Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Leaving the Desert

Holy Week is one of our family's favorite times of the year, with all of its beautiful liturgies, traditions and prayers. In his Palm Sunday homily, Pope Benedict encourages the faithful to begin Holy Week by entering deeper into our relationship with Christ.

"Who is Jesus of Nazareth for us? What idea do we have of the Messiah, what idea do we have of God? It is a crucial question, one we cannot avoid, not least because during this very week we are called to follow our King who chooses the Cross as his throne. We are called to follow a Messiah who promises us, not a facile earthly happiness, but the happiness of heaven, divine beatitude. So we must ask ourselves: what are our true expectations? What are our deepest desires, with which we have come here today to celebrate Palm Sunday and to begin our celebration of Holy Week?"

Keeping these questions before us is always a good idea, but especially during Holy Week preparations. Seasonal activities can have the danger of closing in on themselves, of becoming simply a task that we check off the holiday to-do list. As traditions and customs become less and less common, and as the focus becomes more and more on convenience, it seems that this danger becomes even more present.

How can we keep Christ at the center of our Holy Week activities? For our family, playing a recording of Scripture being read aloud or beautiful chant is a simple way to maintain mindfulness of why we do what we do during Holy Week. Handel's Messiah or Bach's St. Matthew Passion are some of our other favorites. Taking time throughout the day to read a short Psalm or say a prayer is another way to focus Holy Week.

There are so many Holy Week traditions that it's hard to know where to start. Here are five of our family favorites:

1. Spring Cleaning

Holy Week in Seville, by Jose Jimenez y Arinda
Traditionally, the first three days of Holy Week were dedicated to rigorous spring cleaning. According to A Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs:

"According to an ancient tradition, the three days after Palm Sunday are devoted in many countries to a thorough cleaning of the house, the most vigorous of the whole year. Carpets, couches, armchairs, and mattresses are carried into the open and every speck of dust beaten out of them. Women scrub and wax floors and furniture, change curtains, wash windows; the home is buzzing with activity. No time is wasted on the usual kitchen work; the meals are very casual and light. On Wednesday night everything has to be back in place, glossy and shining, ready for the great feast. In Poland and other Slavic countries people also decorate their homes with green plants and artificial flowers made of colored paper carrying out ancient designs. This traditional spring cleaning is, of course, to make the home as neat as possible for the greatest holidays of the year, a custom taken over from the ancient Jewish practice of a ritual cleansing and sweeping of the whole house as prescribed in preparation for the Feast of Passover. "

And of course, spiritual spring cleaning is also in order during Holy Week. Most Catholic churches provide Confessions on several days during Holy Week.

2. The Seder Meal

Apparently the Catholic Seder Meal is a bit controversial. We've had one ever since the first year we were married and always look forward to it. Some people argue that it's historically inaccurate to have a Seder meal, or that it is disrespectful to our Jewish brothers and sisters. We find that it is both a helpful way to enter into the Holy Thursday liturgy (we always have the Seder right before the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper) and a beautiful avenue to consider our Lord's own Jewish traditions. We really like the ceremony from the Women for Faith and Family website.

3. Gardening

"The Agony in the Garden," Hans Leonhard Schaufelein
Good Friday is a traditional gardening day. According to Catholic Traditions in the Garden, by Ann Ball, Europeans used to plant parsley after returning home from church on Good Friday, since they believed that it had to descend into hell three times before it would sprout (hence the long germination period). Potatoes were a popular Good Friday plant in Ireland. According to Ball's book, potatoes were viewed with extreme scrutiny by many cultures because they aren't mentioned in the Bible. Apparently the Scottish were particularly prone to potato suspicion: "...the Scots refused to eat them as late as 1728. The Irish found a way around this by planting them on Good Friday and sprinkling the soil  liberally with holy water." We've also come across some other gardening ideas on the internet, like planting a Holy Week garden with symbolic plants like palm, figs, olives, Easter lilies and bleeding heart.

4. Baking

Easter wouldn't be complete without a bit of baking. Traditional Easter breads often featured eggs, which were off-limits during Lent. Practically every European country has its own version of Easter bread. This year we're going to try a Czechoslovakian bread called babovka. You can find the recipe (and many more) here.

"Baking Easter Bread" by William Kurelek

 5. Dying Easter Eggs

Traditionally, Easter eggs were dyed red to signify Easter joy, according to New Advent.  Someday we would love to make the beautiful Ukrainian pysanka.  For now we plan to dye our eggs with basic materials like beets, cabbage, turmeric, coffee grounds, onion skins and tea. You can find a great tutorial here.

To conclude, here's a nice prayer we found to say in the evenings during Holy Week. A Blessed Holy Week to everyone!

Family Evening Prayer for Holy Week

Mother or child: (From the words of Pope Pius XII On the Sacred Liturgy) Dearly beloved, in Holy Week, when the most bitter sufferings of Jesus Christ are put before us by the liturgy, the Church invites us to come to Calvary and follow in the blood-stained footsteps of the divine Redeemer, to carry the Cross willingly with him, to reproduce in our hearts his spirit of expiation and atonement, and to die together with him.

Father: We ought to glory in the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ
Family: in whom is our salvation, life and resurrection.

Father: Let us pray. All-powerful, eternal God, you have chosen to give mankind a model of humility; our Savior took on our flesh, and subjected himself to the Cross. Grant us the grace to preserve faithfully the lessons he has given us in his Passion and to have a share in his resurrection. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Family: Amen. Favor this dwelling, Lord, with your presence. Far from it repulse all the wiles of Satan. Your holy angels—let them live here, to keep us in peace. And may your blessing remain always upon us. This we ask of you through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son.

Father: Let us bless the Lord

Family: Thanks be to God.
Father: May the almighty and merciful Lord, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, bless and keep us.  

Family: Amen.

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