Category Archives: Palm Sunday

Mysterium: Holy Week

Saturday was a full day: I spent it pressure washing Mom’s patio––a full afternoon wet and soggy, hunched over a power nozzle, blasting mildew off of bricks. Every hour or so, I’d put down the nozzle, pour the murky water out of my shoes, and pick up the nozzle and start again. Toward nightfall, we ate, and after supper I could not keep my eyes open, so I went to a chaise lounge on the patio’s edge to rest my weary bones. I was sound asleep before I knew it. Just a short nap, a bit of refreshment while the coffee was brewing. I awoke just a few minutes later and before me in the night sky, beyond the pines and the clouds beyond them, was the waxing moon, bright and clear. And though over dinner we talked about baking for Easter, it didn’t really sink in until I saw that big moon. The moon’s presence before me was my portal, my concrete reminder of where we are in the round of the year: with its presence, we enter into Holy Week.

Indeed, Passover began with the setting sun on Saturday, just as I was dragging myself in from my day’s work. Passover and Holy Week are, I think, constant companions, for the Passover seder was the setting for Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), which leads us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. What I know about Passover is not much and mostly is in relation to my Catholic upbringing and to Passover’s connexion to the Easter story. I know that Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt, and I know what a friend told me once, which has always resonated with me about the holiday: “We are traveling through the desert with our ancestors via a table filled with metaphor and symbolism.” The meal is the seder, the same meal that Jesus celebrated with his disciples in the upper room on that Holy Thursday night before he died. Pesach is the Hebrew name for Passover, and, as words go, Pesach informs the name for Easter in many languages: in Italian, for instance, Easter is called Pasqua. In French, it is Pâques, in Portuguese, Páscoa, and in Spanish, Pascua. (The English word “Easter” does not share this etymological relation to Pesach. Our word for the holiday comes down from the Old English Eostre, related to the German Ostern and an Anglo-Saxon goddess whose feast day was celebrated around the Spring Equinox. But my apologies––I often find myself winding down weird linguistic roads.)

The Sunday that sets Holy Week in motion is Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday. Father Brice at St. Paul’s used to say that “more people come to church when we give stuff away,” and it is one of those days when you do leave with a gift: the gift of palms, which some folks then take home and fashion into crosses. And while that part is nice, I’ve always felt a bit conflicted about Palm Sunday. I never understand what emotion I should be feeling, and it feels sometimes like the Cliff Notes version of Holy Week, condensed for busy people. And so I’ve never been terribly fond of the day.

It is Holy Thursday I love. It is one of the most beautiful nights of the year: a quiet and unassuming holiday/holyday, remarkable in its consistency, for the moon is always big and beautiful this night, hauntingly present, a constant companion as we make our pilgrimage in an old tradition that would have us visit three churches over the course of the evening. My grandmother, Assunta, taught me that custom, but, for some reason, not until the Holy Week after Grandpa had died. I think suddenly these old traditions meant more to her. I discovered then that the world is different at night. Churches glowing from within, moonlight reflecting on columns and limestone figures. Astonishingly quiet, serene stillness.

The actual Holy Thursday mass in most churches comes around sunset. It is the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, commemorating that Passover seder, the last supper so often depicted by artists. Jesus began by washing the feet of his disciples, a humble act accompanied by the suggestion that we, too, should not be above doing even the lowest things for others. At supper, he broke bread and passed the cup of wine: the central act of every Mass.

This year, like last, I won’t be going to any church gatherings for Holy Week and Easter. But typically, the Holy Thursday Mass I attend is a trilingual one, in English, Spanish, and Creole. It’s long and it’s crowded but I love it. It is the one Mass each year in our congregation where folks from so many diverse communities finally come together. For years I would seek out and sit next to an old Creole woman who reminded me of my grandmother, but I haven’t seen her for many years now, and I suspect she’s long gone now. And so I sit there with people I do not necessarily know and I think of my grandmother and the old Creole woman who had no idea she was so important to me.

The First Reading is in one language, the Second Reading in another, and the Gospel in the last of them. If you don’t know the language being spoken, you read along on your own. And as crowded as it is, still there are two choirs: one singing in English, the other in Creole, coming together, too, for this one night each year. The Creole songs are long and mysterious. One of them is sung to the tune of “My Old Kentucky Home.” They sing in Creole while I remember what I can from Stephen Foster’s song and each year they sing that song, I think of the small scrap of paper found in Stephen Foster’s pocket after he died. On it, he had scribbled five touching words: Dear friends and gentle hearts. That’s exactly how I feel each year on this night.

The Mass ends with the transfer of the Blessed Sacrament to the chapel while the congregation sings the Pange Lingua, acapella. Its more proper name is Pange Lingua Gloriosi Corporis Mysterium, an old hymn written in Latin by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. “Mysterium” is very appropriate, for this is a night wrapped in mystery and beauty, both of which truly begin once the Pange Lingua is done. There is no real end to the Mass. A small bit of chaos ensues as church workers begin to prepare for the Good Friday services the next day. People get up and leave, others mill about, and it’s noisy hustle and hubbub for a good 20 minutes until, eventually, the noise fades away as the church empties to just a few hardy souls who are there to sit. Some are in prayer, some are in reflection. Most, perhaps, are like me: doing some of all those things but also just being part of something bigger than ourselves, as it should be, in the company of others.

The tradition varies, apparently. The one that Grandma passed down to us is to visit three churches on this night. But I’ve heard of some people visiting seven churches. Both are magical numbers: 3 for the Trinity, of course, and for the three aspects of the Goddess (virgin, mother, crone), amongst other things, and 7 for more things than you might imagine: the seven sacraments, the seven days of creation, the seven sorrows of Mary, seven loaves and fishes… Still, three churches is plenty. Grandma may have been pious but she was not a martyr.

Our pilgrimage each year typically takes Seth and me from the trilingual Mass at St. Anne’s, the small old church surrounded by the tall buildings of Downtown West Palm Beach, across the lagoon to the much grander St. Edward’s in Palm Beach, which rivals the Vatican, then down the road to Bethesda by the Sea, where each year we wander the grounds, looking at the gargoyles and the crypts and the fountain, and we look for the boar in the stained glass window that shines onto the courtyard. We make these rounds each year on this night, sitting, kneeling, and me, I remember all those who have gone before us doing this very same thing. This is the value of ceremony and tradition to me: this connexion across time and space. And no matter where I go this night, the moon is there tagging along, trusted companion, never tiring, illuminating the night and the trees as much as the churches themselves illuminate their stained glass windows shining out from within. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Image: “Christ on the Mount of Olives” by Paul Gauguin. Oil on canvas, 1889 [Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons].

 

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Ocean Breeze, Palm Trees, Distant Moon

And so we are in the midst of Holy Week. It came with a shock this year, as we watched the Cathedral of Notre Dame burn in Paris, a loss for which it is for many of us impossible to find words. Holy Week is a time I hold dear, even though I don’t think of myself as a particularly religious person. I write about all these holidays, these holy days, and they hold vast spaces in my heart, and I listen to an awful lot of sacred music and I sing hymns as I go up and down staircases, just because I like them, and I feel sick about Notre Dame, but more for its beauty and history than anything else. My connexion to things religious is mostly, for better or for worse, human. I say a silent grace before meals, when I think of it, but more often than not there is already a forkful of dinner in my mouth when I am beginning to say it. And I pray, mostly when I’m driving to work each morning; at some point a few years ago I decided I could make better use of my time during my daily commute if I switched to prayer instead of all the cursing and swearing that had, up until that point, been more typical of my drive.

These things are in my DNA. As a grandson of early 20th century Italian immigrants, I grew up with St. Anthony in the backyard. In the house, there were all manner of saints and blessed virgins under glass domes on bedroom bureaus and crucifixes hanging on the walls and prayer cards with saintly images leaning on picture frames. St. Joseph, St. Rocco, St. Anthony again, the Infant of Prague, Santa Maria della Vittoria––the Black Madonna of Lucera. The year after my grandpa died, which was just after I graduated high school, there was, during Lent, forty days and nights of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament at our neighborhood church, St. Paul’s. I wanted to keep Grandma engaged. I had no idea what Adoration was, but Grandma expressed an interest, and so I brought her the first night when Lent began. And I brought her the second night. By and by, I brought her each night that week, and each night after. I don’t think we missed once, all through those forty nights. We would sit there, she and I, in the dark candle-lit chapel. Grandma would mumble her prayers in Italian, we would chat quietly, we would sing and pray when the priest came in to sing and pray with those of us who were gathered. We made friends: Father Brice, the pastor, Father Alonso, who was from Spain and who spoke so slowly that Grandma had no trouble understanding his English, Pat McAuliffe, the woman who made sure everything in the church was in order, and who often was out of her shoes anytime you entered the sacristy unannounced. Grandma and I would go late in the evening, maybe 9:30 or 10, and stay past 11, every night for forty nights. It was one of those things I never would have imagined myself doing, but I did it for someone outside my self, I did it for Grandma, and it turned out to be one of the most special things I’ve ever experienced. Which is often the case when you step outside your self and do things for others.

It was probably those forty nights that fostered my love of churches at night. And so it is that I have come to love another of Grandma’s traditions: the visitation of three churches at night for this same overnight watch on Holy Thursday, Maundy Thursday. And still, all these years later, you will find Seth and me doing this on Holy Thursday this week, as we do each year. When we go and sit there in the still and candlelit darkness, I do pray a little, but mostly I just sit. I am right up against Seth, usually, but I also have Grandma nearby, and all the people who have come and gone in my life. We are all quiet, taking in the creaks of the building and the sounds of passers-by outside the doors and the flickering of the candles. This year, I suppose, I’ll have Notre Dame with me, as well. The heart expands, and expands.

Friday is Good Friday. I have never, in all my life, been to church for a Good Friday service. Each year I think maybe this year I’ll go. And maybe this year I will go. I have taken the day off from work, so that’s a good start toward the possibility. Friday night will, as well, begin Passover. It is a high holy week across faiths this year. Saturday brings Holy Saturday, the Easter vigil. Some years, if we have it in us, we endure the Vigil Mass, which can go on for many hours. It can begin only once darkness falls, so it is a late night. One year I really wanted to go but couldn’t for one obligation or another, so I went to the Creole service that began at 11. I was the only person there at St. Ann’s who was not Haitian. I was warmly welcomed, but my French is rusty and my Creole not much better and though I could understand only very little, still I could follow along. This, through years of experience. We sang in Creole, people shook my hand and offered me the sign of peace in Creole, and when we stepped out into the night onto the city street, it was well past 1 in the morning. I felt light and at peace. Again, one of the most special things I’ve experienced.

And maybe this is what I love about Holy Week. No matter how far I’ve strayed, I always feel welcome in the churches I visit on my journey this week, especially on Holy Thursday, that somber yet beautiful night through which many of them will keep their doors open clear through to the next morning, for we are invited: to keep watch, and to be present. The distant moon, our constant companion. Along with it, the ocean breeze, the silhouettes of palms. It is the most beautiful time of year here in Lake Worth. Open, welcoming, warm. As Lent concludes and we ponder the mysteries of this week and as we approach Easter… this warm, welcome openness I wish for you, as well.

 

Image: When I am visiting churches on Holy Thursday night, I like to wander around. I’m not sure if it’s sanctioned or not, but nonetheless Seth and I tend to wend our way into chapels, peep into unlocked doors, ascend staircases. This angel greeted us in an upper choir loft of one of those churches, perhaps St. Ann’s in West Palm Beach or St. Edward’s or Bethesda by the Sea on Palm Beach.

Music for the week: Several years ago, the Boston Camerata released a wonderful collection of songs for Holy Week. It’s called “Lamentations: Holy Week in Provence.” It is exquisite.

 

Balance

The Waterfall

By the time you read this, spring will have made its arrival by the almanac: the equinox––vernal here in the Northern Hemisphere, autumnal in the Southern––came and went at 12:30 in the morning (Eastern Daylight Time) this 20th day of March. In traditional reckoning of time we are at spring’s height, its midpoint, and now are on the downhill ride toward summer. But no matter how you reckon your time, what is clear in all cases is this: balance. Day and night now are just about equal in length no matter where we are on the planet, and there is something about that balance that is wonderful (as in full of wonder): no matter what concerns we have in our lives, be they major or minor, the celestial clockwork continues. If a vast planet of oceans and mountains can achieve balance, it gives us hope that we can, too.

It is, as well today, Palm Sunday, setting the events of Holy Week in motion. We enter into the highest days of the Christian calendar. I have said this before in the Convivio Book of Days: Palm Sunday has never been a favorite day of mine. The Mass is really long, the congregation gets to read but it’s almost always lackluster and halfhearted, and I never know if I should feel mourning or celebration. Father Seamus likes to say that attendance goes up whenever they give something away at church, even if it is just a couple of palms, even in this chlorophyll-laden land where we see palm trees every time we open our eyes.

One of the more charming traditions for the day is the fashioning of crosses out of those palms. Some can be very elaborate: my mom’s cousin’s husband could turn a single palm frond into a cross with two flowers bursting out of its center. A lesser known tradition would have us eat figs on Palm Sunday, which comes out of the story of Christ’s cursing of the fig tree, which occurred soon after he arrived in Jerusalem:

In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21: 18-19)

And even this irritates me about Palm Sunday. This story sounds like something Teenager Jesus might have done. Why curse a fig tree for having no fruit? Be that as it may, some people make sure to eat figs on Palm Sunday just because of this verse and a similar one in Mark. They’ll be eating dried figs, for sure, because it’s not fig season. You’d think Jesus would have known that, too.

And with Palm Sunday’s close, we begin to clean. Just as we “made our house fair as we are able” during Advent, these next few days are days of making our house fair as we are able for the coming feast of Easter. By Wednesday night, the moon will be full and all should be done, and all distractions set aside, for the mysteries of Easter begin with Holy Thursday: one of my favorite nights of the year, a night rich with ceremony and ending in pilgrimage and peaceful contemplation, and I am of the mind that my disdain for Palm Sunday is more than made up for by my love for Maundy Thursday. And there it is, perhaps: that balance, manifested, as we stand here on a planet midway now between longest night and longest day.

Image: “The Waterfall” by Anton Romako. Painting, late 19th century. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.