Holy week is an intense and thrilling time of the year. I have a very specific affection for it. Growing up, I went to many a Easter Sunday service but the rest of Holy week didn’t really register. It wasn’t until I went to college and got introduced to a little place called Dehon that I found the importance of the other days too. Set in the countryside outside of Chester Dehon was a youth retreat centre for Catholics run by the Scared Heart Fathers. I got to go because I went to a Catholic sixth form college. I went to a school organised retreat and loved it. I’d found my spiritual home. So when I heard about the Easter retreats I knew I had to go.
We started on a Wednesday night with ice breaking and reunions and fun and laughter then Maundy Thursday was when it all started. Every night we prepared a service between the dozens of teenagers who attended (plus a few older hangers on. I think I was 22/23 when I visited my last Easter retreat) taking a specific part each. Each service was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Full of creativity and life.
Maundy Thusday would end in the Pax room (wood lined, filled with huge cushions, a place for prayer and relaxation) with folliage and plants around, made to give us the feeling of being in the Garden of Gethsemene. They’d bring the host through in it’s little house (I can’t remember all the terms.) and we’d sit and watch for an hour with Jesus.It seemed like the least we could do, considering.. It was tough. Sleep was a rarely enjoyed commodity on the Easter retreats and it was late in the evening when we watched. We all struggled with that urge to nod off. It made it real to me, the story I’d read and heard so many times.
Good Friday was an incredibly intense day. We’d split into our groups and focus on our part of the mass. One team would prepare prayers and would cover all the icons (statues, crosses etc) with blankets and hide them away. The majority of people would be involved in the passion play, a retelling of the Good Friday events, and another group would work on the veneration of the cross section of the mass. That was my favourite group.
I remember one year vividly. It was 1996. We pulled the huge, rough, wooden cross out onto the front garden. It was a gloriously sunny day. The cross was huge, used in the passion play and properly rough and beat up. Not smooth and gleaming like the others in the chapel. We started by getting folks to write down something they were sorry for on a piece of paper. To fold it up.
I then read out this poem:
full of splinters
a nail here,
a nail there.
Splashes of blood
shed in love
Bring your hurts
Nail then to the cross,
rough and harsh
feel the pain
see the blood
sense the fear
but don’t give up.
He didn’t die
I wrote it especially for the veneration of the cross. Now, if you don’t know what that entails I’ll tell you. It’s often misconstrued as worshiping the cross. It isn’t. It’s about recognising the importance of the cross. How without it, without Jesus death, there would be no Easter Sunday Resurrection. Often people kiss the cross, kneel before it and kiss it. I have done that and it’s very moving. I felt like I was thanking Jesus for his sacrifice, like I was there with him. Saying I was with him. We didn’t do that on this particular Good Friday, though.
We had a couple of hammers and lots nails. Every person there took their piece of paper and nailed it to the cross. I can still hear the noise now. The harsh metal on metal snap and the deeper reverberance of the nail tip piercing the wood.We were silent, the sun beat down and the birds tweeted. It was incredibly poignant. We were nailing Jesus to that cross with our sins. It was loud and grueling.
When everyone had nailed their sins to the cross,the group of us who were preparing the veneration picked up the cross. It was heavy and it took 6 of us to carry it. The leader walked ahead of us beating out a rhythm on the drum. We sang these words
I remember how heavy it felt, how it dug into my shoulder uncomfortably. That was carrying it with 5 other people and without being whipped and beaten. How much heavier must it have weighed for Jesus.
Another year I wrote a poem from the point of view of Mary.
I remember him, my little boy. As good as gold he was. The birth, however now THAT was a nightmare. I won’t be forgetting that smelly stable in a hurry! We did have some nice visitors, though, brought him some lovely gifts they did. Not awfully practical but much appreciated. It was nice to see others recognising how special my little boy really was.
Do you remember that time he went missing in Jerusalem? We searched high and low for him and we eventually found the little tyke in the temple with the priests. Oh, I told him off for that one alright.
My little boy grew up with his father’s trade and he was a pretty good carpenter too. Then he started doing all these miracles, water into wine and the rest of it. He left home then to wander from town to town, village to village with his friends and followers. He was really popular for a while. My son, a superstar.
And now look. He’s being killed as, as a criminal. He never did anything wrong, never. My boy, my son, my gift from God. How can this be happening? It’s not fair, he did nothing wrong. NOTHING. My son’s here dying and they freed a murder. They let a hard—hearted sinner go and condemned my innocent little boy to death. My son did nothing wrong. Nothing. Nothing. NOTHING.
Good Friday was a dark, oppressive day at Dehon (we’d escape to a local park in the afternoon to lift the tension for a while) and I feel the heavy oppression of mourning today too but without the utter and complete darkness of Good Friday, the loss of our Saviour, we can’t have the elation and jubilation of Easter Sunday.
My weekly walk this week is a Holy weekly walk. I’ll share another blog with you on Sunday about the jubilation at the end of the mourning.