Fairytales include three bears, three little pigs, and three witches. The third time is a charm, we say. The life cycle is birth, life, and death. The magi brought three gifts to the infant Jesus. Time is divided into past, present, and future. Hegel taught about thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. And we could go on and on and on. Threes are all around us. Threes abound in Matthew's account of Jesus' passion as well. Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver for betraying Jesus (three times ten). Jesus takes his three favorite apostles Peter and "the two sons of Zebedee" as he goes off to pray. Three times Jesus finds Peter asleep after he asks him to "keep watch with me." One of the accusations against Jesus before the "chief priests and the entire Sanhedrin" is that he said he could rebuild the temple in three days. Peter denies three times that he knows Jesus. Jesus and two others were crucified on that first Good Friday. Jesus died at three in the afternoon. Pilate gave orders that "the grave be secured until the third day." But no one was prepared for what would happen on that third day!
It is easy to hear only the negatives in the passion accounts: Jesus is denied, betrayed, unjustly judged. He is scourged, mocked, crucified. He suffers, dies, and is buried. Yet all through the passion accounts, there are signs of life, promise, and hope. The night before he was betrayed Jesus gave his disciples a continuing memorial of his self-giving, his very Body and Blood for our nourishment as the sacrament of Life. He promised that he could rebuild the temple in three days, speaking of course about the temple of his own Body. He gave us everlasting hope that by not saving himself, he saved us.
This day—Palm Sunday—when we sing our hosannas and bow our heads in sorrow as we hear the passion account for the first time this year, we begin the holiest week of our Christian year. We must remember that this week is holy not because we historically recall the events of God's love that bring the human family redemption in Jesus Christ, but because through our prayer we experience the continuing grace and power of these moments present and real—here and now! Precisely because these faith-anchoring events are historical, they cannot be repeated or reenacted. That is why the church's long tradition insists that what happened once in history passes over into the mystery of our celebrations. What the paschal triduum actually celebrates is mystery, not history. The liturgies of these days do not "take us back to the upper room or the path to Calvary. Their ultimate purpose is not to retrace or relive the last hours of Jesus' life—nor to catch sight of him emerging from the tomb at Easter's dawning. They celebrate not what once happened to Jesus but what is now happening among us as a people called to conversion, gathered in faith, and gifted with the Spirit of holiness. They celebrate, even in the midst of this virus pandemic, God's taking possession of our hearts at their deepest core, recreating us as a new human community, a community rich in compassion, steadfast in hope and fearless in the search for justice and peace.
Holy Week is no ordinary week, for we celebrate Jesus' unreserved self-giving. Holy Week brings before us the demands of self-giving. All of our daily living throughout the year reminds us that, ultimately, like Jesus we must give ourselves over to God so that God might give us divine Life.
We cry this day "Hosanna!" but, unlike the people of the city of Jerusalem long ago, we need not ask "Who is this?" This is the one who models for us the mystery of life: die to self so that we might be exalted, raised to new life. This week we celebrate in pointed liturgies the meaning of our whole Christian living: dying to self so that God can raise us up, too. This dying can be as simple as setting aside the time to participate in all the Triduum (meaning "three days") liturgies or as demanding as entering into the depths of the paschal mystery by our own self-giving.
Perhaps this week we need to stop thinking of ourselves and our own needs first, ahead of others. Perhaps we must make Jesus the center of our lives instead of making ourselves the center of attention. Perhaps we need to calm down the frenetic pace of our own lives in this particular time and pandemic and cut some things out so we can concentrate on our loved ones more or help out those in need more. In these three examples what we give up leads to a new lease on life. Most importantly, it leads to new and deeper relationships and richer experiences. This is all new Life for us. This is what this week and the three days of the Triduum are all about.