My husband, three children and I wanted the most sacred week of the year to be one that epitomized a living faith. In this fast-paced digital world, which seeks to grab our attention every which way, we also need an anchor, something to look forward to all year.
Many families use Christmas as this anchor, but for the past nine years, we have made the week leading up to Easter a period of grace, reflection and physical ritual.
Here’s our week:
On Holy Monday, Mary Magdalene poured oil on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. To re-enact this moment, our family sets up a burial icon — a portrayal of Jesus being taken down from the cross that we purchased in Jerusalem — in our “Prayer Corner.” The members of our family imitate Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus and preparing him for burial, each in his or her own way. We use perfumed oil from the Holy Land to anoint the icon. Some members of our family are more contemplative; others are more exuberant.
My husband and 10-year-old son approach the icon with a sense of duty similar to that modeled by Joseph of Arimathea, as well as an awe for the physical act of taking Jesus off of the cross. Our 4-year-old daughter smothers the icon of Jesus with oil and kisses.
In Scripture, 10 virgins are waiting, with lit lamps, for their bridegroom to arrive. Five ran out of oil for their lamps and went to the market to purchase more, only to find the doors locked on their return.
To experience the lesson of being prepared, our family re-creates the parable by dressing up, lighting lamps and marching around the back yard as the sun is setting. Our son opens the back door and announces the arrival of the bridegroom. The two girls rush in, the 12-year-old leading the way, as Mom knocks on the closed door, saying, “Let me in.” Inside, there’s a feast of fresh fruit and berries. It’s not jelly-bean time yet.
On Holy Wednesday, it is customary to read Matthew 26:6-13, prompting us to acknowledge our sins. This is the task of our whole lives, but in a particular way, this is our “work” during Holy Week.
To do so, our family prostrates in front of our almost-life-size crucifix in our back yard, because with our bodies we are reproducing the posture of the sinful woman who falls at Jesus’ feet in the Matthew reading.
We attend the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, remembering the institution of the Eucharist.
Friday is the day that Jesus was crucified and laid in the tomb. Dad pays homage to this significant event by wrapping the burial icon in white linen. The children take their Easter baskets filled with rose petals and solemnly process to the makeshift tomb, scattering petals along the way.
Next, father and son place the icon representing Jesus’ body in the tomb, seal it up and place rocks on top. We then hold a silent vigil, reflecting on the loss of Our Lord, his sacrifice and our mortality.
We follow the Italian tradition of L’Ora della Madre (“Hour of the Mother”), in which we mourn with the Blessed Virgin for an hour. The children process again, holding a black mourning veil, and drape our statue of Mary, which we have standing over Jesus’ tomb. Then, as a family, we take this time to reflect on how the Blessed Mother must have felt. This day is still a solemn time; we don’t skip from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.
This day is traditionally the high point of celebrating for Catholics, so our family goes to Easter Mass. We arrive home, and, in the spirit of the disciples, we run to the tomb to find it empty.
The excitement of the children exceeds the anticipation you might normally expect to find right before the Christmas presents are opened.
The difference is that the expectations that are built up around presents can often disappoint. In contrast, the joy of finding that Jesus is risen is never a letdown for our family.
We also celebrate the Polish ritual of passing “Forgiveness Bread” (oplatek), in which we feed bread to each other with a heartfelt apology for all the wrongdoings and omissions of the year. Each of us offers forgiveness in return.
We enjoy our Holy Week and Easter Sunday with our family by following these traditions.
By doing so, we believe that we are truly living and breathing the Gospels and the Resurrection — and that Resurrection is about the ultimate love of God.
Darlene Letey writes from Boulder, Colorado. Photos courtesy of the family.