Posts Tagged ‘Holy Week’


Sitting at the Table of the Lord

It’s a fact that somebody went to a lot of trouble to set up the Last Supper.  As the gospels make clear, Jesus and his disciples did not just pop into a restaurant, sit down and order off the menu.  No, they were from out-of-town, and somebody needed to find and reserve a room suitable for at least thirteen.  Then someone had to set the table and arrange the room, order decent food and wine, and see to it that the evening went well.

The organizers likely had high hopes, but not everything went according to plan.  It was not a relaxed evening with friends, because tension began to percolate through the room.  It surfaced as a few realized this might be their last meal with Jesus.  One in their number had come into the room with treason in his heart, and he left early.  And for his part, Jesus knew what was about to happen.  This was supposed to be a sacred meal, but it was anything but serene.  So it had to be a big disappointment for those who had worked so hard to make it a success.

6E0BE8B2-38E2-42E4-BA03-75DE9D4E7898I mention this because of all the things that we monks have to do to prepare for Holy Week.  We may make it look easy, but contrary to popular belief, it’s not all peace and serenity.  For one thing, there’s a ton of work that takes place in the sacristy and church.  There’s hours of practice for cantors, choirs and musicians.  There are also rehearsals for the liturgy and sermons to be written.  Then there’s the refectory, where somebody has to plan out several days of special meals.  In short, for a lot of monks Holy Week stretches both patience and charity, and it’s easy for the work to sideline the sacred.

This brings to mind the evening when Mary and Martha hosted Jesus for dinner.  The gospel text suggests that Martha did the heavy lifting at that dinner, while Mary made the most of the chance to visit with Jesus.  The fact that Jesus gave his personal nod to Mary suggests to me that the discussion likely took a turn toward the intense after Jesus went home.  We’ll never know, of course, but it’s fun to speculate.

9865D3CF-F2E4-4853-BE56-0AF7F8AC9BDAI’ve naturally thought of Martha and Mary as polar opposites, representing those who value work more highly than the chance for human interaction.  It’s a nice thought, but I suspect it’s better to accept the fact that both Martha and Mary are resident within each of us, and each of us feels the tension once in a while.  Each of us, for instance, has work that we absolutely must do;  but there are times when our devotion to duty can sap the joy from life.  That, I think, is what concerns Jesus as he warns not only Martha and Mary, but us as well.

Work certainly is part of life, and in the monastery the work of Holy Week can easily sideline what should be a deeply religious experience.  For one thing, work can leave us too exhausted to appreciate what’s really going on.  But attention to detail can also shove aside the religious experience that is the whole point of Holy Week.

Of course this isn’t just about Holy Week.  It’s about life.  Work we will always have with us, but if we allow work to blind us to the joys of life then it’s time to get a grip on ourselves.  That, I think, is at the core of Jesus’ message.  Jesus came to give us life, not to enoucourage us to smother our best energy in the tasks that fill our everyday routines.  Work we have to do, but we should always remember the preference we should give to sitting with the Lord and his friends at the table of life.  It’s ours for the asking, so let’s make sure we make a reservation at that table this Holy Week.


+On 24 March the Arboretum hosted the first of its two-Saturday Maple Syrup festival.  Some 500 people helped to gather sap and learn about making maple syrup.

+On 25 March I attended the Saint John’s Preparatory School’s production of Les Miserables.  The musical was staged at the Paramount Theater in St. Cloud, and the students performed amazingly well.

+In last week’s post I wrote about a box sent from my office to Florida, where I waited fruitlessly for it.  Instead of in Florida, it turned up in New Jersey, and we asked the Post Office to return it to Minnesota.    That was where I left the story last week.  This week we discovered that they forwarded it to Florida anyway, despite the fact that I was no longer there.  The office in Naples alerted us, and once again we asked that they return it to Minnesota.  It arrived in record time — two days — and the contents were a shattered and jumbled mess.

+The photos in today’s post illustrate the Palm Sunday liturgy, which began in the Great Hall with the blessing of the palms, and then continued into the abbey church.  As one photo indicates, we are still blessed with the persistence of piles of snow.


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IMG_1272The Terms of the Covenant

There’s no denying that we live in a culture that worships at the altar of rugged individualism.  Given that frame of mind, what are we supposed to do with the covenant that God and Abraham made, which Genesis succinctly describes?  How could one man possibly commit generations of his descendants to an agreement in which they had no say?  Was there no wiggle room for his children and grandchildren — to say nothing of all of his descendants to the thousandth generation?  And if even one person had the nerve to walk away from the covenant, was that the end of the deal for everybody?  Was the pact annulled from that day forward?

Had Abraham’s commitment been binding on all of his offspring, then the failure of one might have invalidated the whole thing.  Had that been the case, the story would have ended with Abraham, and the Bible would have been a lot shorter than it is.  Meanwhile, the other party to the agreement — God — could have wandered off in search of a more loyal flock.

Fortunately it didn’t work out that way, and Genesis gave way to Exodus and so on down the line through to the Book of Revelation.  Throughout all this, generations of individuals came to terms with the implications of the covenant.  Some followed it, and some did not.  But the covenant endured, and the biblical narrative continues beyond Abraham and tells the story of all those successes and failures.

In the first grade we used as our religion textbook a short book with the rather focused title of Jesus and I.  Ever since then I’ve been tempted to think of my relationship with God in rather exclusive terms — something strictly between me and God.  How things were going between me and God was nobody else’s business; just as someone else’s religious situation was none of my affair.

IMG_0061_2In time I did grow beyond this slightly warped view.  My viewpoint began to change as I realized that the “Jesus and I” relationship was a necessary first step, but it was not the goal.  I began to understand that I have to respond to the call of Jesus to live with and in him, but that’s only the start.  Life in Christ necessarily takes into account the people with whom I make my earthly pilgrimage to God.  Frail and prone to failure as we all might be, we are still in this together, like it or not.

As much as I may resent that Abraham dragged me into his covenant without consulting me, I do have to give him credit for reminding me and everybody else of the social dimension of the covenant.  We may make it with God, but we live it out with one another.  We weave the covenant into our friendships and into our marriage commitments.  And for those of us who have chosen to make vows in a monastery, it permeates our lives together.  As a result, the monastery can never be just a residence hall where we as rugged individuals go about our business.  We commit ourselves to seek the presence of God and to get a glimmer of God in one another.

Holy Week presents us with the chance both to renew and to participate in the covenant.  Of course there’s nothing wrong with praying in solitude.  But imagine a Holy Week schedule that catered to individual tastes.  So the schedule on the monastery bulletin board might read thus:  “Br. Edwin will celebrate the liturgy of the Lord’s passion at 3:00 pm.  Fr. Rudolf will do it at 3:47 pm.  Fr. Peter will celebrate it at 10:45 am.  Br. George will celebrate it at a time yet to be determined, if and when he gets to it.  Reservations are highly recommended.”  Then add one hundred more entries, and you get an idea of the chaos that would ensue in my own community.  Inevitably that would say more about the dysfunction in a community than it would about any belief in the saving action of Jesus Christ.

IMG_1292So it is that monks and other Christians don’t celebrate the Triduum as solitary pilgrims, at their individual convenience.  Rather, we gather together as friends and spouses and families.  We monks even go to the trouble of lining up and then processing in together, and that’s not just to insure there’ll be only one official starting time for everybody.  We do it so that we can begin each service in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit — together.

There is in this a certain irony of course, because whether we are monks or members of a congregation, our decision to be there is quite personal.  Once gathered, however, we belong to each other and to the Lord.  We’ve gathered as friends, family and as a community of monks to search for God, together.  And together, in a renewal of the covenant, the object of our search becomes tangible.  We truly seek and experience the risen Lord.

Palm Sunday 003Notes

+On April 6th I was the celebrant for the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and for me it was a personal accomplishment.  It was the first time to be celebrant since I pulled my back several weeks ago, and I managed to stand up without a walker or cane.  Nor was there any mishap on the steps.  I continue to make progress on my back and am grateful to all those who have offered their prayers.

+Every now and again I am reminded of just how long I have been at Saint John’s.  Last Saturday I had dinner with one of my very first students, and the previous week I had met his son for lunch.  His son is a senior at Saint John’s University and will graduate in May.  From my own perspective I do not think of them as father and son, since I have not known them that way.  Rather, they are individual friends of mine.  The second son will be a freshman at Saint John’s this fall, so I will add a third friend to the mix.

+The first three photos in today’s post show items from the Cloisters Museum in New York.  At top is a Palmesel (Palm Donkey, 15th-century, German), which was pulled in Palm Sunday processions in many German-speaking villages until the Reformation saw the practice fade away.  Below that is a silver-gilt chalice, made in Northern Europe in 1222.  It is among the few signed works of the time; and the inscription on the base — “Bertinus me fecit” — identifies Brother Bertinus as the maker.  Next is a lindenwood Pietá, made in Germany ca. 1440.  The Calvary is by the contemporary artist Gerald Bonnet, and it hangs on a wall outside of the chapter house at Saint John’s.  At bottom is the crucifix in the Abbey refectory.  The mural was painted by Br. Clement in the 1930s.


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IMG_0113_2The Bible’s in Our Bones

Several years ago I ran across a story about Temple Emanuel in New York.  The congregation had commissioned a new Torah scroll, and the leaders had decided to make it something that everyone could participate in.  Rather than isolate the scribe in his studio, however, synagogue officials invited people to put their hand on the scribe’s shoulder as he carefully put quill to vellum to create the Hebrew letters.

To no one’s surprise but that of the scribe, this turned out to be a deeply moving experience, and many of the participants burst into tears.  Naturally this irritated the scribe to no end, until he finally realized what was happening.  For him the creation of a Torah scroll was both a sacred ritual and a job.  But for first-time observers this was the awesome realization that in one brief moment they were helping to create a book that had created them a people.  How could they react in any other way than to be touched to the core of their being?

I’ve recounted this story often over the years because it reminds us that Christians too are biblical people.  As a monk I’ve read and recited the scriptures every day for years, and the scriptures continue to seep into my bones.  And the same is true for other Christians — be they believers or even those who struggle with belief.

IMG_0029In a few days we are going to repeat an exercise that Christians have done for centuries.  We are going to gather for Holy Week services and we are going to listen.  Specifically, we are going to listen once more to the word of God which continues to shape us as God’s people.

Not a few people look at Holy Week services as some sort of marathon to be survived.  Others dread what seem to be the overly-long and far-too-many readings from scripture.  Still others search out churches that have abbreviated both the services and the readings.  Of course I’m among the first to admit that some communities do not do these services well, and there’s no denying that the latter can seem long and tedious.

Still, it’s important to hear these readings as they are meant to be heard, and we must hear all of them, in their entirety.  For one thing, they recount for us the course of salvation history.  But of even greater import, they remind us of who we are as Christians, what we believe, and why we believe what we believe.  In short, these passages have created and formed us as God’s people, and we owe it to ourselves to hear these texts at least once a year.

IMG_0225_2The annual sequence of readings begins with the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, but the climax comes with the readings at the Easter Vigil.  That evening we begin with Genesis, progress through the Old Testament, and then it culminates with the proclamation of the resurrection.  And what’s the point of all this?  Well, it’s not just meant to jog our memories about dusty passages that we may have forgotten in the course of the last year.  Rather, the point is deeply profound, and it’s meant to stir in our bones.

There’s no space to recount all of the readings, but in Genesis we can pick up the spirit of what this is all about.  The point of that text is not to give some hour-by-hour account of how God created the heavens and the earth.  In fact I’ve always considered the details of how God did that to be God’s private business, which he best shares with physicists and other interested parties.  More to the point for me was God’s habit of standing back to survey creation, and at that moment God saw that it was good.  Beyond that, God did not bring us into being simply because there were molecules left over.  God created us in the divine image, and God created us for a purpose.

IMG_0011_2This gets to the heart of what the Holy Week services are all about.  They are not meant to be exercises in tedium.  Rather, in them the biblical texts press home the point that we are noble and beautiful creatures, and we believe that there is purpose in our lives.  We are meant to be more than consumers of manufactured goods and contributors to the gross domestic product.  Instead, our mission is to share eternal life with God, and that conviction should shape our every waking hour.

The readings of Holy Week form us as biblical people, and that’s why we owe it to ourselves to listen intently.  Of course some readers will read more eloquently than others, but perhaps those who stumble over the words are symbolic of the occasional struggles we all have.  But the important point is this:  these texts shape us, and in them we experience the guiding hand of God who shepherds us along.

As Christians we live and move and have our being in these texts.  So this year, as was the case last year, it’s definitely worth the effort to show up and listen once more to what God has to say.  Who knows how God might reward us for our attention; but we’ll never know unless we go.


+This was a busy week, and it begin with a day of reflection that I gave to the area members of the Order of Malta in Cincinnati, on March 9th.

+On March 10th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to the monks of Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC.  I have to confess that it was a delightful evening and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the monks.

+On March 12th I gave a retreat day on the Year of Mercy to the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle.  I have given days of reflection to members in Seattle on several occasions, and it is always a pleasure to see them once again.  In the course of time they have become good friends.

IMG_0058_2+At Saint John’s monks and a large number of volunteers have begun the annual ritual of making maple syrup.  This year they have put in some 1,500 taps on the trees, and they are hoping that it does not get too warm too soon.  For this to work the temperatures have to fall below freezing at night and climb above freezing during the day.  Collecting the sap is its own reward, simply because the cool crisp air is exhilarating.

+Life always has its interesting moments, as was the case with producing this particular blog post.  I had left some of the work until the morning of publication, but unfortunately the electricity went off just as I sat down to finish.  This explains the tardy publication.

+The photos in today’s post include two hard-carved medieval items from The Louvre Museum in Paris, as well as four pieces from The National Gallery in Washington, DC.

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Rejoice in the Risen Lord

Holy Week and Easter are a little like being on trips that other people have planned.  Others have thought it through.  Others have done all the work.  Others have brought keen anticipation that allows them to savor the whole experience, and so it means a great deal to them.

Those of us who were along for the ride may not have shared in the intensity.  For us it may have been interesting and at times even moving.  But it has not been the deep spiritual experience that it has been for others.  We weren’t expecting nearly so much, because our questions have yet to be formulated.  We don’t need answers quite so urgently, at least for now.

During Holy Week I heard from two friends who brought special intensity to the Triduum. Each had endured much in their lives, and I knew that they would have a much different experience of Holy Week than I.  One wrote to say that his wife of seventy years had just died, after years of declining health.  I had called on them only two weeks before, and two things had struck me during our visit.  First, after all those years they were still deeply in love.  And the second was equally poignant.  She was at last ready to take the next step in life, and he was at last ready to let her go.  It was time, and they were serene in their acceptance.

The other message came from a friend who had watched a son slip away in his prime.  With a life filled with promise, there seemed to be no point to his passing.  No parent expects to go through that, and few of us have at our fingertips the emotional reserve to endure such pain.  This friend wrote to say that at last she could empathize with what Mary suffered at the foot of the cross.  Surely the cross was not what Mary had hoped for when she raised Jesus.  Jesus had great promise; he in fact was the promised one.  Surely it could not lead to such a terrible and meaningless death.  What could possibly prepare any parent for such a thing?  How do you get through it?

The Descent from the Cross, Canterbury Cathedral.

In the early centuries of Christianity, those to be baptized did not know what to anticipate at the Easter Vigil.  They went through the awe-inspiring ritual with no dress rehearsal — all sight unseen.  Only during the next week did the bishop sit down with them to explain the meaning of what they had experienced.  Only after reflection did they finally come to appreciate what it meant.  Only then could they internalize an experience that was unique to each.  What had been a mystery still remained a mystery, but it was now their mystery.  They had participated in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I know my two friends were far better prepared than I for Holy Week, because each had been forced to give up someone important in their lives.  Just like Mary, who had nourished and treasured her son, they finally had to let go of people who meant the world to them.  And like Mary once did, they are learning that loss does not mean the end.  It can lead to transformation.

On a personal level Good Friday is a reminder that tough times come to us all.  But acceptance of this suffering is more than mere resignation to the inevitable.  Good Friday is letting go of all the things in life that you no longer can control.  As much as you might like to hold on to things as they always were, you know you can’t.  As much as you would like to hold tightly to people as they used to be, you know you won’t.

But the transformation begins as you come to terms with that.  You begin to die to self when you let go and at the same time cherish as gifts those great experiences you were allowed to have — even if for a short time.  However,  Easter is still to come.

Just as the disciples had no idea what to expect after the death of Jesus, so we usually have no idea that transformation can and will come to us too.  And that is the message of Easter.

Easter is opening ourselves to all the new gifts that God will plop down in our laps.  Easter is the discovery that God has all kinds of plans for us — still.  Easter is a reminder that we each have unfinished business in our lives.  All the things we could not deal with before now await our loving attention.  All the people we failed to notice before now await our loving energy.   New life awaits, and if we reach for it, our own resurrection will come.

That is one way to participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  He died and rose for us all, so that we might die and rise again.  The important thing is that we do it soon, well in advance of our final death and resurrection.

Meanwhile, my two friends have had their own Good Friday’s.  They have stood with Mary and shared her trials, and now too they have an idea of what resurrection means.  I just hope that they will be standing by me when it is finally my turn to have my own Good Friday.  I could benefit from their wisdom — and from their experience of the resurrection.

Saint Thomas and the Risen Lord, Canterbury Cathedral.

Personal Notes

+On April 2nd I delivered a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible at Friendship Village in Edina, MN.

+On April 3rd I delivered a lecture at the Library at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, KS.  The occasion was the formal presentation of a Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible to the Special Collections Department.

+From April 5th through 8th I hosted Fra Carl Noelke, KJ, of San Francisco, while he did a three-day retreat in the Abbey Guesthouse.  Fra Carl is in temporary vows, preparing to become a Knight of Justice in the Order of Malta.

Abbey Cemetery at Dawn.

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