Holy Week: encountering the God who stoops down in order to lift us up

By Father Ryan Stenger.

During the days of Holy Week, the Church offers us, every year, an opportunity to enter more deeply into the Paschal Mystery — the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ — by which we have been saved from the power of sin and given a new life of grace.

In his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul gives beautiful expression to this saving mystery that fills and encompasses these sacred days: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:5-11)

Commenting on this passage, Pope St. John Paul II said that this Pauline hymn reflects how the Word of God takes on “the reality and condition of a servant … in order to enter the horizon of human history,” yet, “from below it ascends to the heights, from humiliation it rises towards exaltation” (General Audience, Aug. 4, 2004).

Throughout the liturgies of Holy Week, we encounter and accompany this God who empties himself in order to exalt us.

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, when the Church recalls the Lord’s triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. This journey is quite literally an ascent in geographical terms, but also in the sense that the rightful King has come to be enthroned in the Holy City and to establish God’s Kingdom. And yet, he enters the city not with warhorses or chariots, but riding upon a donkey. His victory is not won by force or violence, but by sacrifice and love. He goes up to be enthroned as the true King of the Universe, yet his throne is the Cross and his power is revealed precisely in his self-abasement even to the point of death. The Collect from the Mass of Palm Sunday reminds us that it is only by following the Savior’s example of humility and patient suffering that we may merit a share in his Resurrection. Indeed, the children in the temple who cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” show us precisely that it is to the “little ones,” those who follow the Lord in humility and lowliness, that God’s Kingdom belongs. (Matt 21:15)

The Sacred Paschal Triduum, “the high point of the entire liturgical year,” begins on Holy Thursday with the evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper (Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, 18). At this Mass, the Church commemorates the Lord’s institution of the Eucharist and the priesthood. Just as Christ washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper, so, too, at this Mass does the priest wash the feet of his people. In this symbolic act, we are able to see the divine self-emptying that fills us with grace through the Eucharist and the priesthood. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “[Christ] divests himself of his divine splendor; he, as it were, kneels down before us; he washes and dries our soiled feet, in order to make us fit to sit at table for God’s wedding feast” (Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2, 57). Indeed, he continues even today to set aside his glory in order to draw close to us and give himself to us, choosing frail and flawed men to be the ministers of his grace and entering into our midst under the simple and humble appearance of bread and wine.

On Good Friday, the Church solemnly remembers the Lord’s passion and death upon the cross. During the liturgy on this day, the altars are stripped of all decoration, the tabernacles lie empty, and the priest enters in silence and prostrates himself before the altar. We enter with Christ into the complete abasement and degradation of the cross, in which is stripped away not only his divine splendor, but even the last vestiges of the human dignity he had taken to himself. And yet, within the same liturgy, the priest raises up the Cross for the veneration of the faithful, acclaiming it with the words, “Behold the wood of the Cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” We recognize that in Jesus’ loving obedience to the Father all the way to the end, creation has at last fulfilled its destiny in union with its creator and thus is exalted and redeemed upon the Cross in the complete self-offering of Christ.

On Holy Saturday, the Church waits in silence while the Lord lies buried in the tomb. But on that night, during the Easter Vigil, the darkness is pierced by the light of Christ, represented by the Paschal Candle, and the silence is broken by pealing bells and jubilant hymns of praise: the Exsultet, the Gloria, the Alleluia. From the suffering and humiliation of the Cross, and from the stillness and finality of the grave, Christ rises victorious over the powers of sin and death. But he does not return from his descent alone. He has assumed all of mankind to himself and he does not now leave aside his humanity, but rather raises it up with him to the heights of heaven, to a new life with God. During the Masses of Easter, we remember that the victory won by Christ through his sacrifice has opened up a new life for us, which we receive through the saving waters of baptism.

During Holy Week, we encounter again and again the God who stoops down to us in order to lift us up to himself. He empties himself to fill us; he strips away his glory to exalt us. He loves us to the end.

As we enter into these sacred days, let us follow his example of humility and allow his divine love to fill us and raise us up to a new life of holiness and grace.

Father Ryan L. Stenger, J.C.L., is pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Camp Springs.