In the Catholic Church the three days from Holy Thursday to the vigil of Easter on Saturday evening is called the Sacred Triduum – it’s a time for Catholics to remember and enter into the rich meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The liturgy is different from the usual Eucharistic celebrations and the symbolism gets to the heart of what Christianity is about. The Church I attended was packed for all of these services, no decline here, and if people didn’t come early they didn’t get a seat and had to stand – as many did on Good Friday. It was heartening to join a steady stream of people making their way towards the Church. It was as though the whole area was making their way there. The congregation was made up of old, young, middle aged, men, women and children. We welcomed refugees from Syria, a couple from Uganda recently moved into the area, a newly married couple, a couple who had recently had their first baby, people grieving the recent death of loved ones – in fact we were a microcosm of the whole of humanity with all its joys and sorrows, hopes and fears. We couldn’t be self-satisfied or feel isolated from the reality of our world which at the present time feels a very dangerous place. These liturgies were definitely communal celebrations in which the whole world was present in our hearts and prayers.
Part of the Holy Thursday liturgy is the retelling and acting out of the story of the Last Supper when the priest washes the feet of twelve members of the community. We’re used to seeing pictures of Pope Francis doing this, usually in a prison and this year at a high security prison for mafia informers but it happens in all Catholic Churches throughout the world. It reflects what Beatrice Bruteau calls ‘The Holy Thursday Revolution’ when the dominating, hierarchical relationships of our society are turned on their head - when one who is the Lord turns servant, not simply to show humility but to show that those hierarchical relations don’t matter anymore. For Christians this action is seen within the context of John’s account of Jesus’ sermon before he faces his death, when he calls his disciples friends, acknowledging his intimate relationship with them. He speaks of mutual indwelling between friends as well as with the source of Life which he calls The Father – reminiscent for me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s interbeing. We ‘interbe’ with one another, we indwell one another, we share the same life force, we love others as we love ourselves because others are ourselves. There is a mutuality and interconnectedness at the heart of life and Jesus came as one who did not just serve but also allowed himself to be served. Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and an unnamed woman washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Perhaps this mutuality should be included in the liturgy for Holy Thursday.
Good Friday brings us face to face with the horror and helplessness that comes with death. Christians follow someone who was executed as a criminal for challenging the institutions of religion and politics in that he lived out his belief in mutuality, in getting to the heart of what religion is all about, in putting people before institutions. He’s not the first or last to suffer such a fate. It’s as though society cannot cope with truth, with justice, with compassion, with selfless service, with forgiveness. We all know the agony of bereavement, of loss so it’s easy to enter into the spirit of Good Friday which shows us that God, however we name or image God, is present in our suffering and pain. God is with us as we face the powerlessness and helplessness of powers beyond our control. We are totally impotent in the face of the emptiness of death and bereavement in whatever guise it comes. But for Christians this is not the whole story for the corollary of this is Resurrection – new life, celebrated symbolically at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Easter is essentially a celebration of new life, that new life is possible even in the most dark and drastic of situations, that we can have hope and offer it to the world.
So the three days ended in joy and hope, in energy and celebration. It was a profound experience, one that brought us back to the essentials of Christianity – equality, mutuality, service, love, interconnectedness, self-abandonment and life in its fullness. Surely the world needs more of this. Religion might seem to be declining but it’s message is a powerful one and if lived out could lead to the transformation of society.