The Drama of the Paschal Mystery: The Source and Summit of the Holy Triduum
The Drama of the Paschal Mystery:
The Source and Summit of the Holy Triduum
Imagine if we had the opportunity to share the bread and wine that Jesus shared with his apostles on the night before he died? A couple of years ago, an article in our local newspaper on Good Friday seemed to beg such a question. Accompanying the article was a photograph of an annual Last Supper pageant where actors dressed as apostles were seated around a table while one of the actors portrayed Christ. In the course of the rehearsals those in charge of the annual drama had a revolutionary idea to have the actor portraying Christ not only distribute the bread to the “apostles” but also the entire congregation. Imagine that? And by so doing, some believers may have actually thought they were encountering Christ in a uniquely special way, having the opportunity to receive the actual body and blood of Christ during worship.
Interestingly, throughout Christian America this Holy Week and Easter Season the media will report on many churches where innovative Biblical pageants are performed for various congregations. One might critique these staged quasi-worship productions and point out that the Paschal Mystery is not simply about the distant reality that Jesus suffered and died and rose long ago, but allow us to momentarily reflect upon them as such.
In one such drama called “the living last supper” the audience (as one reporter [erroneously or correctly] called the congregation) was allowed to come forward and receive “communion” from the actor portraying Jesus. In what was regarded as unusual, the audience participated through ritual movement and singing. One of those in attendance at this living last supper said, after witnessing the drama, that through the show they learned that Jesus had instituted the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper.
In light of this comment, one of the pastors said serving communion in such fashion is a great means of involving the audience in the drama, yet he was adamant in pointing out that he and his congregations certainly do not recognize Jesus himself in it [the communion bread]. Those involved admit it is an interesting experiment of sorts, especially for the one portraying Christ, and claim that the drama of it all “does what words cannot do.”
But isn’t this what liturgy is supposed to do? Isn’t that the understanding of sacrament? Through the sacramental liturgical ritual the past is made present and we actually encounter the risen Christ. In a word, the liturgy does what mere words cannot do.
On some Good Friday pageant services worshippers come forward and dedicate themselves to the Lord in front of the actor portraying Christ crucified on the cross. On Easter Sunday more churches stage productions to mark the holiday [holyday?] and afterwards parents bring their children up on stage to have their pictures taken with “Jesus.” Isn’t there something terribly shallow in all of this? Have we cheapened Jesus to breakfast with the Easter Bunny? And doesn’t this risk reducing worship to a mere stage production?
The evidence seems to show that those who are either deprived of the Liturgy and ritual or reject them altogether will eventually create their own. Unfortunately what has replaced liturgy is often a weak imitation of authentic worship. Granted, many of the actors take their roles seriously, and prepare by prayer and fasting in preparation for Holy Week, but then again, all Catholics, for millennia have been encouraged to fast and pray to mark the Lenten Season.
What I find fascinating about all these accounts is that what is being described comes close to traditional Catholic devotions such as the rosary and the Stations of the Cross and the liturgical celebrations long associated with Holy Week, Holy Triduum, and the Mass. In several of these pageants, Jesus’ mother Mary is being portrayed even if not all the scenes are explicitly Biblical. Yet many of these denominations decry personal Catholic devotions and the formal public worship of the Catholic Liturgy.
So how do these nice remembrances where we have to blow our nose and wipe our eyes apply to us now? Do they truly transform us or do we simply recall a past event and leave it at that? What is the practical application of such performances or productions in the world? Or do these productions – although unintended – merely entertain and draw us ever more in upon ourselves? Have we reduced worship to only a matter of what we are getting rather than to whom it is we are offering our sacrifice of praise and worship?
For Catholics, the heart of the entire liturgical year is the Holy Triduum whereby we plunge ourselves into the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, but the purpose of these events is to propel us forward in service to all. There must be a connection between the Christ event and our lives here and now; the Paschal Mystery is to be lived not simply viewed or observed. If we follow Christ, we too will experience passion, suffering, sorrow, and death itself. Experiencing the Paschal mystery allows us to live the questions of faith, rather than requiring faith to answer all the questions of life.
During the mass we share the story of salvation and gather around the altar and do once more what Christ did the night before he died. Together we do not simply piously recall the events of the past, but instead we participate in them, renew our covenant with God, stand in his presence and share in his Spirit and give thanks; hence the term “Eucharist.”
In the Second Vatican Council’s document Sacrosanctum concilium, the bishops declared, “At the Last Supper…our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood…in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us’”(SC 47). As Lumen Gentium of the same council reminds us: "The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” Indeed, as the Catechism states, “by the Eucharistic celebration we already unite ourselves with the heavenly liturgy and anticipate eternal life, when God will be all in all” (CCC 1326). Sacrosanctum concilium reiterated that of utmost importance in the celebration of the liturgy, “full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (SC 14).
It could well be argued that the faithful’s communal celebration through word and ritual brings about the sacramental reality. We believe that liturgy teaches us theology. In the words of the theologians, this is Lex orandi, lex credendi: the way we pray is the way we believe.
Sociologists who study ritual tell us that ritual reveals (makes present), orients (directs us toward the revealed reality), and unites (all are oriented toward the revealed reality together). It would seem that Catholic Liturgy does exactly that: it reveals God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, orients us toward Christ and his kingdom vision, and unites fellow believers into the Church for a common purpose, namely the furthering of the kingdom.
On the other hand, the Easter pageants in question appear to fall short of their purpose. Jesus did not say “act” like me in a “staged” way; rather he called upon us to be authentic disciples. “Do the will of my Father,” “If you love me, keep my commandments,” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him,” “I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you,” “Remain in me, as I remain in you,” “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit,” “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these, because I am going to the Father,” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven,” and “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother,” are some passages that immediately come to mind.
By participating in the Holy Week services of the Triduum, we do not attempt to go back in time for Christ makes himself present to us now! Our task is not to lose ourselves in first century Palestine, but rather immerse ourselves in our own broken world. How are we to wash one another’s feet today, how might we recognize the bruised, stripped and crucified body of Christ in my immigrant neighbor, a homeless stranger, Iraqi refugee or the forgotten peoples of Darfur?
On Holy Thursday we abide by the Lord’s command of “Take this and eat, this is my body, we obey His command of “love one another as I have loved you”, vow to wash the feet of our neighbors, and we keep watch with Him in his hour of agony; on Good Friday we see the Son of Man lifted up from the earth to draw all men and women to Himself and behold the heart which so loved the world, his pierced side pouring forth water and blood revealing the portal to the Church; and on the Easter Vigil we are warmed by the new fire, illuminated by the light of Christ, enlightened by the Word of the Father, regenerated in the baptismal waters, strengthened in the anointing of holy chrism, nourished in the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and sent forth on mission in the power of the Holy Spirit to restore all things in Christ, bringing order to the chaos of our world. This is no mere stage show; no, this is drama in its highest form.
So on Easter morning we don’t merely pose for a picture with a theatrically sweetened Jesus, but rather we partake in communion with Him, in Him, and through Him, and as such are drawn into the heart of God, called upon to serve others, united to his suffering, plunged into his death through the waters of baptism, and resurrected through the Word and Sacrament, efficaciously surrendering ourselves to a mystical communion with all believers and abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence.
Imagine the dramatic possibilities now.
That’s the kind of Easter I’m talking about.