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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

The astonishing power of Holy Week

For billions of Catholics and Christians all around the world, Holy Week marks the destination we arrive at when the 40 days of Lent come to an end. Holy week: The week with Palm Sunday that ends just seven days later with Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the core story has never really changed over the course of 2,000 years, the dynamics of Jesus’ suffering and passion never fail to reveal new insights. Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem with admiration from the masses, and just five days later, he was arrested and condemned to die in front of those same masses. Jesus’s Passion has always given me a lot to reflect on, and two examples from the Gospels always give me cause to do just this. 

Matthew 26:36-46

Then, Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took along Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to feel sorrow and distress. Then, he said to them, “My soul is sorrowful even to death. Remain here and keep watch with me.” He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” When he returned to his disciples he found them asleep. He said to Peter, “So you could not keep watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Withdrawing a second time, he prayed again, “My Father, if it is not possible that this cup pass without my drinking it, your will be done!” Then, he returned once more and found them asleep, for they could not keep their eyes open. He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again. Then, he returned to his disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand when the Son of Man is to be handed over to sinners. Get up, let us go. Look, my betrayer is at hand.”

After Jesus dined with the disciples at the Last Supper, he took several of them to the Garden of Gethsemane, hours before his arrest. And we see that it is in the Garden that the disciples routinely fail to answer Jesus’ plea for solidarity and friendship as he anticipates his greatest hours of suffering and betrayal. In the Gospels, this is the first time we see Jesus suffering vividly, in agony over his pending death and sacrifice. And through this suffering, Jesus prays to his Father, pleading for a pink slip in his coming role to grant humanity everlasting life. And while his agony continues, his friends continuously fail him, falling asleep three times in the Garden after Jesus had asked them to stay awake. 

This part of the Gospel marks a rare occurrence: We, as people, can both relate to the disciples of Christ and Jesus himself simultaneously. How many times have we been asked to do something we didn’t want to do? How many times has it broken us to say yes? How many times have we failed to say yes? How many times have we as friends failed to stand with the people we love? How have we failed to keep watch?

This suffering is real in so many ways, and we can learn to channel suffering into trust, by praying to God as Jesus does in this Gospel. 

 Luke 23:32, 39-43

“Now two others, both criminals, were led away with him to be executed … Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’ The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly; for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’ Then, he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

In this section of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has been crucified as his time on Earth draws closer to its end. Historically, crucifixion at the height of the Roman empire was reserved for the lowest of the low: slaves, enemies of the state and other people of interest whose deaths could set an example for the rest of the population. After crucifixion, the Romans would leave bodies on the cross to decompose, furthering the message for any and all who might follow. So, it might be an understatement to say that Jesus was crucified between two common criminals. These criminals were most certainly outcasts in the way the Romans wanted them to be, and one of them lives up to his billing.

“Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us?” this criminal jeered at Jesus.

But the other criminal, that same supposed outcast, had a much different tone. This man is St. Dismas, the penitent thief. 

St. Dismas, whose feast day was celebrated on March 25, is a perfect saint to reflect on during this Lenten season. Sentenced to a gruesome death on the cross, Dismas comes to grips with his situation and defends Jesus while searching for mercy. Dismas understands the outcome of his actions and comes to take responsibility for what he has done. However, just because we take responsibility and bear our punishment, does not mean we cannot be forgiven.

Dismas’s contrition ultimately saves him, as Jesus responds, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Every time I hear this quote, I get chills. When I was younger, I definitely responded to this like “That’s all it took to make it Heaven? And I still have to wear a collared shirt and corduroys to Mass?”

But now, I see. 

Oscar Wilde, the famous 19th-century Irish poet who himself was a deathbed convert to Catholicism, once said that all saints have a past and all sinners have a future. Saint Dismas is a shining example of this and demonstrates that it’s not about what we’ve done, but it’s about where we want to go. There is a reason that St. Dismas is the only person in the New Testament not named Jesus or Mary whose Heavenly reception is recorded in writing. This penitent thief not only shows the reach of divine justice, but of divine mercy as well. This ultimate awareness of personal sin, repentance of sin and acceptance of Jesus Christ and salvation give us a blueprint to act, not only in the short term, but in the long term as well.

God Bless, and have a blessed Triduum.

Stephen Viz is a one-year MBA candidate and graduate of Holy Cross College. Hailing from Orland Park, Illinois, his columns are all trains of thoughts, and he can be found at either Decio Cafe or in Mendoza. He can be reached at sviz@nd.edu or on Twitter at @StephenViz.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.