During Holy Week, whenever I walked through the sacristy at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, DC, I found myself surrounded by liturgical chaos! Our sacristy is actually more like a hallway with closets, and during those days it was crammed with “church stuff”: palms, crosses, bowls,
But back to the “liturgical chaos.” Our sacristans—the friars who are the behind-the-scenes guys who make it possible to have beautiful celebrations—preside over all the tangible things we use in prayer. Our Catholic faith is founded on the great truth that God chose to become enfleshed. And so, Catholic official prayer, the liturgy, as well as other devotions, involve things such as special clothing, the great signs used at Mass and the other liturgies: bread, wine, oil, water. And along with them, the many physical trappings which help the prayer carry meaning.
Let me give you three examples:
On Wednesday of Holy Week, we held the “Tenebrae” service. It’s a traditional devotion, not part of the official liturgy. It is built, however, on liturgy: the Liturgy of the Hours, the daily prayer of the Church, with psalms and readings. The theme is light and darkness. Candles are extinguished gradually, leading up to total darkness. A famous local chorale came to sing centuries-old music. Near the end of the prayer, as the lights went out, wooden clappers—and then the noise of hands pounding on the wooden pews—symbolized the earthquake which the Gospel story records as happening at the moment of Jesus’ death. It’s a powerful, auditory experience. Jesus, who loved his own to end, dies on the cross, and creation explodes in cosmic grief. A very human prayer leaves the participants shaking.
On Holy Thursday, the presider at the Mass reads the Gospel story of the Last Supper, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. I was the presider at the Mass that night. After my homily, I took off my outer vestment, put an apron around my waist and proceeded to wash the feet of 12 people. I wasn’t play-acting what Jesus did! Rather, I was performing a ritual which concretely expresses Jesus’ command that his followers act in loving service. For me, washing and drying someone’s feet is a powerful gesture. In doing so, my personal commitment to service as a priest is renewed.
The last example: at the great Easter Vigil Saturday night, our head sacristan, Brother Christopher, lit a big fire outside the front of the Monastery church. It burned brightly in the night. From the fire, Father Larry, our guardian (the head of our community) lit the new Easter candle. Then we friars processed into the church, with the rest of the congregation following. Little by little, light from the big candle spread to the small candles people were carrying. Soon, the whole church was ablaze with light. “Christ our light,” Fr. Larry sang. Again, we were acting in a very human gesture: We need light in the dark; we cannot see otherwise. Jesus is that light for us!
We friars worked pretty hard last week—especially our long-suffering sacristans, Brothers Max, Greg and Christopher. The presiders and confessors put in a lot of hours as well. But it was a time which Franciscans love.
St. Francis loved celebrating the liturgies of the Church. He understood deeply what it has meant that God became human. Our whole Franciscan story is rooted in that single truth. Our particular style of life is colored by it. And, in this time of the year—Holy Week and Easter—we follow Francis in the joyful living out of that truth in our celebrations!