The Church's liturgy is full of symbolic representations of the mystery that is represented by the actions of the presider and the congregation. The liturgies of Holy and Easter Week are particularly full of such symbols which, if not understood correctly, can cause some confusion.
In the liturgy of Holy Saturday, the liturgy begins in total darkness. Liturgical guidelines ask that the celebration not begin before "nautical" darkness; i.e. until the last bit of light from the sun has disappeared from the sky. Unfortunately, many push the hour forward so that the liturgy often begins even before sunset, let alone nautical darkness. This tends to dilute the symbolic nature of the light service which begins the Holy Saturday Vigil liturgy.
During all of Holy Week, our minds are drawn to that first celebration held in the upper room of Jerusalem. Jesus gathered with his disciples to celebrate Passover. What does this remembrance commemorate? On that fateful night so many thousands of years ago, the angel of death "passed over" the homes of those who had daubed their door posts with the blood of the Passover lamb. This was done every year afterwards to remind the Israelites what God had done for them. However, what our Jewish brothers and sisters do each year has been done once for all time by Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross. His blood is now our protection from death. Our Jewish brothers and sisters walked through the Red Sea to freedom. Our freedom has been won for us through the waters of baptism in which we have been washed clean.
The point is that the symbols merely point us in the right direction; they are not in and of themselves the means of our salvation. They remind us of what has been done for us.
Pope Francis has been roundly criticized by some in the Church because he has washed the feet of women and non-Christians during the celebration of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. In their way of thinking, the liturgical rules have been ignored. I wonder if this concern would be so paramount if those people would simply remember that this is a symbol of what has been done for us. Jesus gave us a new commandment. As he has loved us, we are to love one another. As he has done, we are to do. The symbol is not the reality. It simply points us in the right direction. By washing the feet of women and non-believers, the Pope is asking us to remember what Jesus has done for all of us, not for a chosen few. As we read in a sermon by Pseudo-Chrysostom: "In an imperfect and transitory way the types and images of the past prefigured the perfect and eternal reality which has now been revealed." Can anyone deny that Jesus' example was meant to apply to all men and women? The reality certainly trumps the symbol in this regard.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator