During the years I was in the Servite parish in St. Louis, I got to know the drivers for the local funeral home quite well. That was because our parish was averaging 75 to 100 funerals a year. One of the drivers, whose name was Carl, grew up in Ste Genevieve, a small river town about 60 miles south of St. Louis. Ste Genevieve is an old French settlement that in recent decades has become a popular weekend destination, full of quaint shops, restaurants, and inns. But the Ste Genevieve he remembered from the 1930’s and 1940’s was a very isolated place, whose citizens had largely retained the customs they had brought with them from Europe many generations ago. French was still widely spoken in the village, and although the town was surrounded by Bible Belt Protestants, almost everyone in Ste Genevieve was Catholic. The Catholic Church was at the center of town, and as far as he could remember, was the only church in town.
If I had a funeral anywhere near this time of year and Carl was assigned to drive me to the cemetery, I could count on hearing about Holy Week in Ste Genevieve back in the old days. As he described it, the whole temper of the town changed. Works schedules, school schedules, and social activities were drastically reduced so that everyone could participate in Holy Week ceremonies. The Palm Sunday procession snaked through the narrow streets of the village, with just about everyone in town participating. There was the solemn exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in Church after services on Holy Thursday night, with crowds of people gathered around the Repository Altar, which was itself surrounded by an avalanche of flowers. Because church bells were not rung on Good Friday, altar servers would run through the streets calling people to the three hour service on Good Friday afternoon; and once the service was over, an eerie silence settled over the town out of reverence for Christ’s death.
Perhaps Carl’s memory embellished things a bit, but once upon a time, Holy Week played a bigger part in the culture even in big towns like Chicago. Palm Sunday processions around the neighborhood were common, and many offices and businesses closed on Good Friday. Now, except for a group of Christians who conduct Stations of the Cross through downtown streets and processions in neighborhoods with a strong immigrant population, there is very little that distinguishes Holy Week from any other week. Around here we are likely to wander into church a couple of minutes late during the blessing of palms and say, “Geez is it Palm Sunday already?”
This is why I am inviting you a whole week before any of this begins to look at your calendar and see if you can figure out a way to be more involved in the Holy Week services at Assumption. Holy Thursday/Good Friday/ Holy Saturday really form one complete service. These liturgies celebrate “the hour” in which Jesus passed from death into life. The Service on Holy Thursday evening ends in silence and the Service on Good Friday begins in silence: we pick up exactly where we left off in the story of God’s saving action. And we need to remember that the story of Christ’s victory over sin and death is also the story of our victory over sin and death, the central story of our lives. Hopping from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday we miss the opportunity to honor and give thanks for Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist on Holy Thursday night; and we miss the chance to reverence and honor the wooden cross on which our Savior hung on Good Friday. We miss the Easter Vigil Mass on Holy Saturday evening, which is the most important Mass of the year. At this Mass we bless fire and let the light of Christ overcome the darkness that is very real at that time of night. We bless water and we baptize and confirm new members into the faith.
As I was writing this, a cliché from the 1960’s came to mind: “Dare to be different.” At that time “daring to be different” was largely about hair and dress and music and drugs and lifestyle; but it was also about thinking of people who were not really so different from us in a different way. “Daring to be different” led to profound social changes in our society and a demand for equality that goes on today. The rigidity and the stereotypes of the 1950’s disintegrated. Today, when we seem in so many ways locked into a rigid secular structure, why not “dare to be different” once again? Dare to make Holy Week different from all other weeks. Dare to focus on what God has done and is doing for us. Dare to focus on what’s really important for a change!