Holy Week: Paschal Mystery and Sacramental Ministry

Today we are reminded of the deep connections between the Paschal Mystery of our Lord that we celebrate especially during Holy Week and Sacramental ministry of our Church. We are reminded of those connections by the readings and prayers of today’s Mass. Our gospel reading describes Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with perfumed oil and relates Jesus’ declaration that she should be allowed to “keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). This expression of Mary’s love anticipates the Sacramental anointing with oil that is part of our celebrations of Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. Jesus’ reference to his burial particularly recalls the Church’s practice of administering the Anointing of the Sick in preparation for holy death. We might also take note of the reference in our “Collect,” the prayer that concludes the Introductory Rites of the Mass, to our being “revived through the Passion of [Christ].” Here we recall how the Anointing of the Sick is administered for the purpose of healing in body and spirit. We are also reminded of the connections between the Paschal Mystery and the Sacraments by the fact that today is Monday. We in the Archdiocese of New York have become familiar with the practice of having a “Reconciliation Monday” during the seasons of Advent and Lent.

Regarding the connections between the Sacraments and the Paschal Mystery, of which Holy Week is a special participation, we might propose a twofold consideration. On the one hand, those connections pertain to our understanding the Paschal Mystery and the Sacraments and the truth about their relationship. On the other hand, those connections are part of our experience of Holy Week, in which Sacramental practice has always been central to our participation in the Paschal Mystery.

The truth about this relationship is that the Sacraments flow from the Paschal Mystery of Christ. Jesus’ Paschal Mystery, his Passion, Death, and Resurrection, is the source of all the Sacramental grace that is dispensed for the building up of the Body of Christ down through the centuries. All of the saving, forgiving, healing, nourishing, sanctifying gifts that God bestows upon his people have their source in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Many of those gifts are given through the Sacraments. And we can perceive particular moments in the accounts of the Paschal Mystery in the four Gospels when the Sacraments of the Church are instituted. At the Last Supper, Jesus gives us the Eucharist and the Priesthood. The blood and water that flow from his pierced side symbolize the blood of the New Covenant and the waters of Baptism. Jesus’ establishment of the New Covenant between God and His people through his Paschal Mystery is the basis of the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Risen Christ’s breathing on his Apostles communicates the gift of the Holy Spirit and the authority to impart forgiveness that are bases of the Sacraments of Confirmation and Reconciliation. Jesus Christ is the Anointed One and the gift of his healing grace in the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick is anticipated in our Gospel reading for today and in several other Gospel and New Testament scriptures.

The saving grace of God is bestowed totally and entirely through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, who is the one mediator between God and the human race. That grace, furthermore, is given abundantly and unfailingly through the Sacraments that Jesus has given to his Church. It remains true, however, that the saving grace that flows from the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ is not given exclusively through the Sacraments. We believe that God remains free to bestow His saving grace through Christ outside of the Sacraments and even outside the visible bounds of the Body of Christ that is the Church. God is able to sanctify any person of good will with the saving grace that flows from the cross of Christ. Undoubtedly, the Church has always recognized the efficacy of the “baptism of desire” that a person receives who wishes to be be baptized but is prevented. All the more is our confidence in the gift of God’s grace to baptized Christians who are temporarily prevented from participating in the sacramental life of their Church.

This brings us to our second consideration: our experience of the Sacraments that is so central to our participation in the Paschal Mystery during Holy Week. Typically, our Sacramental life is wonderfully accentuated during Holy Week. This week is often a time when we experience God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Some of us may have participated in the Chrism Mass that usually takes place at the Cathedral on Tuesday of Holy Week at which new oils are blessed by the bishop for use in Sacramental anointings. At the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we share in a unique celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. At the Easter Vigil, adult Catechumens receive the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. And on Easter Sunday we all renew our Baptismal promises as we are sprinkled with water recalling that Sacrament.

We won’t be able to do that this year. We will not enjoy the Sacramental participation in in the Paschal Mystery of our Lord to which we are accustomed. But that doesn’t mean we can’t participate in the Lord’s Paschal Mystery, It doesn’t mean we can’t truly enter into the mysteries of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ and by transformed by his gifts of grace. God is able and greatly desires to shower his gifts on us during our celebration of Holy Week this year, Coronavirus or no. Furthermore, God will help us to experience those gifts through the same Sacraments by which we have always shared in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

Faithful Christian disciples may not be able to receive the Sacraments this week, but there are ways that we can participate virtually and receive Sacramental grace by virtue of our desire for the Sacraments themselves. We can participate in the Masses and sacred liturgies of Holy Week through television or internet or just by our desire to participate. We can read the scriptures that are proclaimed in those liturgies. We can make acts of contrition, resolving to confess our sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation when we are able, and we can be assured that we receive God’s forgiveness even now. We can renew our baptismal promises and be confident that God renews the saving grace of that Sacrament, the gift our our rebirth in Christ.

Holy Week has always been a time when we have partaken in the saving Paschal Mystery of the Lord Jesus Christ through the Sacraments he has given to his Church. By the grace those very mysteries, may it be so once again.

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