The significance of me coming back to church during the Lenten season is not lost on me (I hope); this is a time when Christians all over the world turn their focus inward, to examine the blockages in their hearts that prevent them from fully dedicating themselves to Christ. It’s been a very deep and purifying season for me, and I feel made anew in Jesus.
Lent is now officially over, and the Lord is risen (he is risen indeed, alleluia!), but I wanted to offer some reflections on praying and living through my first Holy Week in 10 years.
I opted to go to my parents’ church for Palm Sunday. The only other time I’ve been to their church is on Christmas Day. Their church was built in the 50s, and the Mass they usually attend is in the lower church, which feels like more of an auditorium than a church. Maybe it was, once.
The monsignor at my parents’ parish was the celebrant. He has a booming voice like an old time radio announcer (listening to him play the role of Jesus during the Passion was interesting). His sermon that morning was largely about confession and how participating in that sacrament really underlies Lent.
A few weeks prior to that, midway during Lent I made a confession for the first time in over 10 years, the priest at the Episcopal parish I’ve been visiting asked me if I forgave myself. A guide to reconciliation that I downloaded the same day asked me the same question. Still, the question felt new for me. I was, however, ready to forgive myself. And I think that is what is so powerful about reconciliation and about Lent itself, they allow us to face ourselves honestly, beyond our pretenses and defense mechanisms, so that we can amend what needs amending, and heal that which is broken.
Palm Sunday services always start out joyously, with the blessing of the palms and the triumphant entrance, and end solemnly, a foreshadowing of what will come on the following Friday. In like manner, we closed the Mass with a rendition of “Were you there?” as the lights were slowly dimmed on the altar, and finally left the church in silence.
I didn’t go to church on Holy Thursday. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I was giving a talk at 7 pm that evening and most churches had their services at that time. I haven’t been to a Holy Thursday service in my life, so next time I do want to go.
The talk I gave focused a bit on the human nature of Jesus and how meditating on that has helped me heal my relationship with Christianity. You can read it here.
I woke up to a rather gloomy and cloudy day. I found it ‘appropriate’ for Good Friday, but when you think about it, Christ was probably crucified on a sunny day. We’re told the land grew dark at the time of the Lord’s death, so perhaps it was a sunny day before then. It was probably a day like any other, yet a day completely unlike any other at the same time.
In my household I was raised with the tradition of keeping silence on Good Friday. We’ve since let go of this over the years; my mother still jokingly chastised our dog when she started barking that morning at a noise outside.“¡Mira! Hoy no haces ruido.” I decided to try this out again to see how it made me feel, trading my usual morning soundtrack (usually either Beyoncé or Celia Cruz depending on my mood) for the noise of the city and the sound of the wind blowing by my ears, thinking that it was probably not all that different than that morning two thousand years ago.
I went to the noontime liturgies at the church I’ve been visiting. I had never really enjoyed Good Friday services as a kid; they were too sad and I think, like most folks, I didn’t like to dwell on the sufferings and death of Christ. But it is necessary, to embrace the sufferings of Christ and ultimately unite our own suffering with His, that by dying with Him we can be raised into eternal life. I felt incredibly emotional after venerating the cross and taking communion that afternoon. I sat in my pew contemplating these painful mysteries of the Passion, remembering that He suffered through all these things for me, for you, for all of us.
“Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace…”
– Book of Common Prayer
After the uncertain jubilation of Palm Sunday and the somberness of Good Friday, Holy Saturday is a day of anticipation, anxiety even. I thought a lot about the disciples, their faith shaken, their master taken so violently from them. But since we all know how this story ends, we know the anxiety will give way to disbelief and then to joy.
The Easter Vigil, the first Mass of the Easter season that is celebrated the evening of Holy Saturday into early Sunday morning, is traditionally a time when Christian converts formally join the Church. Before this, they will have been educated in the basic tenets Christianity and that night, are given their first sacraments- baptism, Eucharist, confirmation- and are welcomed into the community, on this day of anticipation, awaiting the resurrection of our Lord.
I describe myself as an Anglo-Catholic these days; though I am not a formal member of the Episcopal Church (yet), I am inspired and nourished by Anglicanism while still remaining faithful to my Catholic roots. I wasn’t able to go to the Easter Vigil this year, but I did take the time to look at the Catechism found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Catechism is far simpler than the Catholic Catechism I was made to learn portions of in high school. It isn’t different from what I was brought up believing for 13 years of my life. But reading it all in the context of this new tradition I’ve been exploring has certainly been refreshing. This portion jumped out at me:
Q. What is the Christian hope?
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness
and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in
glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the
(Book of Common Prayer, pg 861)
That phrase, “to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life” is what I’ve been trying to do with my life these days. To trust in God, in Jesus, and whatever He has planned for me.
I opted to go to my parents’ church again for Easter Sunday mostly for logistic reasons; we had plans after church for family brunch, but admittedly there was also a part of me that wanted to experience Easter in a Catholic church again, just for the sake of it.
I had goosebumps when I heard the opening notes to the Gloria. Again, having not heard or sung it in over 10 years, I felt tears come to my eyes. I admittedly stumbled a bit over the new arrangement (which feels a bit bulky in retrospect) but felt at peace singing it otherwise.
The deacon at my parents’ parish gave the sermon this Sunday. On Easter, he reminded us, God brings us out of our personal darknesses and into the light of new life. He related the story of Joseph in the darkness of the cistern, Moses in the darkness of the reed basket floating down the Nile, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and finally, Christ in the tomb. He added, jokingly, “Even the Risen Christ here on the altar,” referring to the statue of Jesus surrounded by lillies and roses, “had to be brought out of the darkness of the church storage closet.”
The darkness he spoke of is not something sinister or evil, rather an experience characterized by loneliness, uncertainty, doubt. A darkness I have related to far too often. A darkness I have been sitting with throughout Lent, reflecting on the many times throughout these 10 years where I have felt abandoned, neglected, rejected, angry. From this emotional space I have worked against myself; avoiding or pushing others away, denying myself of the very opportunity to love out of self-preservation and a deep desire not to be hurt again, while simultaneously desiring love, community, affection, intimacy with others.
On Easter night I was sitting with some of these feelings again, feeling sad on the day Jesus rose from the dead. I fell asleep. I dreamed I was wandering around my neighborhood at night, alone, walking in circles, lost and disoriented even though in waking life I knew the streets well. I was afraid. I woke up and prayed, “Lord, I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
And I felt an inner voice respond immediately, “You are never alone.”
I cannot deny that throughout my life I’ve felt the hand of some kind of Higher Power guiding and working in my life, in my weakest and darkest moments. Contemplating that as I lay in my bed brought me immense comfort. Ultimately, as the deacon reminded us in his sermon, “God leads us out of darkness into the light of new life.”
Happy Easter, friends.