Sacred Triduum: April 2009 Archives

Exsultet.jpgExult now O you angelic throngs of the heavens:

Exult O you divine mysteries: and let the saving trumpet resound for the victory of so great a King. Let the earthly realm also be joyful, made radiant by such flashings like lightning: and, made bright with the splendor of the eternal King, let it perceive that it has dismissed the entire world's gloom.

Let Mother Church rejoice as well, adorned with the blazes of so great a light: and let this royal hall ring with the great voices of the peoples. Wherefore, most beloved brothers and sisters, you here present to such a wondrous brightness of this holy light, I  beseech you, together with me invoke the mercy of Almighty God.

Let Him who deigned to gather me in among the number of the Levites, by no merits of mine, while pouring forth the glory of His own light enable me to bring to fullness the praise of this waxen candle.

Deacon: The Lord be with you!
Response: And with your spirit!
D: Raise your hearts on high!
R: We now have them present to the Lord!
D: Let us then give thanks to the Lord our God!
R: This is worthy and just!

Truly it is worthy and just to resound forth with the whole of the heart, disposition of mind, and by the ministry of the voice, the invisible God the Father Almighty, and His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, on our behalf, resolved Adam's debt to the Eternal Father and cleansed with dutiful bloodshed the bond of the ancient crime.

Exultet Roll, Montecassino Barberini.jpgFor these are the Paschal holy days, in which that true Lamb is slain, by Whose Blood the doorposts of the faithful are consecrated.

This is the night in which first of all You caused our forefathers, the children of Israel brought forth from Egypt, to pass dry shod through the Red Sea. This is the night which purged the darkness of sins by the illumination of the pillar. This is the night which today restores to grace and unites in sanctity throughout the world Christ's believers, separated from the vices of the world and the darkness of sins. This is the night in which, once the chains of death were undone, Christ the victor arose from the nether realm. For it would have profited us nothing to have been born, unless it had been fitting for us to be redeemed.

O wondrous condescension of Your dutiful concern for us! O inestimable affection of sacrificial love: You delivered up Your Son that You might redeem the slave! O truly needful sin of Adam, that was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault, that merited to have such and so great a Redeemer! O truly blessed night, that alone deserved to know the time and hour in which Christ rose again from the nether world! This is the night about which it was written: And night shall be made as bright as day: and night is as my brightness for me.

Therefore the sanctification of this night puts to flight all wickedness, cleanses sins, and restores innocence to the fallen and gladness to the sorrowful. It drives away hatreds, procures concord, and makes dominions bend. Therefore, in this night of grace, accept, O Holy Father, the evening sacrifice of this praise, which Holy Church renders to You in the solemn offering of this waxen candle honey bee.JPGby the hands of Your ministers from the work of bees.

We are knowing now the proclamations of this column,
which glowing fire kindles in honor of God. Which fire, although it is divided into parts, is knowing no loss from its light being lent out. For it is nourished by the melting streams of wax, which the mother bee produced for the substance of this precious torch. O truly blessed night, in which heavenly things are joined to those of earth, the divine to the human!

Therefore, we beseech You, O Lord, that this waxen candle, consecrated in honor of Your name, may continue unfailing to dispel the darkness of this night. And once it is accepted as a placating sacrifice, may it be mingled with the heavenly lights. Let the morning star meet with its flame: that very star, I say, which knows no setting: Who, having returned from the nether realm, broke serene like the dawn upon the human race, and now lives and reigns forever and ever.

(Roman Missal, 2002)

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"Holy Saturday"

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Descent into Limbo.jpgLET me tell you right now,
No one suffered more on Good Friday
And deserves a rest today
Than the King of the Jews-

And right now he's in hell.

He descended into hell
Where he is right now.
And right now he is being himself,
He's being his God-from-heaven-descended self,
And I'll bet you that it's a real blast in hell
With him there
And I'll bet he's in there
And having a ball.
He's redeeming hell
By his sky-high dream-drawn scheme
Of simply being himself
And accepting selves' selves
And offering himself to God-on-high for them.

In hell right now the King of all creation
Enters into the communion of communication
And becomes integral to the communion of communication,
And his share is infinite
As it always has been.
As it always must always be.
Think of his conversations before this day,
And think how he must be entering into one hell of a conversation now
Because even in hell there is hope.
He is in hell today
And that is sure sign of hope in itself.

Tomorrow he rises, and maybe hell may rise with him.
Maybe tomorrow, on Easter, hell will rise.
just as he rises tomorrow, all hell may let loose
And what a sound it will be-
Tiros will shoot off in dizzying spirals,
Invasion sirens will shrieking scream,
Grace, like atomic fissionable materials, will hail impartial particles
Over a supine populace under school desks, sinks and IBM computers.
And where will you be at the Resurrection,
When the temple veil on Wall Street is rent
And the safely embalmed souls in Forest Lawn rise
And earth, all 103 or more elements of it, rises
(At least as many elements of it as they can keep stable until the Apocalypse)?

This Holy Saturday we watch and wait.
What comes will surely be his surprise-
He's working on it right now-
And we must wait for it,
There is nothing else to do.
On Holy Saturday we realize, as at no other time,
We simply have to wait.
And then it happens!

John Harrell

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There was a day when Nietzsche was right: God was dead, the Word was not heard in the world, the body was interred and the tomb sealed up, the soul descended into the bottomless abyss of Sheol." This descent of Jesus into the kingdom of the dead "was part of his abasement even if (as St. John admits of the Cross) this supreme abasement is already surrounded by the thunderbolts of Easter night. In fact, did not the very descent to hell bring redemption to the souls there?" It prolonged in some manner the cry from the Cross: Why have you abandoned me? "Nobody could ever shout that cry from a deeper abyss than did he whose life was to be perpetually born of the Father."

Descent into Hell Duccio.jpgBut there remains the imitation of Christ. There is a participation, not only sacramental, but contemplative in his mystery. There is an experience of the abandonment on the Cross and the descent into hell, and experience of the poena damni. There is the crushing feeling of the "ever greater dissimilarity" of God in the resemblance, however great, between him and the creature; there is the passage through death and darkness, the stepping through "the somber door". In conformity to the mission he has received, the prayerful man then experiences the feeling that "God is dead for him". And this is a gift of Christian grace -- but one receives it unawares. The lived and felt faith, charity, and hope rise above the soul to an inaccessible place, to God. From then on it is "in nakedness, poverty and humiliation" that the soul cries out to him.

Those who have experienced such states afterwards, more often than not, in their humility, see nothing in them but a personal purification. True to his doctrine which refuses to separate charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the ecclesial mission, and individual mysticism, von Balthasar discerns in it essentially this "Holy Saturday of contemplation" by which the Betrothed, in some chosen few of her members, is made to participate more closely in the redemption wrought by the Spouse. We have arrived at a time in history when human consciousness, enlarged and deepened by Christianity, inclines more and more to this interpretation.

The somber experience of Holy Saturday is the price to be paid for the dawn of the new spring of hope, this spring which has been "canonized in the rose garden of Lisieux": "is it not the beginning of a new creation? The magic of Holy Saturday ... Deep cave from which the water of life escapes."

Reading so many passages where this theme is taken up, we discern a distress, a solitude, a night -- of the quality, in fact, as that experienced by "the Heart of the world" -- and we understand that a work that communicates so full a joy must have been conceived in that sorrow.

Cardinal Henri de Lubac on the work of Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar

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"I called to the Lord, out of my distress,
Crucifixion Velaquez.jpgand he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, 'I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?'

The waters closed in over me, the deep was round about me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet thou didst bring up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to thee, into thy holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to thee; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!"
(Jonah 2:1-9)

There was darkness over the whole land...while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." [Luke 23:44b-46a]

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Crucifixion Weingarten Missal 13thc.jpgBut what Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the "going down into the pit" of the Old Testament, it became "being in paradise tomorrow". Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order "to be with the Lord" (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: "If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord" (Rom 14:8).

But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God "made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God's eyes" (2 Cor 5:21).

Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the "wonderful exchange" between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his "enemies" (Rom 5:10).

Resurrection Weyden.jpgCertainly God has the initiative in this reconciliation: he is the one who reconciles the world to himself in Christ. But one must not play this down (as famous theologians do) by saying that God is always the reconciled God anyway and merely manifests this state in a final way through the death of Christ. It is not clear how this could be the fitting and humanly intelligible form of such a manifestation.

No, the "wonderful exchange" on the Cross is the way by which God brings about reconciliation. It can only be a mutual reconciliation because God has long since been in a covenant with us. The mere forgiveness of God would not affect us in our alienation from God. Man must be represented in the making of the new treaty of peace, the "new and eternal covenant". He is represented because we have been taken over by the man Jesus Christ. When he "signs" this treaty in advance in the name of all of us, it suffices if we add our name under his now or, at the latest, when we die.

Of course, it would be meaningless to speak of the Cross without considering the other side, the Resurrection of the Crucified. "If Christ has not risen, then our preaching is nothing and also your faith is nothing; you are still in your sins and also those who have fallen asleep . . . are lost. If we are merely people who have put their whole hope in Christ in this life, then we are the most pitiful of all men" (I Cor 15:14, 17-19).

If one does away with the fact of the Resurrection, one also does away with the Cross, for both stand and fall together, and one would then have to find a new center for the whole message of the gospel. What would come to occupy this center is at best a mild father-god who is not affected by the terrible injustice in the world, or man in his morality and hope who must take care of his own redemption: "atheism in Christianity".

Hans Urs von Balthasar, A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen

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Maundy Thursday icon.jpgIt is customary to visit the special altars created for the reserved Eucharist after the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper, the birth of the holy priesthood and the giving of the Eucharist as the supreme gift Love to the Church. There we spend time in prayer for ourselves and for those we've promised to pray. Keeping watch is an act of love and penance with the goal of remaining close to the Lord. From time immemorial we learn how to keep vigil by making visits to three or seven nearby churches as a "mini-pilgrimage." Tradition tells us that Saint Philip Neri is credited with popularizing the Roman practice of a pilgrimage to seven churches to keep people attentive to the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, plus to keep them out of trouble. The point of this pious and noble exercise is to keep vigil with the Lord as the disciples tried to do so in the Garden of Gethsemani before the Lord's arrest. I will be visiting at least three perhaps seven churches. One can't always find the churches open into the night even on Holy Thursday.

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Qui, pridie quam pro nostra omniumque salute pateretur, hoc est hodie, accepit panem: [Who, the day before he suffered for the salvation of us and of all -- that is, today -- he took the bread:] these words we shall pray today in the Canon of the Mass. "Hoc est hodie" ["That is, today"] - the Liturgy of Holy Thursday places the word "today" into the text of the prayer, thereby emphasizing the particular dignity of this day. It was "today" that He did this: he gave himself to us for ever in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. This "today" is first and foremost the memorial of that first Paschal event. Yet it is something more. With the Canon, we enter into this "today". Our today comes into contact with his today. He does this now. With the word "today", the Church's Liturgy wants us to give great inner attention to the mystery of this day, to the words in which it is expressed. We therefore seek to listen in a new way to the institution narrative, in the form in which the Church has formulated it, on the basis of Scripture and in contemplation of the Lord himself.

Last Supper.jpgThe first thing to strike us is that the institution narrative is not an independent phrase, but it starts with a relative pronoun: qui pridie. This "qui" connects the entire narrative to the preceding section of the prayer, "let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord." In this way, the institution narrative is linked to the preceding prayer, to the entire Canon, and it too becomes a prayer. By no means is it merely an interpolated narrative, nor is it a case of an authoritative self-standing text that actually interrupts the prayer. It is a prayer. And only in the course of the prayer is the priestly act of consecration accomplished, which becomes transformation, transubstantiation of our gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. As she prays at this central moment, the Church is fully in tune with the event that took place in the Upper Room, when Jesus' action is described in the words: "gratias agens benedixit - he gave you thanks and praise". In this expression, the Roman liturgy has made two words out of the one Hebrew word berakha, which is rendered in Greek with the two terms eucharistĂ­a and eulogĂ­a. The Lord gives thanks. When we thank, we acknowledge that a certain thing is a gift that has come from another. The Lord gives thanks, and in so doing gives back to God the bread, "fruit of the earth and work of human hands", so as to receive it anew from him. Thanksgiving becomes blessing. The offering that we have placed in God's hands returns from him blessed and transformed. The Roman liturgy rightly interprets our praying at this sacred moment by means of the words: "through him, we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice". All this lies hidden within the word "eucharistia".

There is another aspect of the institution narrative cited in the Roman Canon on which we should reflect this evening. The praying Church gazes upon the hands and eyes of the Lord. It is as if she wants to observe him, to perceive the form of his praying and acting in that remarkable hour, she wants to encounter the figure of Jesus even, as it were, through the senses. "He took bread in his sacred hands ..." Let us look at those hands with which he healed men and women; the hands with which he blessed babies; the hands that he laid upon men; the hands that were nailed to the Cross and that forever bear the stigmata as signs of his readiness to die for love. Now we are commissioned to do what he did: to take bread in our hands so that through the Eucharistic Prayer it will be transformed. At our priestly ordination, our hands were anointed, so that they could become hands of blessing. Let us pray to the Lord that our hands will serve more and more to bring salvation, to bring blessing, to make his goodness present!

From the introduction to the Priestly Prayer of Jesus (cf. Jn 17:1), the Canon takes these words: "Looking up to heaven, to you his almighty Father ..." The Lord teaches us to raise our eyes, and especially our hearts. He teaches us to fix our gaze upwards, detaching it from the things of this world, to direct ourselves in prayer towards God and thus to raise ourselves. In a hymn from the Liturgy of the Hours, we ask the Lord to guard our eyes, so that they do not take in or cause to enter within us "vanitates" - vanities, nothings, that which is merely appearance. Let us pray that no evil will enter through our eyes, falsifying and tainting our very being. But we want to pray above all for eyes that see whatever is true, radiant and good; so that they become capable of seeing God's presence in the world. Let us pray that we will look upon the world with eyes of love, with the eyes of Jesus, recognizing our brothers and sisters who need our help, who are awaiting our word and our action.

Having given thanks and praise, the Lord then breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples. Breaking the bread is the act of the father of the family who looks after his children and gives them what they need for life. But it is also the act of hospitality with which the stranger, the guest, is received within the family and is given a share in its life. Dividing (dividere), sharing (condividere) brings about unity. Through sharing, communion is created. In the broken bread, the Lord distributes himself. The gesture of breaking also alludes mysteriously to his death, to the love that extends even to death. He distributes himself, the true "bread for the life of the world" (cf. Jn 6:51). The nourishment that man needs in his deepest self is communion with God himself. Giving thanks and praise, Jesus transforms the bread, he no longer gives earthly bread, but communion with himself. This transformation, though, seeks to be the start of the transformation of the world - into a world of resurrection, a world of God. Yes, it is about transformation - of the new man and the new world that find their origin in the bread that is consecrated, transformed, transubstantiated.

Mass.jpgWe said that breaking the bread is an act of communion, an act of uniting through sharing. Thus, in the act itself, the intimate nature of the Eucharist is already indicated: it is agape, it is love made corporeal. In the word "agape", the meanings of Eucharist and love intertwine. In Jesus' act of breaking the bread, the love that is shared has attained its most radical form: Jesus allows himself to be broken as living bread. In the bread that is distributed, we recognize the mystery of the grain of wheat that dies, and so bears fruit. We recognize the new multiplication of the loaves, which derives from the dying of the grain of wheat and will continue until the end of the world. At the same time, we see that the Eucharist can never be just a liturgical action. It is complete only if the liturgical agape then becomes love in daily life. In Christian worship, the two things become one - experiencing the Lord's love in the act of worship and fostering love for one's neighbour. At this hour, we ask the Lord for the grace to learn to live the mystery of the Eucharist ever more deeply, in such a way that the transformation of the world can begin to take place.

After the bread, Jesus takes the chalice of wine. The Roman Canon describes the chalice which the Lord gives to his disciples as "praeclarus calix" (the precious cup), thereby alluding to Psalm 23 [22], the Psalm which speaks of God as the Good Shepherd, the strong Shepherd. There we read these words: "You have prepared a banquet for me in the sight of my foes ... My cup is overflowing" - calix praeclarus. The Roman Canon interprets this passage from the Psalm as a prophecy that is fulfilled in the Eucharist: yes, the Lord does indeed prepare a banquet for us in the midst of the threats of this world, and he gives us the glorious chalice - the chalice of great joy, of the true feast, for which we all long - the chalice filled with the wine of his love. The chalice signifies the wedding-feast: now the "hour" has come to which the wedding-feast of Cana had mysteriously alluded. Yes indeed, the Eucharist is more than a meal, it is a wedding-feast. And this wedding is rooted in God's gift of himself even to death. In the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and in the Church's Canon, the solemn mystery of the wedding is concealed under the expression "novum Testamentum". This chalice is the new Testament - "the new Covenant in my blood", as Saint Paul presents the words of Jesus over the chalice in today's second reading (1 Cor 11:25). The Roman Canon adds: "of the new and everlasting covenant", in order to express the indissolubility of God's nuptial bond with humanity. The reason why older translations of the Bible do not say Covenant, but Testament, lies in the fact that this is no mere contract between two parties on the same level, but it brings into play the infinite distance between God and man. What we call the new and the ancient Covenant is not an agreement between two equal parties, but simply the gift of God who bequeaths to us his love - himself. Certainly, through this gift of his love, he transcends all distance and makes us truly his "partners" - the nuptial mystery of love is accomplished.

In order to understand profoundly what is taking place here, we must pay even greater attention to the words of the Bible and their original meaning. Scholars tell us that in those ancient times of which the histories of Israel's forefathers speak, to "ratify a Covenant" means "to enter with others into a bond based on blood or to welcome the other into one's own covenant fellowship and thus to enter into a communion of mutual rights and obligations". In this way, a real, if non-material form of consanguinity is established. The partners become in some way "brothers of the same flesh and the same bones". The covenant brings about a fellowship that means peace (cf. ThWNT II, 105-137). Can we now form at least an idea of what happened at the hour of the Last Supper, and what has been renewed ever since, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist? God, the living God, establishes a communion of peace with us, or to put it more strongly, he creates "consanguinity" between himself and us. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through the outpouring of his blood, we have been drawn into an utterly real consanguinity with Jesus and thus with God himself. The blood of Jesus is his love, in which divine life and human life have become one. Let us pray to the Lord, that we may come to understand ever more deeply the greatness of this mystery. Let us pray that in our innermost selves its transforming power will increase, so that we truly acquire consanguinity with Jesus, so that we are filled with his peace and grow in communion with one another.

Now, however, a further question arises. In the Upper Room, Christ gives his Body and Blood to the disciples, that is, he gives himself in the totality of his person. But can he do so? He is still physically present in their midst, he is standing in front of them! The answer is: at that hour, Jesus fulfils what he had previously proclaimed in the Good Shepherd discourse: "No one takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again ..." (Jn 10:18). No one can take his life from him: he lays it down by his own free decision. At that hour, he anticipates the crucifixion and resurrection. What is later to be fulfilled, as it were, physically in him, he already accomplishes in anticipation, in the freedom of his love. He gives his life and he takes it again in the resurrection, so as to be able to share it for ever.

Lord, today you give us your life, you give us yourself. Enter deeply within us with your love. Make us live in your "today". Make us instruments of your peace! Amen.

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About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. After years of study, work and trying to find meaning in life, he still has a sense of humor. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic lay ecclesial movement and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]



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This page is a archive of entries in the Sacred Triduum category from April 2009.

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