Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week V

And where would be more perfect to spend Holy Week than in Jerusalem?  Well actually, probably just about anywhere.  The shoving and pushing of tens of thousands of pilgrims in the backstreets and narrow alleys of the old city; the hawking of wares and souvenirs, by Arab merchants, the contemptuous glances and spitting of the ultra-orthodox, the omnipresent soldiers with their UZIs cocked and ready, the mutual hostility of Greek monks and the Franciscan friars—you really don’t want to spend Holy Week in Jerusalem.  But come to the Holy City some other, less frenetic week.  Every week is Holy Week in Jerusalem; every day Good Friday.  And a visit to the Holy City really is—while not what you might expect—a truly holy  time.
      Aethteria was a nun from what is today Spain or perhaps France who in the first half of the 380’s made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and in a letter to her fellow nuns back home recorded the events and ceremonies of Holy Week as it was celebrated there.  It is amazing how the Palm Sunday and Good Friday services in particular are still very much what we celebrate today, though considerably longer due to the size of the crowds Aetheria encountered and the desire to make maximum use of the whole sacred space covered by Christ in the city of his passion and death.  The procession of palms, for example, began on the Mount of Olives, crossed the Kidron Valley, and entered the Holy City proceeding to the martyrium, the shrine built over Calvary.  Through the night of Holy Thursday the faithful proceeded carrying torches from the Garden of Gethsemane to the city along the path which Christ’s captors would have taken him to the house of the High Priest.  It was a dramatic experience to be sure to walk what was believed to be the very same ancient paths as Christ had trod his last night.  And yet the liturgies were dramatic in their simplicity—being mostly the reading of the prophets, the singing of the passion according to Saint John, and the prayers.  The liturgies of lent, and in particular of Holy Week, very much reflect the more spartan and plain worship of the early Church.  And that is something many miss today in their attempts to “restore” the liturgy we knew before the Council.  Until the Council of Trent the genius of the Roman Liturgy had always been its utter starkness.  That starkness today is best preserved in the monastic liturgies, especially those of the Cistercian (Trappist) abbeys.  And while Krakow is my favorite place to spend Holy Week, Seville the most fascinating, and Jerusalem, without a doubt the most astonishing—for a truly holy week, go to Spencer or Gethsemane or  Wrentham or Snowmass and pray with nuns or monks.   

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