Enter Holy Week With the Joy of Minds Made Pure

‘For by your gracious gift each year, your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure.’ (Preface I of Lent)

Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348), “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem”
Pietro Lorenzetti (1280-1348), “Christ’s Entry Into Jerusalem” (photo: Public Domain)

As a person who has been blessed with many Jewish friends, I quickly came to understand that Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the period in which observant Jews are requested to fast, pray and quietly reflect upon and atone for their sins, is a very serious time indeed. Thus, it’s inappropriate to say, “Happy Yom Kippur!” despite your eagerness to wish your friends well. Instead, one should say, “Tzom Kal” which translates to mean, “I hope you have an easy fast.” This is much more respectful and offers true sympathy for those embarking on a profound spiritual duty. It reminds your friend of your concern and respect.

I’ve often been stumped as to what to say to other Christians during this time. I want to recognize this important period in our liturgical calendar and to inspire them to take this period seriously but wishing them a “Happy Lent!” or “Happy Holy Week!” seems inappropriate.

It would be odd to call the Lenten season “joyous” as we usually reserve such a descriptor for Easter and Christmas. But it’s hardly as depressing as we sometimes see it depicted in the media and the non-Catholic popular imagination. Lent is not meant to be a trial that needs to be gotten through as quickly as possible. It is a unique invitation and opportunity to connect to our own humanity and to God’s divinity. Unfortunately, some Christians disregard it bringing to mind Chesterton’s quote, “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried."

Lent calls us to share Christ’s Passion, even if only ephemerally. All Christians are asked to give themselves over, to crush the ego and to take up their respective crosses. Lent is unique in that during this time, we do these things as a community. During Lent, we are asked repeatedly to give alms, fast, pray, repent, read Scriptures, forgive others and worship together. These are the central themes of the season.

But whatever penances we take up, we must do so cheerfully regardless of how annoying or inconveniencing it is. Christ gives us specific instructions not to whine or appear gloomy:

And when you fast, do not put on a sad face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance so that everyone will see that they are fasting. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. When you go without food, wash your face and comb your hair, so that others cannot know that you are fasting — only your Father, who is unseen, will know. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

Saints and mystics for the past 2000 years have put on happy faces when they fasted. They were happy because they understood and accepted St. Paul’s admonition:

Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may be innocent and pure as God’s perfect children. (Philippians 2:14-15)

Why would any Christian chose to be dour? We have Christ — the Messiah who has already indeed arrived. He has died but he also has risen and we wait in eager anticipation, resting assured, that he will return again. There’s no reason to be glum at all during Lent. We should mark Lent and accept what it offers — the opportunity to meet Christ in our hearts and in the faces of all those we meet. By taking up our respective crosses, and assisting those who are overwhelmed by their own, we make our own way to Golgotha and to our own Resurrection.

From time to time, Passover (Pasach) and Holy Week coincide. This wonderful coincidence should serve to remind us of our spiritual roots, our common humanity and the grace and love that is our birthright as God’s children. As any Christian who has ever seen Leonardo DaVinci’s “The Last Supper” knows, our Mass is based upon the Passover Seder. Among the many prayers used in the Seder is one created by the Jewish sage Gamaliel, which is a part of our spiritual legacy:

He made us pass
From slavery to liberty,
From sadness to joy,
From mourning to celebration,
From darkness to light,
From servitude to redemption
Because of this before Him we say: Alleluia.
(Pesachim, X, 5 e Meliton of Sardi, Easter Homily, 68 (SCh 123, p. 98).

Be grateful that you are asked to fast. Be glad to do without your excesses. As St. Basil the Great reminds us:

The bread which you do not use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes that you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the money that you keep locked away is the money of the poor; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit.

Have a blessed Palm Sunday and Holy Week, everybody! Truly, it is wonderful and indispensable part of our Faith without which, we would quickly and fatally become obsessed with ourselves and our own comfort and security. Instead, we are given this great gift, that of self-denial or, in other words, freedom.