aloud through the Haggadah, or “telling,” and eat ritual foods that symbolize different parts of the Exodus. There’s a break for dinner, and then we take the Haggadahs out again for a few more prayers and songs. It’s my favorite family tradition.
Passover usually falls during Holy Week, and a few nights later, at the Easter Vigil, we hear the end of one part of the Passover story, as Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery through the parted Red Sea. A few minutes after that, we’ll hear the story of how Christ rose and showed us that sin, evil, injustice, and even death are no match for God’s love.
The main theme running through both the Passover and Easter narratives is that God hears the suffering of his children and does something about it. We have a God who takes sides with those who are hurting.
The message of Easter is for us to take sides, too. Whenever we put our faith, hope, and love into action on behalf of the downtrodden, we are living Easter. What a privilege it is to be called to serve the Lord by serving one another.