Hoc est hodie — a reflection for Holy Week 2019
When our children were younger, my husband would sit on the floor between their bedroom doors at night, reading each volume of the Harry Potter series aloud as soon as it came into print, cover to cover. Over time I came to regard this as a significant parenting accomplishment. When each movie version appeared, he would muster up once more, faithfully getting the crew into the minivan in time for the 7 pm show and buying the popcorn. Catching an opening night was both chaotic and magical.
The ”Harry phenomenon” is on Broadway now, in a suitably marathon format. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is in two parts, each running in excess of two hours. Theatre-goers can see both on the same day, with a two-hour break for dinner, or they can view these on successive days or even a week apart. The movies are all online now: you can watch them anytime. But for the Broadway event, though you can schedule as you choose, you still have to show up.
And, as any host knows (Luke 14), getting people to show up has always been a challenge – one that is exacerbated in our own day of last-minute text plans, travel by Uber, and entertainment “on demand.” How to interrupt that for the intense temporality of the Easter Triduum? How to convey, as our parishes are full for Palm Sunday, that the community’s week has only begun, that Palm Sunday asks us to, with Jesus, set our GPS for Jerusalem?
The three-movement series of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil represent a single liturgical act, a single mystery into which we are plunged, coming up only briefly for air. We may go home at 10 pm on Thursday and fall into bed or at 6 pm on Friday for a dinner of lentil soup, but we are just stopping in. Leave your shoes on. Better yet, just sleep on the floor of the church lobby, ready for the next event, a candle burning down next to you until you jerk awake at daylight, stiff and out of sorts. You are between vigils.
In the parish celebration of the Triduum, the brokenness of Good Friday is a direct continuation of the breaking of bread on Holy Thursday. This pouring out starts with the offering of bread and wine; our reception of this turns us, as a community, toward the cross. After this, the great hush of Holy Saturday does not let us “get our brearings;” it opens us to a recognition that those bearings – our sense of self and position and ownership – were an illusion. Dwelling in that darkness, on a day that cannot be rushed, drives us, as evening falls, to gather at the fire of the Vigil, to hear the story of who we are.
Emerging from a theatre, we recognize that we have been in “theatre-time.” We look around, we blink. Do you have the keys? Where did we leave the car? Do you think that restaurant is still open? Wait, what day is it?
It is today.
How do we effectively convey this sense of temporality to our parish communities? Christians are living in a culture that is both immediate and asynchronous; we are always “on” and yet always “streaming,” with multiple message strands open right now, even as we reply to email queries from yesterday or last month. Meanwhile, in the online portion of my class, students are responding to one another at all times of day (probably at the same time that they are viewing the second season of a sitcom from the nineties). We have both heightened expectations for the present moment and, simultaneously, a ready availability to “being elsewhere” in an immersive and attention-captivating way. A popular meme this past year has featured a young man walking one way holding hands with a young woman, who looks at him in dismay as his head swivels to watch another woman walking by. This is the story of attention in our day. Our attention span isn’t necessarily “shorter.” We simply have more options, and they are constantly tugging at us.
Creating a liturgical environment that will speak to today’s Christians, that will draw them into the sweep of these days, is a challenge – their attention is divided; unplugging for even a few hours, each day, over three days, may seem impractical. Yet we have much to offer, as the Triduum presents us with an extraordinary palette of ritual language and symbols, organized in concert to bring the worshiping community into the salvific presence of God, into the heart of the movement of Christ’s passion. How can we marshal these resources so that they bring us together in prayer, but also sustain the action over the Triduum’s duration? Having attended part 1, will the congregation be compelled to return for part 2?
Effective ritual, we know, always has this vectoral quality: it points beyond itself; it issues in mission. But there is also an inner beat, a logic to its temporality, in the repeated attentions of the one washing feet, in the litany of saints, in the deliberative pace of the thurifer. It happens in real time and space – the only way in which our redemption happens – it cannot be rushed or postponed or compressed. The saving act of the Triduum, in its extended kairotic “today,” isn’t an “episode:” it can’t be binge-watched, we can’t click through the advertising. It is, rather, an invitation into the here-and-now presence of Christ, through an action that is “once, for all” yet eternally “today.”
Communicating this will require very clear sign posts – only some of which will be words. Gathering for the Holy Thursday celebration, the parish community should hear a welcome that extends to the entirety of the Triduum. There needs to be a sense that the community is gathering, a sense that recognizes that some have done this for years and others are new (and not just those preparing for baptism or confirmation). All are welcome, yes, but this party has an agenda.
¡Presente! People coming into these liturgies need a sense of the action, a sense that their presence is noted. A subdued tone is easily heard as an invitation to isolation. (Indeed, simply shushing the crowd as a way to communicate the solemnity of these services is not helpful.) We are sober, we are watchful, we are open. Something is about to happen, something that should not be disguised by insider-talk. We need to deliver a sense of the narrative motion rather than the theological rationale. Words of invitation must be simple and integrated with the disposition and actions of the assembly. The liturgical feast set before us is not a travelogue, nor even a multi-part Broadway play; it is an event that directly engages heaven and earth. A few carefully chosen words could effectively set the stage, after which we get out of the way.
Hoc est hodie. The day is today, a day made bright in the light of Christ, a day that never ends.