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The Mystery of Holy Week

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When we enter Holy Week and Jesus enters Jerusalem, we begin to confront the great mystery of our faith – the  Paschal Mystery: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Christians call this “a mystery” because it is a truth known only because it has been revealed to us by God.  Reason alone cannot discover it; only God himself could have revealed the extent of his love for us.

The term itself has its roots in the Jewish Passover; derived from the Hebrew word pasach, which means “passed over” and refers to the 10th Plague during which the Israelites, who had been bound in slavery in Egypt, were instructed by God to sacrifice a lamb and mark their doors with its blood so that the angel of death would “pass over” their homes. The first-born son of each Egyptian family was however slain.

After this terrible event Pharaoh finally relented and let the Israelites go. Almost immediately, however, he regretted his decision and sent his army after the former slaves. His soldiers caught up with them at the Red (actually “Reed”) Sea. With the waters ahead and the army behind, the Jews appeared to be doomed. At that very moment though, God told Moses to stretch his staff over the sea, and, in perhaps the greatest miracle in all of the Jewish tradition,  the waters parted, allowing the Jews to cross on dry land. Just as they reached the far shore of the sea, the waters closed, drowning Pharaoh and his soldiers.

The Symbol of the Lamb

The ”paschal lamb” became the symbol of Israel’s redemption.  By the blood of the lamb, they were freed from slavery, saved from death, and given new life.  For Christians the paschal lamb prefigures Jesus Christ, who in the New Testament, is referred to as “the lamb of God” (John 1:29). Through the shedding of his own blood and the offering of his body, he brings about our own redemption.  “For our paschal, Christ has been sacrificed”(Corinthians 5:7)

Paul wrote these words to the Church at Corinth in the course of an exhortation to believers to live incorruptible lives. Behind his use of the Passover metaphor to interpret Jesus’ death on the cross lies his own traditional Jewish religious understanding of God’s graciousness to Israel.  Beyond Paul’s words, later generations of Christians would elaborate on the theme of the paschal mystery to speak of the meaning of what God had done in Christ.  In the Book of Revelation, the description of the heavenly victory celebration opens with the declaration “I saw a Lamb standing, a Lamb that had been slain” (Rev 5:6).

On a human level, the death of Jesus was a disaster where with the eyes and with the logic of God, it was eternally triumphant. His death was a sin offering in the complete and total meaning of that word. “By his wounds, we are healed”, Paul tells us. The death of Jesus is ‘the one and eternal sacrifice offered for sin’. As the blood of the lamb protected the homes of the Hebrews, so the blood of Jesus opened the gates of heaven for God’s people. It is significant that, just as he died, the graves were opened, the dead arose and appeared to many, and the veil of the temple was rent in two.  For the first time ever, it is possible for us to enter into the Holy of Holies.

In the Mass

Within the Church’s liturgy, the events of Christ’s “Passover” to the Father become present and real to us.  Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is truly made present to us.  The sacrifice that occurred one time in history is made present outside of time in “mystery”.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this as follows: [Christ’s] Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique; all other historical events happen once, and they pass away, swallowed up in the past.  The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death, he destroyed death, and all that Christ is – all that he did and suffered for all men  – participates in this divine eternity and so transcends all times while being made present in them all” (CCC 1085).

This does not mean that Jesus dies again every time Mass is offered, rather that every time a Mass is offered, the prayer, the ‘yes’ of Jesus that was offered on Calvary, is offered yet again, except that, this time, I now can offer my ‘yes’ to Jesus with his ‘yes’ to the Father. In that way, the Mass becomes a ‘perpetual sacrifice’ that can be renewed and offered from ‘east to west’ for all time.’

When we participate at Mass, we are with Jesus at the Last Supper, we accompany him to Calvary, we experience the empty tomb, and we witness his ascension to the Father.

No human being could have guessed that God himself Jesus Christ, would choose death on a cross as a way of revealing his love for humanity.  This is the great mystery of Holy Week.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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