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A reflection on Holy Week – Were you there?

The Negro spiritual “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” often brings out great emotion when it is mournfully sung. The song asks the hearer if they were present when the Lord Jesus was nailed to the tree, pierced in the side, laid in the tomb; if the listener was present for all the events of Christ’s Passion. The singer simply announces that each of the events causes him to “tremble, tremble, tremble.”

This is the perfect question to ask as the Church enters another Holy Week: were you there? This is not about fulfilling days of obligation or observances of the overly pious. Do the events of Holy Thursday (the Last Supper), Good Friday (Christ’s death on the Cross) and Holy Saturday (waiting as Jesus is in the tomb) cause you to tremble? Is this week different from all other weeks? Are we willing to lay aside our worldly commitments, obligations and agendas to focus entirely on Jesus, Who gave up everything for us? Do we tremble at the thought that: had Jesus not died and rose, we could not enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Think of that! No matter how clever or rich or beautiful we are, we could not go to Heaven if Jesus had not redeemed us! What are we willing to do to demonstrate our gratitude to Jesus, the innocent One, Who died on behalf of the guilty – that’s me!?

Let’s face it: in most families, Holy Week will not be spent with Bible readings in the living room. Most of us won’t take the initiative to make the Stations of the Cross by ourselves. The Church’s liturgy does all that for us. Through a host of signs, symbols, prayers, hymns and silence, we really do find ourselves walking with Jesus every step of the way through His Passion. The joy of bells accompanying the Gloria at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, the strangeness of the Blessed Sacrament being moved to the Repository, the stripping of the altar on Good Friday, these and so many other things help us to commemorate Jesus’ death and resurrection. This is the week to ask ourselves what we really believe. Does this faith shape our lives or is it just a religious frosting we slather on the outside of life – but it never gets inside?

This reflection is not to beat up on anyone for their religious practice. It is, however, intended to make us think more seriously about what matters in our lives. On Good Friday the parking lot at the mall and Target and Walmart will all be full, but the parking lots of churches won’t be. Why? So many people will come to church on Easter Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection – but they weren’t there on Good Friday when He died. Why? Then again, there were so few people who saw the Star and heard the angels on Christmas night. There were so few people who went to the empty tomb on that first Easter morning. Maybe the “norm” really is just a few faithful people who have been called, not because they were so special, but because they heard God summoning them in the depths of their hearts. Maybe the teeming crowds are a bit deceptive after all.

On Easter Sunday afternoon, after the dinner is done and all the eggs have been found, ask yourself one simple question: Were you there?

And if you were: Rejoice!