Our seven kids like Holy Week. Even though it means heightened penance and extra hours in church, they really enter into it.
For one thing, the knowledge that it's the last week of Lent is a real consolation. For another, we've established some interesting customs that really set this week apart.
Finally, the force of years has rendered the Holy Week liturgies a part of the kids' lives to the extent that even the child who asks, “How long is this Mass going to take?” every Sunday of the year wouldn't dream of missing any part of the Easter Triduum.
As we drive to Mass on Palm Sunday, Dad reminds the kids what the good sisters taught him years ago: Children who stand without fidgeting during the long reading of the Passion may confidently ask God for a special favor in return. After we return home, we watch the video “Jesus of Nazareth” through the Palm Sunday scenes.
We cram our Holy Week home schooling into Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with generous amounts of home economics (spring cleaning) thrown in. We try to get to Mass every day, and pay extra attention to the Gospel drama of those last days of Christ's public ministry.
On Wednesday, I complete our grocery shopping for the meals from now through Easter. An important part of the shopping is the food we will eat at our variation of a Passover seder.
Recently, many Catholic families have experimented with a seder dinner on Holy Thursday night or attended such a function at their parishes. But some Church officials have suggested that Catholics not attempt to imitate a full-scale Haggada service. They say such an undertaking could easily distract us from the high point of Holy Thursday evening — the Mass of the Lord's Supper.
But adults and older children might find it interesting to obtain a copy of the Haggada service and read through it. The text is often available for free at grocery stores in neighborhoods where there is a large Jewish population.
You'll recognize many of the psalms used in the Haggada service. The words “Blessed are you, Lord” at the beginning of many prayers show us the roots of the offertory of the Mass.
Yet, all the references to “offerings” and “sacrifice” demonstrate why the Passover Haggada service shouldn't be used in full by Catholic families. Our ritual offering and sacrifice is Christ himself at the Mass.
Because we don't want to confuse our children with a bread and wine offering that belongs to the Old Covenant, the Holy Thursday dinner at our house isn't an attempt to carry out a Jewish prayer service. Instead, it's simply a way to share in what Jesus and his disciples did on the eve of his passion, and make a connection between the old pasch and the new pasch.
Our Holy Thursday dinner menu is simple, traditional and memorable — roast leg of lamb, a “bitter herbs” salad (romaine lettuce, green onion, cilantro, parsley and dill) that stands for the bitterness of the years of slavery endured by the Hebrews, charoses (an apple/nut/cinnamon relish that represents the mortar used by the slaves to make bricks), and unleavened bread. This last item can be store-bought matzo crackers, but we usually prefer a homemade version that uses shortening and is much tastier.
During the meal, we drink sweet kosher wine. The youngest children drink grape juice. After grace, we pass around a cup of wine, prefaced by these words from the Haggada, “Blessed art thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, who createst the fruit of the vine.”
Then, we pass the other food, reminding the children about the first Passover and the symbolism of each item. We tell them that Jesus ate a meal much like this on Holy Thursday, but that he elevated this meal into something new, into the representation of his sacrificial death for us and the sacrament of his body and blood.
Our dessert is a frosted cake molded in the shape of a lamb and decorated with the victory banner seen in “Lamb of God” pictures.
To some, a sweet and fancy dessert might seem out of place during Lent. But we feel that something festive is called for on the feast of the institution of the holy Eucharist.
We conclude our dinner with a psalm of praise. This might be No. 117 or No. 94.
This special dinner must be prepared and served a bit earlier than usual if we're to get to Holy Thursday Mass without being rushed.
After Mass, we follow the old European custom of driving around to local churches to visit our Lord in the lovely decorated repository altars, offering a brief prayer at each one. Since there are many old ethnic churches in our city, this annual pilgrimage is a feast for the eyes as well as the spirit.
Good Friday is a solemn day. Breakfast is hot-cross buns (store-bought or homemade) and unsweetened tea.
We spend the morning building a Good Friday shrine: A small table in the living room is covered with a satin and lace cloth. The largest crucifix we have is laid on the table, and a votive candle lit. The table and floor around it are decked with flowers.
When we lived in Southern California, the children went to a vacant field to gather wildflowers, which are at their peak at this time. Now that we live in the Northeast, we cut branches of flowering shrubs and dig up emerging crocuses and hyacinths two weeks ahead of time. The warmth inside will force them into bloom by Holy Week.
Sometimes we supplement the bulbs with cut flowers from the supermarket or bedding plants from the nursery.
The Good Friday shrine turns our living room into a place for quiet meditation or spiritual reading.
At noon, the “Great Silence” begins. We do our best not to speak before 3 p.m., in honor of the three hours our Lord hung upon the cross.
We each eat another hot-cross bun for lunch and watch the passion scenes of “Jesus of Nazareth.” Then comes the Good Friday liturgy at church.
Dinner is usually pea soup and crusty bread, which taste fabulous after a day of fasting.
We rearrange our Good Friday shrine: The crucifix is put away, and a small tomb made from stones and small pieces of slate is assembled.
This year, I might make the tomb ahead of time out of papier-mâché as a friend of mine does. My stone structure can collapse at a touch if it's not done just so! On Easter morning, the stone at the entrance will be removed and an 8-inch statue of the risen Christ placed in front of the tomb.
The Saturday Wait
Holy Saturday is a happy day of anticipation. Everyone is busy cooking, cleaning, coloring eggs, shopping on behalf of the Easter Bunny, and putting Easter outfits together.
Townships here in Pennsylvania hold Easter-egg hunts the day before Palm Sunday. We pass on these and hunt eggs in our own yard on Easter and many times thereafter in the week to come.
As Lent ends, our joy in the resurrection is fueled by our joy in putting aside our penances! But this is as it should be. As Matthew 9:15 says, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”
It's Jesus who has brought an end to our penances, as he brings an end to the sin that makes penance necessary. Our children, despite having complained on and off for the 40 days of Lent, take a certain satisfaction in having done “something hard” for God, who did something so much harder for them.
My husband and I hope that these yearly adventures in voluntary self-deprivation will prepare them to face nonvoluntary rough times in the future with self-discipline, courage and cheerfulness.
Daria Sockey writes from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.