back to the Black Table

This is Holy Week in the Christian faith. Starting with Palm Sunday, Holy Week is the seven days leading up to Easter, the central holiday in Christianity.

The Black Table spoke with Father Joseph Currie, a Jesuit priest, to get his impressions of Lent. Father Currie spent over 20 years in India, but now serves as Fordham University's director of campus ministry. He also served in a similar capacity at Loyola University in New Orleans.

BT: So what's up with Lent?

FJC: Lent means springtime. Lent got its name from Easter. Easter is the feast in the Christian calendar, much more important from the beginning than Christmas. The good news from the beginning was Christ died for us and Christ rose again. Then they used to have a couple of days in front of fasting to prepare for Easter, but now there's a whole week, a Holy Week. Then in Rome they moved it to three weeks before Easter. And then, by the fourth century, they moved it all the way back to 40 days to mark the 40 years of the Israelites going through the desert and the traditional 40 days of Jesus fasting in the desert. That's the 40 days of Lent.

The Sundays of Lent are very important. The scriptural readings are very important because they're now linked in with the preparation for Easter. People are going to be baptized, the catechumens. On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent, these are called the Sundays of Scrutiny. You have the three special readings at this time, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the man born blind [who Jesus healed]. Then you move up to Palm Sunday. That's a big one. That starts Holy Week.

BT: So if I can manage to remember any of my CCD lessons, Palm Sunday recalls Christ's return to Jerusalem, riding atop a donkey. People cheered his return and waved palm branches at him. Each year, these palms are burned and become the ashes for next year's Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, that begins Lent.

Holy Week is the Church's trifecta -- Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Renowned among the faithful's children because you have to go to church three times in a week!, it is the most symbolic and important time in the Christian Calendar. So, what's Holy Thursday?

FJC: It goes back to the origin of the good news, that Christ died for us and rose again. That's the paschal mystery. The night before He died, He sat down with his disciples and the first thing He did was to wash their feet to give them the mandate, the mandatum, "As I have washed your feet, so you must go and wash one another's feet." The other thing - the way he treated Judas, who was to betray him. He also instituted the eucharist. The way he said I will be with you all days even until the end of the world. How do we do that? Especially through the eucharist. Holy Thursday is really the celebration of the Lorld's supper. The Last Supper was built on the model of a Seder meal [for Passover].


I was in India for many years and I used to go to a village to celebrate Holy Thursday. When we wash the feet, I think that's one of the great signs of the faith. And allowing ourselves to have our feet washed. The tough thing, for many people, is to allow someone else to wash your feet. From the village, these people had come far and wide, through the fields. Believe me, their feet needed to be washed. I really felt that I was participating in more than a Liturgy in building community with these people that way. To have my own feet washed by them, it was embarrassing for me but it was good. We all need to serve and to be served. At various times in our lives, we're going to be a servant, but also we're going to be needing service. I think that's a beautiful symbol of community.

BT: Okay, I'll cop to it -- Good Friday is kind of creepy. Those candles that are lit every other day of the year -- signifying Christ's presence in the church -- they're snuffed out! The Passion is read, but the congregation plays the crowd and repeatedly chants "Crucify Him!" Reenacting Christ's death? Uh, that's not so good. Where's the good part of Good Friday?

FJC: Good Friday is a celebration of the redemption, the death of Christ. We're trying to render the experience of Good Friday [at the service]. We can call it a celebration only because of its connection with the resurrection. So we celebrate the Pascal mystery, which ultimately gives us in our faith victory over sin and death. That's good news, right? Sure, if you take the Passion out of context it's a sad day. But if you take the whole good news -- Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again -- that's good news.

BT: People always say they're going to "give something up" for Lent. Why do they do that, and what should they give up?

FJC: The three ways that one can repent in the Christian tradition are the three ways that one repents in the Jewish tradition and, in fact, are the three ways that one repents in the Islamic tradition. Prayer, fasting, and charity, or alms giving. Those three are three of the five pillars of Islam. Those three are certainly in the Old Testament - that's where they originate from. And those three are what we find in the Sermon on the Mount attributed to Jesus. Lent is made up of prayer, fasting and alms-giving to become reconciled if we've strayed away from the way of the gospel, we come back to it through our own efforts, as much as we can do, through prayer, fasting, and works of charity.

Today we're saying if you want to give something up, give up your grudges. That's tougher than giving up candy. Maybe we wouldn't be at war with Iraq if we could give up the stuff that really holds us down and bedevils us. Some people say I can fast, or they give up time in front of the TV for prayer. That's sacrifice stuff, and that's good. But as long as you put more emphasis in the sacrifice, what you're giving up, rather than why you're doing it, then you lose the whole effect, it seems to me. For example, if you have to give up a night's sleep to stay at the bedside of your mom, you wouldn't complain because that was a chance for you to show love for somebody, to go the extra mile for somebody you love.

Lent every year has to be contextualized in where we are. I certainly see it this year. We all need reconciliation, among ourselves and with our God. It's a call to reach out. We're all praying for peace, for the safety of our loved ones, but we also have to pray for the safety of the Iraqis who are going to be bombed, and bombed badly.

BT: What's your favorite part of Lent?

FJC: I like the last three days. I think there's great drama there. But Ash Wednesay, man, people come out of the woodwork for that. Also you get other people who come in. They're not Catholic but they want those ashes. It's something special or something. Ironically, if you hear the readings for Ash Wednesday, they say 'When you fast, don't make a big to do about it.' And 'wipe your faces clean' and then we put ashes on your forehead. But they come out for that and they come out for Good Friday.

When I was down in New Orleans, people would drive up in a taxicab, whether they were Catholic or not, but they'd jump out and run into the church and get their ashes and run out and jump into the cab. That doesn't seem to make sense. In India, on Good Friday there's a custom of having a plate next to the cross, next to where you adore the cross by kissing it. It was a custom there of leaving an offering and that's given to the poor. It's a little bit incongruous. You see everybody lining up to adore the cross and you hear the clinking of the coins. That didn't lead to too much devotion.



Aileen Gallagher, author of three children's books, writes Weekly Rundown every Friday.