Space of Longing: A reflection on Holy Week

Posted Thu, 04/14/2022 - 14:23 by Robert

by James Roberts - CCJ Programme Manager

Today is Maundy Thursday. In many Christian churches, this day marks the start of the Triduum; three days (beginning from this evening) which lead to the celebration of Easter. In contrast to the joy of Easter, these are days of darkness and stillness which are a time for reflection, to contemplate the crucifixion, but also to look into ourselves, and to enter into a space of longing for the hope of resurrection.

In the Christian calendar, the days leading up to Easter present the opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. It is a time of intense emotion, symbolism, and penitential reflection which, for many churches, is expressed in a variety of liturgies from Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday and Holy Saturday, to the celebration of Easter. The liturgical movement before the celebration of Easter continues the Lenten journey as Christians enter into the depths of renunciation, emulating the desolation of the crucifixion through liturgy.  

The period between Maundy Thursday up until the Easter Vigil (or Easter Day Service) is characterised by darkness and quiet. For some churches, this began even sooner; throughout Holy Week (which begins on the Sunday before Easter Sunday), crucifixes and icons may have been covered with cloth and veils. Similarly, from Maundy Thursday, many churches remove the cloth on the altar, leaving a simple, bare wooden table in place of an ordinarily ornate altar. There is a sense that the grandeur and glory of our worshipping spaces are stripped back, emulating the desolation of the narrative which we are following at this time. This is dramatically conveyed in the Tenebrae service, where candles are gradually extinguished alongside the chanting of Scriptures, and the final candle is removed, out of sight, before the congregation depart in darkness. As well as visual simplicity, the sounds and music which we hear is stripped back. Some Churches do not ring their bells or play the organ until Saturday night at the Easter Vigil, and certain words of celebration are not said or sung. Across these days, Christians enter into a sense of darkness and quiet as a penitential hush accompanies our reflection on Christ’s death.

This can also be a time for introspection; a period of penitential self-reflection, without distraction. It is a time for Christians to look into ourselves and examine our own shortcomings before the celebration of Easter. In doing so, we may recognise the darkness and despair in the Christian story, but also in our world, which is currently all too easily observed. In doing so, through our prayers and through the liturgies of this season, the stripping back of light and decoration allows us to enter into a space of longing.

This week, as many Christians experience the Triduum or prepare for Easter, as Jews celebrate Pesach, and Muslims continue to observe Ramadan, the world is experiencing much darkness, as it is ripped apart by war in Ukraine and Ethiopia, humanitarian crises in Yemen and Afghanistan, and inequality and strife across the globe. The power of faith to look into ourselves, to challenge our own behaviour, to sit with emptiness and quiet, and to acknowledge the darkness in our world, allows us to refine our sense of longing; longing for a better world.