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Conversation with Luke Coppen
A conversation about the drama of Holy Week. You can find the full text on The Pillar website.
After the somber stillness of Lent, the Church explodes into action in Holy Week. Major events whizz by: Palm Sunday, the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Good Friday — and suddenly we’re standing in an illuminated church at the Easter Vigil. How do we make sense of this great liturgical onrush? How can we prepare ourselves and what should we look out for? The Pillar asked Bishop Erik Varden, the Trappist monk who serves as Prelate of Trondheim in Norway. In an email interview, he reflects on the awesome journey from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.
Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday. The name refers to Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And yet the long Gospel reading at Mass that day takes us far beyond that event, describing Jesus’ Passion and death. Why does the Church tell the whole story (barring the Resurrection) straight away, all at once?
Basically, the Church tries to get us to live within the whole story all the time, to go beyond a merely linear conception of time. To follow the liturgy is to develop a capacity for synchronicity, the closest we get, this side of eternity, to an experience of living beyond time.
Think of the Midnight Mass at Christmas. One has just heard the Gospel of the Nativity. The priest has given a jolly little sermon. Then, all of a sudden, the manger is overshadowed by Calvary: “On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread…” The Babe of Bethlehem is the Lamb of God.
The mind boggles at this, which is why the Church in all sorts of ways lets us see that, if we stay imprisoned in our merely experiential notions, we’ll miss the point, because we’ll reduce God to our story instead of growing into his. During Holy Week we’re constantly challenged to understand, and live, each individual part in view of the whole.
Sometimes Holy Week seems almost too rich in meaning, too overwhelming to properly appreciate. What’s the best thing to focus on as we observe it?
Isn’t the best thing to do not to make too many plans? Simply to walk through Holy Week step by step, as we do when we pray the Stations of the Cross, being intensely present before each. To pray while we walk, “Lord, open my eyes, my heart to what I need to see.” Then to be attentive.
Some Catholics like to watch a particular film in Holy Week, such as The Passion of the Christ, or listen to a piece of music like Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Is art helpful at this point, or should we be devoting all our free time to prayer?
I think art can be a form of prayer. Not all art. But the examples you list qualify. I always listen, if I can, to the St. Matthew Passion in the evening of Good Friday.
It is a work of such depth that anything I’d say about it would sound superficial. But for me, an essential part is the bass recitative right at the end, Am Abend, da es kühle war. It puts the unbearable intensity of all that precedes it into perspective. And gives us here and now, in the circumstances that are ours, a hermeneutical key to existence. It tells us that everything, even sin, can be made to serve God’s plan if we let it.
Do you remember that line in Psalm 76, “The wrath of men shall praise thee”? The Church lets us sing that Psalm at Vigils during the Triduum. Those words always bowl me over. Even wrath can become praise.
After Palm Sunday comes Holy Monday, which is associated variously with Jesus cursing the fig tree, cleansing the Temple, and responding to questions about his authority. Is this day significant, or is it just marking time before the main events of Holy Week?
Everything is significant. The incomparable St. Ephrem the Syrian (a Doctor, let’s not forget, of the Latin Church) has a wonderful perspective on the cursing of the fig tree. By letting it wither, he submits, the Lord lets us see that it has fulfilled its providential function.
Adam and Eve, remember, covered themselves with fig leaves after the fall, to hide the nakedness of which they were ashamed. In a moment Christ, in his salvific sacrifice, will restore to humankind the Robe of Glory we forfeited through sin, so we’ll have no more need to hide, to cover ourselves with matter.
There’s a parable in this which, at the beginning of Holy Week, we can use to examine ourselves. What are the masks and disguises I put on? What are the subterfuges by which I conceal the truth of myself, which in fact stand in the way of my becoming that which, by grace, I have the potential to become? So every detail of the Scriptural and liturgical narrative merits attention. Every detail speaks to us.
St. Seraphim of Sarov expounded this parable in the light of the gift of the Spirit. The goal of Christian existence, he would say, is to acquire the Holy Spirit. The relative quantity of oil in the Virgins’ lamps wasn’t a measure of accomplishment or moral virtue, but of their configuration to the Spirit.
We all received the Spirit at baptism — unknowingly if we were baptized as infants; then we said “yes” to the Spirit at Confirmation, resolving to be its vessels. In each Mass, in a second epiclesis, as it were, the Spirit is called down on the assembly with the prayer that they might become one spirit, one body.
On the threshold of Easter, it matters to ask: Do I fully live as a member of Christ’s Body? If I’ve separated myself from it by my decisions or actions, it’s a good time to make reparation, to seek forgiveness.
The word” sympathy” fundamentally means “suffering-with.” To suffer with Judas makes sense. I dare say many of us will be able to think back on betrayals we’ve committed, betrayals that seemed to us like the end of the world.
Where I’d step back from modern trends would be in their tendency to explain betrayals away, to rationalize them. The example of Judas reminds me that there is another way. The prospect of infidelity, in all its sadness, summons me to be faithful. That’s what matters.
The Sacred Triduum was traditionally marked by the service of Tenebrae, in which a series of candles was gradually extinguished, followed by a strepitus, or loud noise, in the almost total darkness of the church. What do you think of efforts to revive this service?
I think they’re excellent, and I can think of places in which there is no need to revive Tenebrae because it has never ceased. We shall have Tenebrae in the cathedral here in Trondheim, though at 8 a.m., not at night, and minus the strepitus — I am not sure it is possible in our cultural setting to enact this sign, in itself meaningful, with spontaneous earnestness, without it coming to seem like a bit of a joke. That may be otherwise elsewhere.
In any case, the liturgy of Holy Week uses a host of sensory means to make us appreciate just how vast is the reality in which we are graced to participate. They’re intended to let the message penetrate under our skin. And still manage to do just that.
Holy Thursday has two services: the Chrism Mass and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The Chrism Mass has an ancient pedigree and is considered one of the most important liturgies of the year. Why does it take place just before the Triduum?
In the Chrism Mass, the sacred oils used for the Church’s anointing are blessed and consecrated. Included is the chrism used for ordination. So the custom — a beautiful custom — has developed of gathering the diocesan clergy on this day, to make explicit the unity of the presbyterate around the bishop and to give thanks for the gift of priesthood.
There is a topical link between this celebration and the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, one of whose aspects is the institution of the Eucharist and of ministerial priesthood.
Then there’s the fact that the oils convey the soothing, healing, transformative power of grace springing from the sacrifice of Calvary and from the Lord’s holy Resurrection. To bless and consecrate the oils during Holy Week reminds us of the Paschal character of all grace — to which none of us has a claim, but which all of us are invited to receive by professing, and living out, the Church’s Easter faith.
When I was becoming a Catholic, I was struck by a friend’s awestruck description of the Triduum. She said that my first experience of it would be unforgettable. She was right. Why do you think it’s so powerful?
Partly because it is such an all-encompassing experience, touching us at many levels. Primarily, though, because it is real.
The Carthusians have the motto, Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: “While the world turns, the cross stands firm.” During the Triduum, we sense and vaguely understand this. We intuit that yes, this is what it’s all about; this is what makes sense of everything else. We see that it’s our being part of the Church that lends this perception its strength. The whole Body, of which we are members, kneels in adoration. That cannot but be an impressive, life-changing experience.
Pope Francis has taken a distinctive approach to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. Instead of washing the feet of priests in St. Peter’s Basilica, he has gone out to prisons and migrant centers. He has included women and Muslims in his foot-washing ceremonies. Do you think this has helped to shed new light on Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper?
I think it has. But the old light is also important. I don’t think we need to oppose one to the other. The rite has gone through a long history of evolution, from being a domestic service in the households of prelates, with the noises and smells of episcopal kitchens not far away, to becoming a liturgical rite.
The formalization of a gesture does not necessarily make it less real; it is a way of expressing the gesture’s universality. These days we’re focused on inclusion, on not leaving anyone out, which is not in itself a bad idea, but risks being limiting, in as much as our focus is on ourselves.
What matters, though, is to grasp what God is doing. I recently discovered a phrase from the correspondence of Don Primo Mazzolari, something written to him by a person far from the Church: “I am tempted to shout in your ears: But do you understand what you are doing? Perhaps you’ve never really understood it: this action (God kneeling down, as a servant, before his creature) turns absolutely everything upside down, and you turn it into a harmless ritual?”
The real criterion of inclusion is not whether the community of which I feel a part is having its particular feet washed, but this: Do I realize the extent to which Christ has humbled himself for my sake? And do I live according to Christ’s example?
You have said that on Good Friday, ‘the Cross commands our full attention.’ What do we learn about the Cross that day?
We contemplate it first as an instrument of death, a demeaning object of torture; then as the symbol of victory. The transition is made when, after the reading of the Passion, the cross is carried onto the sanctuary in solemn procession and we kneel before it singing the Hagios: “Holy God, holy immortal, holy and strong, have mercy on us.”
We are part, then, of an enacted paradigm shift, enabled to glimpse the truth of what St. John speaks of — that the Cross, whose torment is unbearably present, is nonetheless an epiphany of glory. Faced with these realities, we cannot say much. But if we enter fully into the rite, our eyes, outward and inward, are opened.
The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is an extraordinary sensory experience, from the Easter fire to the illumination of the church with the ringing of bells, to the chanting of the Exsultet. Why does the Church pull out all the stops at this point?
Why shouldn’t it? If ever all the stops are called for, it is during this night, when no human expression is equal to what God accomplishes. It is wonderful. We shouldn’t lose a single aspect of the method the Church, that incomparable pedagogue, has worked out how to open us to wonder.
You’ve said that ‘Easter changes everything.’ How does it do this?
There’s a scene in Sigrid Undset’s conversion novel The Wild Orchid I think of often. It describes the book’s protagonist, Paul Selmer, entering St. Olav’s cathedral in Oslo very late one night, after an evening ill spent. He considers himself an agnostic but is informed about Catholic beliefs, being the lodger of a Catholic family.
Sitting alone in the dark, he sees the sanctuary light flicker in the distance. It suddenly occurs to him: if this tiny flame tells the truth, that is, if God is truly present here, then life needs to be rethought entirely; then nothing is the way he’d previously thought it might be.
Easter is what enables this perception. It proclaims that what we think of as defining our lives — transience, death, any number of wounds — is not, in fact, final; that there is a balm in Gilead healing us now and effectively obliterating all that seems to sabotage joy. Well, then reality is transformed, wouldn’t you say? We find ourselves stepping into a wholly new dimension of being, if we’ve the guts for it, and the love.