Holy week is not a time merely to think again about the last events in the life of Jesus. During Holy week we experience these events again. Our annual experience is part of our growth towards our life goal of resurrection and the life of the world to come.
We tend to think that the word “remember” means merely to recall something to the mind—like memorizing our multiplication tables, or the names of states, or, even, Bible verses. However, the biblical idea of remembrance is to re-experience. The ancient rabbis taught that when each generation of Israel celebrated the Passover, it was as if they themselves set their feet on the bottom of the Red Sea. It is in this light that we understand Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, “Do this in remembrance of me.” It does not mean merely, “Do this in order to think about me again.” It means, rather, “Do this to experience again my saving presence.” Sacramental and liturgical acts bridge the gap of time between what happened in the past and the present moment, and between the present moment and its future fulfillment in the coming kingdom of God.
This is connected to the meaning or the word, “symbol.” When we say that something is symbolic, we tend to mean that is not real; we may refer to a merely symbolic gesture. But the ancient meaning of the word symbol is different. The church fathers understood a symbol to be, in reality, what it signifies. Thus, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood” means that the things really are what they represent.
This meaning pertains to our Holy Week celebrations. The observances of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Day are not just things we do to help us think about things that Jesus did way back when. Rather, these observances marks the true meaning and re-experiencing of each day. We are there again. But we are not there again just in the sense of a journey back in time. Rather, each event comes into the present to touch our lives as they are this year, and each event gives us a taste of its future fulfillment. The kingdom comes to us in a real way now.
The church calendar is the way the Holy Spirit led the church to observe the feasts and fasts of the Old Testament in the light of their fulfillment in the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Son of God. The church calendar reveals the true meaning of time. When we move away from the observance of the feasts and fasts of the year, we move away from the true meaning of time—and we necessarily move into falsehood. The rejection of the true meaning of time is the root problem of our world. In a secular view of things, we came from nowhere and we are going nowhere. What we do has no meaning beyond the current moment, which is why people try so hard to hang on to the moment. This meaningless time is the root cause of the anxiety, despair, and hopelessness that increasingly characterizes our world.
During Holy Week we re-experience our baptism. The most complete New Testament explanation of the experience of baptism is in Romans 6:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom. 6:3-5).
We marched into Jerusalem with Jesus to follow him through the cross to the resurrection. We will come to the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, where Jesus will take two elements of the Passover meal and give them a new meaning in the light of his impending death. We will remember our human weakness as we all run away from our Lord in the garden. We will strip the altar and take away the Sacrament to symbolize the way Jesus is taken from us.
On Good Friday we will watch as Jesus bears our sins on the Cross, as he fulfills the righteous requirements of the Torah, doing for us what we are unable to do. But we are not passive observers. Rather, his righteous act reveals our sin. We share in his death by acknowledging the ways we have disobeyed God and failed to fulfill the commandments to love. Our confession is new this year because new things are revealed to us; we grow in our repentance as we move forward towards the kingdom. He will die for us, and we will die with him in a new way—we were buried with Him through baptism into death.
On Easter Even, we will light the new fire and bless the Paschal Candle, which is the light of Christ that conquers the darkness of sin, death and the evil one. We will renew the vows of our baptism. We will experience again the grace of forgiveness. Whatever we did or did not do for Lent, however we struggled or stumbled, Christ is Risen, and he will raise us from the death of our sins to live in a new way.
On Easter Day we experience again the empty tomb and the appearance to Mary. The Risen Christ will appear to each of us in a new way, calling each of his sheep by name (John 10:3-4). We will receive the resurrection life of Jesus in a new way. We will once again experience hope because the life of Christ within us is the embryo of our future fully resurrected selves: “We also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23). We will enter Eastertide as a season to celebrate the new life we have, and to love God and other people in new ways as witnesses: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35).
This is the true meaning of this time. It was the meaning before Covid19 and it will remain the true meaning of this time when Covid19 becomes an historical footnote. It fills us with a hope that disease and death cannot take from us:
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise, you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:5-11).