Let our glory be in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; in Him we
have salvation, life and resurrection; through Him we are rescued and
set free. – (Col 6:14)
In the rapture of Easter night, Christianity puts on new splendour. All our sorrows, all our sins are left behind, and overcome. Catholics everywhere strain forward for this night, the summit of the year, and we hold onto memories of it to help us through any trouble we might face in the future.
It is happiness, after all – an Easter hope – that is born of blood and suffering.
It is real. We can overcome sin because Christ died for us, we are taught, and we can start afresh because He rose from the dead.
What a peculiar thing to believe.
Certainly, taking a moment out from the Maundy Thursday Mass that starts the Sacred Triduum, I caught myself.
In the rites and liturgy offered on that night, Catholics recall the institution of the Eucharist, and prepare for the stark grief – the altar is stripped; the Most Holy Sacrament reposed – of Good Friday.
It might have been the man in front of me. He looked and acted like a non-believer come along to sit beside his Catholic wife.
He stood hesitantly. He did not kneel, and he waited alone, a little defiant, while everyone else went for communion.
What could he see in our rites and our emotion, all of it intensified by Holy Week fervour?
Certainly, without a firm belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist – the conviction that His body and blood, His soul and divinity are truly there after the consecration of the bread and wine – most of the Maundy Thursday Mass looks bizarre.
Similarly, what do outsiders make of Good Friday? Why kiss a cross? It is like venerating an electric chair, after all, or saluting a noose. Why go without meat and other things?
Without faith in Christ’s resurrection, indeed, the Sacred Triduum is a sometimes vicious, baffling, otherwise aesthetically intriguing rehearsal of peculiarities and arcana.
It is so much nonsense, arranged splendidly, for sure – few non-believers will fault the beauty of the musical and other traditions – and it does not appear to make a bit of difference.
On Easter morning, men are still wicked. Regardless of what Catholics believe and celebrate, humanity carries on, broken and stumbling, and the world just seems to decline.
In this context, Christians would do well to turn away from our rites, and start to do something a little more practical.
Not for the Catholic, however, is that sort of thinking.
Indeed, at this time of the year, many congregations will sing a version of Isaac Watts’ beloved hymn, When I Survey The Wondrous Cross, which sets out a totally different reading of the events of Easter.
“Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast” Watts wrote and Catholics sing, “save in the death of Christ my God…[T]he vain delights that charm me most: I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet,
What grief and love flow mingling down;
When did such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?”
In the gritty, all too real, bloody facts of the Crucifixion, then, Christians grapple with the truth at the heart of all our Easter striving: the love that proves that God is Love.
The Man, the suffering God, Who changed men so long ago in Palestine, and Who continues to transform our hearts – this is the One Who makes our Triduum sacred.
Christ is the reason for our rites, and He is the only excuse for Easter.
Knowing this, singing Watts’ lines, I sang a little louder at Mass, and hoped that the man in front of me – the non-believer – might come to be transformed too.
I prayed for him, like Catholics pray for all non-believers on Good Friday, and I tried to temper my experience of the Triduum with a proper respect for what it might be like had Christ not come.
How could this knowledge, this potential absence, make us better Christians?
It should make us more profoundly grateful for the fact of Easter, and even more intense in our devotions.
Watts, again, has the program:
Were all the realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
John Heard is an Australian writer – email@example.com