Photo: Terry Peloquin
Amateur Night? We Pray Not
Let Holy Week Jumpstart Your Faith
Toots Shoor, who in the Fabulous Forties ran and drank dry along with pals like Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra in the legendary Manhattan watering hole bearing his name, used to shock people on New Year's Eve by not drinking anything harder than ginger ale. When asked why he didn't "touch the stuff" that night of all nights, the hard-drinking Toots would spit out with disdain, "Because it's Amateur Night."
After faithfully attending Sunday Mass year round, you get used to the sparse attendance. You also wonder where the young people are — not babies and little children, who happily acquiesce to their parents' wishes — but the teenagers, who know it all. Church isn't cool. Many other people either stay away from worship or else show up disguised as empty pews.
Then comes Easter, the great, glorious culmination of Holy Week, and what happens? The church is packed to standing room only. Half the people don't know when to stand and kneel. The kids play with video games and coloring books, eat Oreo cookies, or listen to iPods (I've seen all of this). Thoughts of the Easter Bunny, more so than the Risen Christ, permeate the air.
The adults, making their first or second appearance of the liturgical year, often have no clue of the prayers or if they do, display no desire to recite them. They eyeball wristwatches and drift off in daydreams. The blank or bored facial expressions say, "How long 'til this thing is over"?
That's when I think of Toot Shoor's New Year's Eve crack and appreciate its impact.
Good — but not good enough
Sadly, in many parishes, the Easter celebration has become Amateur Night.
One school of thought says, "Well, at least they go that one day," expressing that some good might derive from token attendance. Perhaps that's true. Perhaps one person, because of Easter services, has a spiritual breakthrough and resumes regular attendance during "ordinary time."
And that is good.
But it is not good enough.
To be satisfied with it amounts to a lame rationalization as well as an admission that the Holy Mass is arbitrary, sufficient for outstanding grace but not necessary for it.
Attending Mass but once or twice a year leaves a person spiritually a-kilter and out of context, suspended in the middle of things. As you can see, I'm not speaking of members in the choir but of lapsed Catholics, who need to be invited back.
Not having attended Mass during the liturgical Church year, the lapsed person typically hasn't the means to absorb grace during a token church appearance once or twice a year. That amazing grace is there in infinite amounts, but likely the person is not emotionally, mentally, or spiritually connected to tap into it. He or she is like an unplugged lamp. The bulb is screwed in, the hardware works, and the shade is beautiful, but no matter. Light will not shine when you flick the "on" switch.
They are like long-distance runners who, after only one practice and totally out of shape, attempt to run a marathon. No pain, no gain.
If you know such people (maybe they are family, friends and loved ones), why don't you try and "plug them in?" The best opportunity comes during Holy Week. Start small. Don't come on like a hair-mussed preacher booming brimstone at a tent revival. Maybe share this article with them. Maybe start an innocent conversation. Maybe invite them to a Holy Week service other than Easter Sunday.
Holy Week commemorates a hard time — agony, despair, torture, abandonment, and death — book-ended by two joyful events. It begins with Palm Sunday. The cheering crowd welcomes Jesus as a triumphant king when He rides into Jerusalem on a colt, hailed by some of the same people who in less than a week will call for His crucifixion.
It ends with a burst of radiant energy beaming from the fresh-hewn tomb. A stone rolls away and the Risen Lord steps forth, having accomplished "the reconciliation of all things in Himself," atoning for the sin of Adam and providing for our salvation.
With that, let's review the days and events of Holy Week.
Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, where Jesus dined with his 12 disciples for the Passover feast. The breaking of the bread and the consecration of the wine ("Do this in memory of me") instituted the Eucharist.
Significant events that take place on Holy Thursday:
â€¢ During the singing of the Gloria, the church bells are rung. They won't ring again until the Easter Vigil ("the bells have flown to Rome").
â€¢ Washing of the feet — this reminds us of the great lesson in humility taught by Jesus to the Apostles (Jn 12:3-17).
â€¢ Chrism Mass — Bishops celebrate a Mass where they bless the oils that will be used in the upcoming liturgical year: confirmation oil, oil for anointing the sick, oil for anointing catechumens. Though the Chrism Mass is usually celebrated on Holy Thursday, it can be said on another day of Holy Week.
â€¢ Consecrated hosts left over from Holy Thursday Mass are saved for the Good Friday Communion service.
â€¢ After Mass, the Blessed Sacrament is carried to an altar of repose. All other altars are stripped to signify the upcoming Passion and Death of Jesus. Things like the altar cloth, candles, statuary (if not removed, covered), and flowers are taken away.
On this most solemn day, the Church, as the Mystical Body of Christ, mourns the death of Jesus. It is a day for deepest reflection, when we contemplate how Jesus, for our sake, remained obedient to his Father, even unto suffering a criminal's agonizing death.
Significant events marking Good Friday:
â€¢ Mass is not said, nor is the Eucharist consecrated. The Good Friday Communion service uses hosts consecrated the night before.
â€¢ The altar remains bare. The tabernacle door is kept open, nothing inside.
â€¢ Holy water is removed from the fonts.
â€¢ Stations of the Cross are prayed.
â€¢ Celebration of the liturgy recounting the Lord's Passion takes place, and a Communion service follows.
â€¢ No music is used to open or conclude the liturgy.
This day of silence commemorates the dead body of Christ at repose in the tomb.
Significant events marking Holy Saturday:
â€¢ No Mass is celebrated. If someone is in danger of death, consecrated Hosts from the liturgies of the previous two days can be used as viaticum (which means "food for the journey").
â€¢ The tabernacle is left open and empty.
â€¢ The sanctuary candle denoting the presence of Christ is extinguished. The Eucharist is kept elsewhere, usually the sacristy, with a candle (or lamp) burning before it.
The vigil takes place at night, on the eve of Easter and crossing into early morning Easter Day. It consists of four parts: Service of Light, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of Baptism, and Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The Gospel reading reminds us to have our lamps ready, waiting for the Lord's return, so that when He arrives, He will find us wide awake at His coming and invite us to His table.
Significant events marking the Easter Vigil:
â€¢ Part I, The Service of Light — The church goes dark as the lights are extinguished. A procession leads outside, where a fire is prepared. One of the ministers carries the Easter Candle. The priest then greets the people, and the fire is blessed. After the prayer, the Easter Candle is lit from the new fire. The people then light their candles, with the first fire taken from the Easter Candle then shared from candle to candle. This lighting of peoples candles takes place after the second intonation of "Christ our Light" — usually at the church door. The priest takes the Easter Candle and sings, "Christ our light." The people respond, "Thanks be to God." Everyone processes back into the church, where the priest takes up the candle again and sings, "Christ our light." The people respond as they did before. When the priest arrives at the altar, he takes the candle for the third time, where exhortation and response are again repeated. Why three times? Because this Triune God leads all out of darkness, step by step. He leads souls to the fullness of light if they willingly walk into light.
â€¢ The lights of the church are relit. The people put out their candles and sit.
â€¢ Part II, Liturgy of the Word — Nine sections of the Bible are read, seven from the Old Testament and two from the New. The priest follows with his Easter homily.
â€¢ Part III, Liturgy of Baptism — This service is conducted only if candidates for Baptism (catechumens) are present.
â€¢ Part IV, Liturgy of the Eucharist
This, the greatest of all Church feasts, celebrates the Risen Christ in all His glory.
His 'most human prayers'
After the Last Supper, Jesus goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. It is His most human prayer. Terrified and anguished, His sweat becomes like blood. He asks the Father to excuse Him from the impending ordeal.
Who cannot identify with Jesus in the garden? Haven't we all had such moments, where we've been utterly broken? How many of us, though, have had the strength to add the coda: "yet not My will, but Thine be done" (Lk 22:42).
Our Lord's other great "human prayer" comes just before He dies on the Cross:
"And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?'" (Mt 27:46).
Try to imagine this. Here is the Son of God, "one in being with the Father" as the Creed says, believing He has been abandoned! Can we fathom the depths of such a black depression, the abject desolation required for the Second Person of the Holy Trinity essentially to lose sight of Himself? Loss of self: there can no greater abandonment, nor a more unbearable inner loneliness.
When Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the great Russian novelist, reached a crisis of faith in middle age, he lost God and lost the sense of his Self. He described it this way in his book Confession:
"I was like a man lost. ...This was the horror. And in order to be delivered from this horror, I wanted to kill myself. I felt a horror of what awaited me. ... The horror of the darkness was too great, and I wanted to be free of it as quickly as possible by means of a rope or a bullet. It was this feeling [of loss of Self], more powerful than any other, that was leading me toward suicide."
That's what it's like when you lose sight of yourself. That's where Jesus was on the cross when he utters his heart-wrenching plea, shortly after which, He cries out again in a loud voice and dies.
I'd like lapsed Catholics to think about this.
I address them specifically here and feel I can because I, too, had drifted away from the Church — for 20 years. The story of how I found my way back must be left for another time, but let me make this one point. It can be done.
If there is a shred of belief left, if even the smallest flicker that maybe some of what you learned about the faith might be true, contemplate these "human prayers" of Jesus. Do it while you are alone, in a quiet place. See if it stirs anything deep inside.
Ask yourself how many times have you been in a forlorn condition.
Think it through. What got you through it? The support of a loved one? The care of a friend? The fact that your family didn't give up on you? The wise counsel of a spiritual director? Where did these good people get their compassion for you? I think you know the answer. They gave you love itself that, traced back to its source, had to come from God.
Chances are you didn't get through your crisis alone, but even if you did, what was it inside you that could accomplish such a task? It wasn't dogma, formal prayers, or ritual. It certainly wasn't any of the reasons that made you decide to stop going to Mass in the first place (a decision, by the way, that God respects as an expression of free will). It was that sacred spark of life itself, the heart of your spirit beating, beating, waiting to be heard.
The 'God impulse'
The spirit resides within you as an inherent impulse. It was formed at your conception, creating a deep-seated desire for God. You may not recognize it. You don't have to "believe" it. You only have to discover it.
This "God impulse" — not your job, not your relationships, not anything you do — forms the basis of your identity. You may deny it. You may have once known it but have now forgotten. You may have forgotten so completely that you can't believe you ever had it. Maybe you have dismissed your faith as childish, something you outgrew, something you committed to rote memory only because of the adult authority figures who "made" you learn it.
No problem. It is never too late. Divine Mercy is much bigger than that. Divine Mercy always permits a fresh start.
Throw away your sophistication. Open your heart and see what happens. What have you got to lose?
It is never too late to discover more fully who you are, from whence you came, and to where you are headed. You are a child of God, who came from God, and who has as a highest goal the return to God. This "yearn to return" is in you right now, whether or not you can or want to believe it.
"This mystical aspiration is an essentially human trait," wrote the French biophysicist Lecompte du Nuoy (1883-1947), "awaiting the event, or the man capable ... of transforming it into true mysticism, [that is] into faith."
Is not Holy Week the "event" that can do this? Is not Jesus "the man capable" of leading you there?
Dan Valenti is Senior Editor and Writer for Marian Helper magazine and numerous publications of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.