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"For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them." Matthew 18:20


Holy Week and the Senses

Laura DeMaria

It is the end of Holy Week, the evening of Good Friday, and this is the first I have spent Holy Week sincerely from start to finish. More to come, of course, in the great culmination of the Easter Vigil tomorrow night.

This week has been a wonder. I was struck by something a friend said last night during a walk through Brookland, as we joined a larger group of pilgrims doing the traditional 7-churches Holy Thursday journey (you should try it some time). “What I find so genius about the Catholic faith,” she said, “is that it understands humans as sensory beings and reaches us through our senses.” So true, I thought. All of Holy Week was an immersion in lights, smells, sounds that called to mind another time, overlaid simultaneously with the present.

All week I had a feeling that by witnessing the Mass, and all the other song and ritual of Holy Week, I was where the early Christians were. I was seeing what they were seeing. For example: on Wednesday night, the Cathedral hosted Tenebrae. This is not something I have experienced before. There were two moments that struck my heart: the first was as Cardinal Wuerl incensed the altar. How many times have I seen this done, at so many Masses? And yet, in that darkened cathedral, knowing we were making our way to the grief of Good Friday, suddenly I had the thought that I could see Jesus’s crucified body there on the altar, and that is what Cardinal was incensing. Particularly, I thought of Mary Magdalene and the other women coming to the tomb with oils and spices to prepare the body. So, I suppose, we still do today. Cardinal swung the incense, clinking and gold on its chain, sending up puffs of gray perfumed smoke, and it was as if through the smoke I could begin to see the offerings of the women who came before me.

And then, at the end. If you have not attended a tenebrae service, it is a service of sung prayer, with the “hearse,” or a triangular candelabra, at the center of the altar. Slowly over the course of the evening all the candles in the hearse are extinguished and the church is plunged into darkness, at which point one hears the “strepitus,” a horrible “great noise” that signifies nature groaning at Christ’s death.

I began to feel tense as the candles were extinguished. It is the same as knowing Jesus’s “hour” is coming. So that last candle is left, and one of the celebrants took even it, and walked across and out of the church. He walked slowly, his shadows jumping against the marble wall behind him, until suddenly all light was gone. That was the moment of the strepitus, a combination of thunder and grinding noises that startled me utterly. It’s true, I thought. This is what those at the foot of the cross heard and experienced (plus the earth itself shaking) - why wouldn’t nature revolt at what man had done to Jesus - at God Himself dying? The sound and the darkness caused a feeling of utter desolation.

That has been the major grace of Holy Week for me (though I know if many other small graces, too). To be put in the frame of mind to remember that what happened then was not an abstract; not even just an historical event. It was real, it was personal, it is imprinted in time and, because we are made in His image, in our hearts. All that Jesus endured He did for each one of us. I felt that deeply this week. I felt He was not far; in fact, He is very near.

“The word is very near you; it is in your heart, and in your mouth, so that you can do it…”

Tomorrow I will also participate in the Easter Vigil for the first time. And then, on Sunday, will be the feast!