Lenten Reflections: Triduum Sanctum, The 3 Holy Days Of Easter
Perhaps the primordial mothering presence of the divine has always served as a promise to us, a scattered people, some nameless source or beginningless breath that is truly inside of us, making up a part of our souls, stirring the cauldron of our inspiration and threading together our sagas into a tapestry.
And so, with our newly awakened consciousness and newly developed vocal chords, we sang of the powers of nature and the strength of the Spirit in which all things were mystically enfolded. We spoke of the animals and the trees as our kindred. We used our hands to paint images upon the walls of caves and chisel the first letters into stone. We beat drums in unison with the vibrations of the earth and our own heartbeats. We built monuments to the movements of the sun and followed the beam of light. We remembered our adventures, honored our heroes, and sought out the meaning of the universe. Soon we began to weave our epic mythologies, create our words, forming in black against tan, ink upon parchment, the stark symbols of life.
We honored an unknown ancient magic that governed the world, both in the laws of nature and in natural law, even though our judgments remained clouded and we saw through a glass but dimly. We acknowledged a universal order, with each law built upon a deeper one, the interwoven essence of reality that makes all of nature an enchanted realm, turning like a wheel every year, mirroring the cycle of our mortal lives. We put flowers upon graves, holding onto the hope that the soul remained whole and unbroken in spite of material decay. Mere physicality was both unthinkable and unbearable to the human psyche, and reality was viewed as a never-ending journey peeling open, layer by layer.
Each culture that developed had its own belief in the beyond. We humans have engaged in centuries of muddled moral meandering, staggering through the darkness of our own souls, taking two steps forward, then one step back over and over again. Still, we kept striving for the stars, struggling up different sides of the same mountain by the midnight moon.
Each had a different emphasis. For the Celts, it was nature-based mysticism; for the Greeks, it was logic-based philosophy; for the Romans, order-based civilization; for the Jews, it was the covenant-based Law. There were countless manifestations, some which cross over and intersect, all seeking after divine communion and the fitness of things. And through it all, the power of stories continued to sustain a journeying world.
From a Christian perspective, Jesus Christ is the personified pinnacle of these collective yearnings from the heart of the human experience. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Christ can even be seen as the synthesis of all the noble archetypes within mythology as a whole. He is the Green Man, king of the wood, who the Celts heralded as the masculine energy that assumed rulership after the winter’s reign; He is a Warrior of the Rainbow, unifier of tribes, who Native Americans prophesied would band together all peoples in brotherhood and justice; He is Bacchus, god of consecrated food and drink, whom the Greco-Romans toasted for His blessings of wine and mirth and who sits both at feast and sacrificial table, and who will pour himself out all crimson, paying the radical price of love, only to be restored through the sacred heart that is left behind.
But in the most deep-rooted sense, He is the embodiment of Elohim, the Great “I AM” speaking to Moses from the Burning Bush and who the psalmist calls a shepherd leading us to green pastures and still waters to restore our souls. The Christian faith owes its greatest debt to the Jewish people and their relational encounter with the divine. For all its rough-hewn harshness in ancient times, we find our hope sprung forth from the stem of Jesse, and our milk and honey flowing forth from their rock. They are the ones upon whose face the Lord shone in graciousness when they were led out of slavery in the land of Egypt, and they are the ones to whom the Messiah was promised and within whom the Savior was nurtured.
Jesus Christ, in all his physicality and upbringing, was a Jew, a son of Abraham, and His mother Mary, called blessed among all women, was a daughter of Israel. He was endowed with Jewish physicality and instilled with Jewish sensibility. He grew up reciting their prayers, celebrating their feasts, and abiding by the Law of Moses. Their languages were on His tongue and their songs on His lips. It was in the context of their messianic prophecies that He came to see His own transforming and fulfilling mission. His teachings were imbued with their ironic humor, paradoxical wisdom, depth of resilience, passionate temperament, understanding of communal responsibility, and the immediacy of their faith in their God. Spiritually, we are all Semites, and as such we believe that we are the match-makers between heaven and earth. The impossible may yet happen, for the Lord our God is with us wherever we go. Jewish theologian Michael Wyschogrod makes comment:
The Church decided that in Jesus there was God, more so than in other people who are also created in God’s image. This man, this Jew, this servant, this despised, crucified Jew, was not just human but in him could be detected the presence of God. The Church held fast to this belief because it held fast to this Jew, to his flesh in which God was present, incarnated, penetrating the world of humanity, becoming human. The Church found God in this Jewish flesh. Perhaps this was possible because God is in all Jewish flesh, because it is the flesh of the covenant, the flesh of a people to whom God has attached himself…
Thus people were taught the Word of God through the words of man, often stammering and struggling, violent, subversive, raw, and beautiful all at the same time, the story of a nation searching for their Lord and King. What was heard was rarely spoken as anything but a shadow of the reality, often evading the heart of contemplation or true comprehension. They sought out answers by asking questions, so customary to the rabbinic tradition. Yet the mortal striving after the immortal has always been an imperfect necessity for spiritual growth, and they kept faith with that destiny, that responsibility to be a light to the nations, to incarnate the presence of God in a special way on the face of the earth. The prophesies they safeguarded were complex, unwinding like the workings of nature, ordered to a purpose, yet in ways few might expect.
The Christ Mystery emerges from this groundwork and overflows from the cup of paradox. According to this understanding, the Great Magician who formulates the rhyme and reason behind time and space, through Whom all things hold together, chooses to penetrate creation and take up the nature of a creature, yes, of a newborn shivering in the straw, laid in a feeding troth in a shepherd’s cave, where lambs for temple sacrifices would be birthed and swaddled. When stands as iron and water like a stone, a star shines overhead and the elements are all reborn as the Christological unfolding reaches it point of perfection. The poet Malcolm Guite reflects:
Everything holds together. Everything. From stars that pierce the dark like living sparks, to secret seeds that open every spring, from spanning galaxies to spinning quarks, everything holds together and coheres, unfolding from the center whence it came. And now, that hidden heart of things appears, the first-born of creation takes a name. And shall I see the one through whom I am? Shall I behold the one for whom I’m made, the light in light, the flame within the flame, Eikon tou theou, image of my God? He comes, a little child to bless my sight, that I may come to him for life and light.
But things are not as we would plan them. Where we would expect wealth, we find poverty. Where we expect security, we find want. Where we would expect to be dazzled, we find ourselves humbled. Where we expect privilege, we find disenfranchisement. Where we would expect a palace, we find a stable for His resting place. When we would expect a lofty stranger, we find the commonplace face of our neighbor. Where we would expect a queen to bear Him, we find a peasant girl “handmaiden of the Lord” from Nazareth…and how often have city dwellers haughtily scoffed, “What good ever came out of Nazareth?”
And yet it is this mother, this most highly favored lady, with all the strength of Judith, the courage of Esther, and the faith of Ruth who has the clairvoyance to recognize it is the Lord who “puts down the mighty from their thrones, and exalts the humble.” Just as with David the shepherd boy, also born in Bethlehem, “The House of Bread”, God judges not by appearances, but by the heart, and sword-wielding giants will be conquered by children with five small stones and a sling. Enemy walls will crumble by marching around them, and the blast of trumpets will bring them down. Oceans will be torn open by the raising of a staff, and crash back upon the charioteers of the oppressor. All this, too, is a particularly Jewish inheritance. Christian author Marcus J. Borg puts this into perspective:
Jesus was from the peasant class…His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories…He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life. There was a sociopolitical passion to him…he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, for whom God was an experiential reality…Jesus was an ambiguous figure–you could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dangerous threat–or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.
And it was His destiny to lay bare the hearts of humanity, from the time of his youth, when he causes the scribes at the Temple of Jerusalem to marvel over his understanding, to the time of his return to that same Temple, turning of the tables of the money changers and releasing all the doves. He will minister to a conquered nation that expects the arrival of an earthly messiah, a zealot liberator to expel the invaders and restore the earthly power of their fathers. And yet when their dreams of a temporal champion are shattered when He refuses to be made an earthly king, and makes clear that “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,” He will be rejected like the proverbial cornerstone.
When He challenges the norms of His age and breaks the boundaries of His society to sit at a table with outcasts and heal on the Sabbath, the Pharisees will judge the present by the past, unable to pour new wine into old wine skins, choosing to follow ancient maps over the new road signs planted in their path. When He challenges the hypocrisy of the religious establishment and the corruption of the temple courts, He will be transformed into the Man of Sorrows, “despised and rejected, a man of suffering acquainted with grief.”
This judgment will set into motion a series of events that will become the center point of historical memory. It will bring about the culmination of our “happy fault,” born from a marriage of individual autonomy and divine guidance. The ancient prophesies find their fulfillment through people with free will, granted them from the beginning, with the foreknowledge of what would come to pass, yes, a knowledge held in the center of the Trinitarian circle from before the beginning, a knowing it would end in divine death before the first light shot through the darkness. It is a knowing said to have caused the fall of Lucifer, who would not serve a Lord of Life willing to sacrifice all lordliness, and even life itself, to redeem mere mortal creatures. It is knit into the fable of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his own beloved son for God, the symbol of all his physicality and worldly binding, yet now the tables are turned on God’s own Son.
The story of Easter is what J.R.R. Tolkien called the “True Myth,” linked to all other timeless tales by that ingredient of Eucatastrophe, a sudden, joyous turn that reverses the greatest of catastrophes. However, though containing these elements of classic works of literature, the Passion narrative transcends any mythology and stands apart from them as a haunting hall of mirrors in which we can all see our soiled faces and twisted natures staring back at us from beyond the glass. While myths deal with archetypal realities, set in the realm of “once upon a time,” the retelling of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is rooted in history in a way that transformed through experience and sent martyrs to their deaths for the dense historical reality of it all. “Those who claim the gospel writers are mythic simply haven’t read many myths,” said C.S. Lewis. “The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.”
This story of the Triduum is profoundly human, in the sense that we cannot deny, for we have all experienced aspects of it in our own lives. It is no fantasy; it is no game; it rings with painful authenticity that pierces the soul. Every Holy Week we are called back to this living reality, remembering it, putting back together separate parts. Yes, that is at the heart of it. We are here to have the sail of our inner selves sewn up again, to mend the tear, even as the curtain of separation is itself separated, dissolving like a shadow. We are here to be haunted by the timelessness of the sacramental mystery of redemption, which touches all aspects of existence, and makes all things new.
“This was the crucifixion on the mountain,” Dylan Thomas wrote. “Time’s nerve in vinegar, the gallow grave. As tarred with blood as the bright thorns I wept.”
Yes, and we should all weep in our lives, for tears may be salvific if they save us from stony isolation. For when we cry, we are never truly alone, nor cut off from the healing to be found on the timeless Way of the Cross, which is all in all. In this we might follow the footsteps of a saintly abbess and wonder-worker that founded a Christian monastery on the site of the previous pagan shrine to the goddess Brighid, and became the leader of a group of consecrated virgins who tended an eternal flame in Kildare. She is best known for the unique cross design which legend says she wove out of rushes as she sat at the bedside of a dying Irish chieftain and told him the story of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, and earned the title “Mary of the Gaels” for her mystical experience of traveling through time and space to serve as a midwife to the Blessed Virgin Mary and suckle the infant Christ Child.
Perhaps there lies a grace at the center of us all which enables us to traverse such boundaries as well, and be truly present to the unfolding epiphany if only we surrender ourselves to it in each of its unique phases in the memorials of Holy Week. Holy Thursday sets the table to welcome the guest into the mystery of giving and suffusion of self. Good Friday finds itself the truly crucial, crucible space of time when the mystery of abandonment is writ raw and death ravishes us with the shocking intensity of a spring storm. Holy Saturday is the space between the notes of a symphony, the intermission between acts, and the mystery of the quiet purgatory that is interior grief, which no explanation will soothe. And Easter is perhaps the most mysterious of all, as we taste the first fruits of a reality sleeping within us yet to be brought to full fruition for the coming harvest of grapes and grain for the wedding feast.
And yet it is a story not just for Holy Week, but for every day of the year, for it speaks to the depths of the human condition and the simplicity of love on the far side of the complexity of death. And our lives our sustained and transformed by this very thing that Dante called “the love that moves the sun and all the other stars.” Triduum Sacrum, the divine dance of three in history, mystery, and majesty, is ever before us, if only we will enter into it.
So we are called; so we shall follow…