Sunday, March 28, 2010

Letting Go To Keep

Palm Sunday. And so Holy Week begins again.

My first real full-fledged experience with Holy Week began in my first year in seminary, in 1952. The liturgy of the palm blessing, the joyous procession, the singing of the Passion in parts, the simple Eucharist, all so enveloped me that I felt no longer that I was a spectator, but a participant. I was captivated by the somber and dramatic celebration of Tenebrae, with sung Psalms and Lessons, on Wednesday in Holy Week; touched to the heart by the Maundy Thursday washing of feet and Eucharist, followed by the unsettling stripping of the altar and sanctuary down to the last moveable object; enveloped in a sea of sorrow throughout the stark liturgy of Good Friday: with the ministers' quiet entrance and prostration, shoeless, before the altar; the poignant singing of Solemn Collects; the veneration of the cross which brought us to an oh-so-personal level of realization; and the simple receiving of Christ's Body and Blood. Then, the pièce de résistance: the Great Vigil of Easter. The striking of the flint for new fire; the solid and stately Paschal candle, leading us ever deeper into the darkness which amazingly became more and more illuminated because of other candles being lit from the Paschal candle. "The light of Christ." "Thanks be to God." And finally a burst of light from every lamp in the church and every candle on the altar! Ever since that time tears flow easily at hearing the glorious Exsultet sung, in Latin or in English! "Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels...Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth...Rejoice and be glad now, Mother Church...This is the night, when all who believe in Christ are delivered...and restored to grace and holiness of life...This is the night, when Christ...rose victorious from the grave..."

Just at the time I was experiencing this for the first time, The Rev. Dr. Pius Parsch (1884-1954), a native of Moravia, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Canon Regular of St. Augustine, began publishing a five-volume commentary, entitled The Church's Year of Grace. Parsch's given name was John Bruno, but he was given the name Pius when he entered the community of Canons Regular at Klosterneuburg Abbey. He became one of the most significant figures in the Liturgical Movement, publishing the results of his fresh liturgical scholarship in popularly accessible books in German, some of which were translated into English: The Liturgy of the Mass (1940), The Breviary Explained (1952), and The Church's Year of Grace (1953). I was lucky enough to have been exposed to the Year of Grace early on.

Fr. Parsch had many wonderful theological and liturgical insights, many of which still, unfortunately, haven't filtered down into the popular mind. Regarding Holy Week, he says: "The greatest and holiest of weeks is about to begin. We should not call it a week of mourning, for Cross and resurrection are inseparable...The liturgy does not make this week one of sorrowful lamentation or tearful sympathizing with our suffering Lord. That was the medieval approach. No, through the whole week there runs a note of victory and joy, a realization that Christ's sacred passion was a prerequisite to Easter glory. We cannot understand the Church's liturgy unless we keep this in mind..."

Palm Sunday is a good example. In the Liturgy of the Palms, we celebrate Christ, the victorious king of glory. We pray in that liturgy: "...that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [he] has given us life and immortality..."; and "...grant that we...may ever hail him as our King, and follow him...who...reigns in glory..." For this part of the liturgy the liturgical color is a rich, scarlet red. We bear festive palm branches and demonstrate visibly, through song and procession, our joy and pride in our leader, Jesus, the King of Glory.

In the Liturgy of the Passion Eucharist, we celebrate Jesus, emptying himself, even to death, death on a cross. In this liturgy we pray: "...whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified..."; and "...Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection..." Here the festive red gives way to Lenten purple. The mood shifts as we take part in the solemn and sobering reading of the Lord's Passion and death.

Some time back, I read this in a publication called The Daybook: A Contemplative Journal:

Spring is never easy. She can’t seem to make up her mind, one day balmy and the next drizzly, one day anxious for summer’s fields...She lives by fits and starts, delays, and pronounced mood swings...

The only way to live spring is to let her be, to allow her to pass through us. When we are young a certain degree of flexing ourselves against life is proper. How else can we learn our own strength? But resistance is unbecoming in the mature. Rage against the coming of the night only leaves us empty and spent! Little is ever wrenched from life by force. When we give up battling, we find what we are looking for....What we really want can only be ours when we stop grasping for it. If we stop the struggle, what we want comes one day almost uninvited...We pound away on the anvil of our thoughts in hopes of an answer, but it is not until we let go the struggle that the answer comes...

Ultimately spring teaches us that to fight against what
is is foolishness. When the cherry blossom falls and you suddenly realize that you only have so many days to be with the one you love, fall with the petal. Love is in the falling, not the staying. The life we desperately want comes to us when we cease clutching it...We can only have each other as we let each other go...

Jesus let go. He “
fell with the petal”. This is what Palm Sunday is all about. “...He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross. Therefore, God [also] highly exalted him...
The life we desperately want comes to us when we cease clutching it.

The humbling of Jesus doesn’t refer so much to his Incarnation, but to his voluntarily serving others, to the point of death, without any assurance that what he did would be vindicated or justified. Jesus bids us to live our version of abasement and exaltation, of “
letting go to keep”. You and I are called to honor others by becoming as a servant to them, to become obedient even to the point of inconvenience, mistrust, or, perhaps, ridicule.

Without this, we may celebrate the mystery of Jesus‘ death and resurrection this week, but we’ll never understand it. Julian of Norwich remind us: “
God gives joy freely as it pleases him, and sometimes he allows us to be in sorrow, and both come from his love.” In one of her other showings Jesus says to Julian: “Since I have set right the greatest of harms, it is my will that I shall set right everything which is less.

In our lives the joy of Easter resurrection lies ahead of us and it is real. But there must first be the dying, the humbling, the letting-go: even as it was for Jesus. There must be, as Julian says, “the Passion of our Lord as comfort to us against the purging pain caused by our sins...He comforts readily and sweetly with his words, and says: ‘But all shall be well, and every kind of thing shall be well...'

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