Holy Week is a time of unparalleled expression of the sacred, full of symbols, meaning and movement toward the most important celebration of the Church – Easter and the Resurrection of Christ. It is the reason for our hope and joy, but, in today’s world, the spirit and language of Easter seem to fade along with the lilies once Easter is over.
When we remember our Easter faith, we remember the hope and promises we have as Catholic Christians. When we hear and use the language of Easter – talk of waiting, of new life, of resurrection, triumph, and possibilities, we bring to mind the greatest love story ever told. But with the incalculable number of distractions and challenges that find their way into daily life, it can be difficult to stay focused on the Easter story and the faith lessons it conveys.
In a 1986 Angelus address during an apostolic journey to the Far East and Oceania, St. Pope John Paul II shared wisdom that included a now famous quote: “We do not pretend that life is all beauty. We are aware of darkness and sin, of poverty and pain. But we know Jesus has conquered sin and passed through his own pain to the glory of the Resurrection. And we live in the light of his Paschal Mystery – the mystery of his Death and Resurrection. ‘We are an Easter People and Alleluia is our song!’”
The challenge we face is remembering how to live as Easter people throughout the year.
In this year’s Easter message, Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., assures us, “Faith in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ expresses the conviction so profoundly that there is much more to life than what we see and feel in this world, that as good as this life may be, despite its challenges and difficult moments – despite its crosses – there is a better life to come because of the Resurrection of Christ.”
For many of us, there is a great need to focus on the Resurrection and the joy of Easter, especially when times are hard. For me, this has meant imagining Jesus as a man of joy. It seems unlikely that Jesus would have changed the world, with just 12 ordinary men as disciples, if there weren’t some element of joy in him – that deep, transforming quality that may not show itself in frivolity but lives root-deep in a person’s being.
I often imagine Jesus gathered with the Apostles around a fire, talking over the day’s events and their mission, while sharing a meal. I’m certain there was a lot of laughter and animated conversation, and maybe even dancing. They belonged with Jesus. The image encourages me to ask Jesus to share that experience of joy with me.
That image also brings to mind a good friend who shared with me her fond memories when, as a teen, she and her CYO friends went to Mass every morning of Holy Week. That immersion in their faith, their participation together, sharing breakfast afterward, reinforced her sense of Catholic identity and unity. There was an underlying joy in the experience of putting normal daily activities aside to practice their faith, bringing with it a sense of grace that is worth seeking daily.
St. Pope John Paul II stresses that “joy is demanding.” He proposes that we “are not looking for a shallow joy but rather a joy that comes from faith, that grows through unselfish love, that respects the ‘fundamental duty of love of neighbor, without which it would be unbecoming to speak of joy.’”
The days to come, the 50 days of the Easter season and beyond, provide us with the opportunity to be intentional in living the characteristics of Easter people, learned as we journeyed through Holy Week with Christ – courage, compassion, gratitude, generosity, prayer and sacrificial love – remembering Resurrection as the reason for accepting the demands of joy and singing our Alelluia’s throughout the year.
Living as Easter People
My lessons in courage come from Mary, who had the faith to say yes to God, without certainty of the future. She journeyed with Jesus no matter how painful it was and stood at the foot of his Cross, watching him die, never losing her faith in God’s promises. We take on Mary’s courage when we walk with someone on their journey, when we stand steadfast in our faith, and when we raise our children to know and love God, especially in a world, described by Pope Francis as no longer “able to lift its gaze towards God.” Read Mary’s Magnificat, Luke 1:46-55, for encouragement.
Compassion, a word that literally means “to suffer with,” is foundational to the Easter story. Christ suffered, died and rose from the dead to redeem us. He took on our sins and suffering so that we might have everlasting life.
As an Easter people, we are called to carry that compassion forward and transform our world through it. Impelled by Christ’s example, we need to extend compassion to every person, recognizing that we are brothers and sisters in one human family and must share one another’s burdens.
To do so requires that we reject the culture and language of polarization; ensuring that we speak with empathy and love even about those with whom we disagree. We can stand for our moral beliefs and take action on behalf of the vulnerable and victimized, focusing less on fighting an enemy and more on converting hearts. In the days to come, decide to pause and consider your words before responding to a situation. Consider how compassion might make a difference.
I recently read a wonderful description of gratitude as “the wardrobe of Easter.” The author reminds readers of St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” In the coming year, put on gratitude daily.
If we are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, to be his hands and feet in the world, then we must remember that his life and death were supreme acts of grace and generosity. Our generosity is not confined to charitable donations. Also important is a generosity of spirit which allows us to heal and renew relationships, forgive trespasses, love more fully, and listen with our ears and our hearts. Looking both inward and outward, take time every day to determine where our generosity is most needed.
If there’s anything we should have learned through Holy Week and Easter it is that Jesus’ love is selfless and sacrificial. We emulate that sacrificial love whenever we reach out to someone in need – whether it is a physical, spiritual or emotional need, recognizing that following Christ is truly counter-cultural and sometimes isolating. With today’s anti-religious sentiment, standing up for what we believe and proclaiming the need to respect every human life, from conception to natural death, may cost us in a number of ways. Pray for the courage to embrace sacrificial love whenever and wherever it’s needed.
In the book of Lamentations, Scripture assures us, “The Lord’s acts of mercy are not exhausted, his compassion is not spent; They are renewed each morning – great is your faithfulness!” Consider a new prayer practice, beginning with the dawn of every new day. St. Cyprian offers this meaningful advice: “There should be prayer in the morning so that the resurrection of the Lord may thus be celebrated.” Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours is a good place to start for personal prayer. Consider praying with others in a parish prayer group or establishing one, if one doesn’t already exist.