For every religious, Holy Week is the most moving time of the year. At Brede the church was never empty; recreation was suspended, and each nun was quiet, withdrawn, except for the part she must play in choir. “In the liturgy of Tenebrae, of the last three days of Holy Week,” taught Dame Clare, “the Church mourns over Jerusalem and celebrates the Passion of our Lord in primitive chants drawn from the Jewish tradition itself; they must often have been on the lips of Christ and the apostles.” On Maundy Thursday Cecily was allotted the first lamentation and, as she prefaced each verse with the singing of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph, Beth . . , she was doing what any of the apostles might have done in the synagogues along the sea of Galilee. “The psalm In Exitu, Israel” explained Dame Clare, “is the exact counterpart of that of the Jewish Passover night, and was probably sung by our Lord in the upper room.”
On that same day, the Abbess, following her Master’s example, became the servant of the whole community, serving them at midday dinner. The sight of the refectory was inviting: each place was laid with a snow-white napkin, a glass of wine, a bunch of grapes, a small wheaten loaf, and a brown earthenware bowl of vegetable soup. Apricot puffs and cheese were laid along the side tables. When the nuns were seated, the Abbess came in, wearing a white apron and white sleeves, and with her came the kitchener, Sister Priscilla, bearing a great silver salver of fish. The Abbess went to every nun, serving her and laying beside her plate a nose-gay of small flowers: violets, wood anemones, primulas, grape hyacinths, tiny ferns, pink heaths.
Later, in the chapter house, Abbess Catherine, girded with a towel, would kneel before twelve of her daughters, drawn by lot—”I must cut my toe-nails,” Dame Nichola had said in panic—and reverently wash their fret, just as Christ did to his apostles. “I have set you an example,” He told them, “to teach you what to do.” That night the Mass re-enacted the Last Supper, when Jesus took bread and broke it, took wine, and spoke the words that consecrated then and gave them to his disciples, the gift to the world for all time, of the Eucharist. Then, just as Christ had gone from the upper room to the garden of Gethsemane and was seized in the midst of his disciples, so the Host was taken from the altar’s tabernacle and borne in procession to a small side altar made welcoming with flowers and candles; the church was left stark, the high altar stripped of its linen, the doors of the empty tabernacle flung open. Bells were replaced by the dry sound of clappers.
For the long hours of the Good Friday vigil, a heavy wooden crucifix lay before the empty tabernacle as the nuns chanted and prayed the terrible saga through. The names mingled: Judas, Malchus, Annas, Caiaphas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene: the women of Jerusalem, the two thieves, and the centurion: the two Marys who stood with our Lady at the foot of the cross. “The women didn’t run away,” said the Abbess.
Christ died and, as if the Abbey had died too, came the long pause of Holy Saturday— “Surely the longest day in the year,” said Dame Beatrice—until at night, hope came hack to the Church as, long ago, hope had come to the apostles. The new fire was kindled in the church porch, the huge Paschal candle, inscribed with the date of the civil year and painted with symbols of the Resurrection, was lit from that new fire and the priest took the first step inside the darkened empty church; he raised the candle and cried “Lumen Christi”—the light of Christ. Three times the cry echoed as the new light was passed from candle to candle, the boy servers who came from the town lighting their candles from the great one and bringing them to the wicket, where the Abbess met them with hers; she passed the fire to the rows of nuns, each holding her candle until the whole church was illuminated.
As the candles caught their light one from another. Cecily had a vision of the flame hunting in the same way from one church to another throughout Christendom, far around the world: new light, new joy, fresh hope. Thousands of candles, pure wax, wax of bees, made through the year by the wings and work of infinitesimal creatures like us, thought Cecily, made for this night. “This is the night,” intoned the priest, “the night on which heaven was wedded to earth. On this night Christ broke the bonds of death,” and, “The night shall be as light as day, the night shall light up my joy.”
The priest blessed the new water and led the renewal of baptismal vows until, just before midnight, Mass began, the first Mass of Easter, when linen, flowers, and candlesticks were brought back to the altar as the celebrant began the opening of the Gloria, ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo…’ Every bell, every stop on the organ, every voice joined in the triumphant response, ‘Glory to God on high,’ and it was Easter Sunday.
What really struck me was the description of their celebration on Holy Thursday, as it seemed similar to our family’s traditions. It has been a recent movement for many Christians to celebrate a Messianic seder meal sometime in Holy Week. I had been feeling that we had not been authentic enough, until last year this conversation Passover Sets gave me a different view. I don’t think it would be right to have a seder meal. This is part of the Jewish religion, and not established until 500 years AFTER Christ’s death. We are not Jews, but Catholics. What I can do is just remember the Exodus story and the Last Supper and bring in elements to highlight this feast, but not do a whole seder meal.