“Happy” may seem a strange word for a season that begins in dust, ashes, and humility and calls us, among other things, to make do with less. But “happy” it still is. Our seasons in the church encourage us not just to dwell in the present—in Lent, that means taking stock of our lives and offering up anything that is an obstacle to our relationship with Jesus Christ. That itself a happy privilege and gratitude for our communal life in faith with a God who always forgives. But our calendar and seasons, like the natural ones (even in southern California!), always lead us forward in anticipation of what comes next:
We often hear that Advent prepares us for Christmas, for the stories of the coming of Christ into our midst and at the end of time;
- Marking Jesus’ manifestations in the world as Son of God, Christmas and Epiphany push us toward Lent, which bids us consider how we have responded to that good news;
- Lent in turn prepares all of us in community for Easter baptism, the covenant (or its renewal) with this “God among us”;
Jesus’ Easter appearances prepare his disciples and us for when he is no longer physically present and for the coming of the Holy Spirit in his place;
- Finally, the messages about discipleship in the long weeks after Pentecost inspire us in faith and works and prepare us to confront the end of time when Christ comes again – which brings us back to Advent!
Our seasons cycle like the weather – here for a time, and then changing and changing us subtly for what comes next. Lent is then indeed a happy time – happy because of God’s steadfast covenant with us and for the privilege to grow our relationship with Christ, and happy for the promise of what that covenantal growth can bring in Easter joy, renewal, and rebirth.
Lent’s final time of preparation for Easter is Holy Week, the week before Easter beginning with Palm Sunday. Holy “Week” is a bit of a misnomer: while it encompasses seven days, each of which we can call “Holy” or “Good,” it’s really the final three days, the Holy Triduum (Latin for “a three-day period”), Maundy Thursday evening through the Saturday Easter Vigil, that mark the high or “holiest” time in the church year. But even those “three days” are hard to fathom – aren’t there four days, counting Thursday to Easter Sunday? Surely Easter Sunday counts?
The truth is, the Holy Triduum is more to be lived and experienced than explained. That’s not an intellectual cop-out, but rather an acknowledgment that our God is less a deity to be fully comprehended and more a person to know and to love. The Triduum provokes all of our senses, employing basic elemental materials for human life: the stunning sight of fire for light in darkness; the smells of smoke and candlewax; the feel of water and oil running over, for cleansing and healing; the taste of bread and wine for nourishment; the sound of bells ringing and tolling to summon, celebrate, and mourn; the hard touch of the wood of the cross, a reality of both death and life for Christ and his followers. Over the three days of the Triduum we live out the rhythm of gathering in community at the same time each day in one continuous liturgy – we’re not there the whole three days, of course (!), but the rhythm of regular gathering pervades our lives and changes our sense of time and belonging to a place to which we keep returning.
Our experiences vary according to our time and place in life. At our first Triduum, especially for those preparing for baptism at the Easter Vigil, we wonder at what comes next, at what things will “feel” like. For Triduum veterans, we anticipate what it will be like this year — Whose feet will we wash this year? What sorrows will we lay upon the cross this year? – and how this experience may change us yet again. We may even be tired -- this, too, is a real, full-bodied sensory experience – but, as with many things, our weariness is often overcome by excitement and just by being in community. For the very young (or not so young!), we may fall asleep at times or wander in or out as the community continues its work and service, experiencing whatever we can grasp or manage at whatever age. The Triduum is indeed for all, made holy by our communal presence, gathering, and worship and happy for what it promises.
So, even in these early weeks of Lent, consider how this time may push you forward to that happy promise with your preparations for Holy Week.
Start your Holy Week with “Praying the Palms with Families” Saturday morning, March 24, and learn how to make this week’s celebrations real at home. Enjoy the pomp and circumstance of donkey rides and florid palm branches on Palm Sunday, March 25 and hear the story of Jesus’ passion (suffering and crucifixion). Mark your week as holy by celebrating communal Compline, the final hour of prayer for the day, Monday and Tuesday evenings, March 26 and 27, as we will have done each Wednesday in Lent at Lenten University. Experience a choral service of darkness and prayer at Tenebrae that reflects on the events of the coming days (more on this in a column in an upcoming weekly News column) Holy Wednesday, March 28.
Most important, bring the worship experience of the Holy Triduum into your life:
- on Maundy Thursday remember Jesus’ commandment (Latin, mandatum) to love one another, and wash the feet of others as he did; celebrate Jesus’ inauguration of the Eucharist at the Last Supper as a way of remembering his presence among us; if you can, keep vigil with the Eucharist for a time after we emptied the church of all adornment;
- on Good Friday – another strange adjective for a day that marks Jesus’ death, but so called for the good to which it looks forward in the resurrection -- hear a sung narrative of Jesus’ passion and death; pray the church’s solemn prayers for the world, as we place our own sorrows and burdens on the cross that Christ willingly carries for us;
- at the Easter Vigil hear in word and song a full of God’s plan of our salvation, from the beginning of time at creation to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead; be overcome with awe at the rebirth that is baptism, at light overcoming darkness, and affirm or renew your own baptismal vows following your Lenten journey; sing the Glorias and Alleluias pent-up for 40 days.
In all of this, we do not imitate or re-enact Jesus’ last days on earth and his passage from human life to suffering and death to new life; indeed, Jesus’ life happened once and for all long ago, and the journey that he laid out for us yet awaits. Rather, in the celebration of a happy Lent and a holy Triduum, we “re-present” Christ, bringing him into our midst, renewing our relationships with him and with one another, overwhelming our senses with the fullness of human life – from creation, celebration and life in service to one another, to suffering and death, to new life in the resurrection—wherever we and our families find ourselves in this journey of faith and life.
How will you experience a happy Lent and a holy Triduum this year? What will be reborn in you this Easter?