Last Saturday, I drove to rural southwestern Michigan to bury my grandmother. Although I had conducted her funeral a few weeks before at the Episcopal parish her great-great grandmother had help to found, we had been obliged to delay the burial because snowbanks had barred access to the gravesite. I tossed clumps of still-frozen ground onto the coffin, "earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and recited prayers in the King James English my Grandma Kib would have found familiar--the Lord's Prayer, the Benedictus, the commital. I was aware as I watched family and friends bundled against the cold--some praying, all grieving--of the enduring relevance of the Church to the deepest moments of human experience, despite frequent claims to the contrary. We waited for the casket, encased in its concrete shell mounted with a cross, to be lowered into the ground before dispersing. Burials are about closure, finality, no going back. Then, we all returned to the land of the living and had lunch, sharing our favorite stories of the lady to whom we had just offered our final goodbyes.
The next day, I entered Holy Week, palm frond in hand. I went to confession, dodged the unanticipated hail during the procession down the block, and confected the Sacrament at the altar with my brother and sister priests. Later that day, I rehearsed the Exsultet for the Great Vigil of Easter and emailed a couple that I am marrying on the Saturday after Easter. Colleagues at work on Monday began to comment, "this is your big week, right? to which I usually responded, "it's already begun." But the truth is that Holy Week is not a priest's or even a Christian's big week, even though it is a bit of an endurance test. Sure, there is that juggernaut of liturgies known at the Holy Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. And then the Easter Sunday High Mass, which at Atonement, includes an orchestra playing to a packed house.
BUT Holy Week is really an invitation to a holy life. What a lot of people miss is that Christianity is meant to be a lifestyle, a pattern of living that shapes identity and faith out of an accumulation of little moments, whether we are in church every Sunday or only come at Christmas and Easter. As a priest, these little moments are often explicit: presiding at a burial, a wedding, and the Eucharist; reciting the Daily Office; meeting with my spiritual director and confessor; offering comfort to a person in distress. They are meaningful in isolation from each other, but they also have a cumulative effect, a significance and a relevance that add up to be more than the sum of the parts. These moments reinforce singly and together the values and commitments we make as Christians. Holy Week enacts a story, a single narrative, that integrates all of our little moments into the larger chronicle of human redemption and salvation by a loving God. The text of the Exsultet, which the Church sings at the Great Vigil of Easter, encapsulates this story well. It puts into perspective and brings into relief the bread and butter of human experience: birth and growth, suffering and struggle, love and commitment, life and death. What could be more relevant than that?
Abundant blessings for a solemn Holy Week and a deeply holy life,