A behind-the-scenes look at Holy Week.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
April 3 2009 6:56 AM

A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Holy Week

The olive-oil-buying, candlestick-polishing, and soul-shepherding that make the seven days from Palm Sunday to Easter run smoothly at a D.C. cathedral.

Also in Slate: Patton Dodd looks at gory Passion plays, and Larry Hurtado gives historical context to Jesus' crucifixion.

What do Christians do today to prepare for Holy Week?
What do Christians do today to prepare for Holy Week?

For some people, Easter is vacation time. For Christians, it is the liturgical high point of the entire year. Holy Week starts on Palm Sunday and runs through Easter Sunday. Each day commemorates a different key moment in the final days of Jesus' life, from his entry into Jerusalem, through the Last Supper and crucifixion, culminating with the celebration of the resurrection. The liturgies have evolved through the centuries, but they have always been the central focus of the church's liturgical year. But for the clergy and staff at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C, Holy Week means a lot of work.

The first sign that Holy Week is coming is when the big jars of olive oil arrive. Usually, Maria, the cook, buys olive oil with the other groceries as she plans dinner for the four priests who live at the rectory. But on the Monday of Holy Week, Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, will celebrate the Chrism Mass, when he will bless the holy oils to be used by all the priests in Washington for the entire year. So, the parish secretary must call Costco to order 21 5-quart, 9-ounce jugs of Filippo Berio olive oil. The oil will be poured into six large urns, blessed, and distributed to the priests at the end of the Chrism Mass.

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The cathedral itself needs to be looked after, too, as Holy Week requires it to undergo some transformations. The sacristan, Max, must polish the brass candlesticks and altar rail as well as the 17th-century silver crucifix that will be used in Holy Week processions. At the end of Mass on Holy Thursday, rubrics, which are the instructions about what must be done at each of the liturgies, require that the altar be stripped: All the candlesticks, plants, and cloth coverings are removed in preparation for Good Friday. Two days later, on Holy Saturday, the cathedral will close for six hours so a team of volunteers can decorate the empty sanctuary.

From Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, the daily liturgies contain wildly different emotional focal points. Good Friday is the saddest day of the year for a Catholic; Easter is the happiest. Holy Thursday has emotionally powerful rites recalling the Last Supper, including the moment when Archbishop Donald Wuerl will wash the feet of 12 men and women, commemorating Jesus' washing of the feet of the disciples. Tenebrae, a medieval service of readings and music held on the Wednesday of Holy Week, is somber and plaintive. Picking the right music for each of these services requires a lifetime of listening and experimentation.

"For me, the demands and the opportunities of the Cathedral are unique," Thomas Stehle, who is spending his first Holy Week as choirmaster at St. Matthew's, tells me. "Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are really one liturgy, and to keep that felt musically is a very difficult thing." He has chosen an 17th-century "Ave Verum" by William Byrd and a brand-new piece by Leo Nestor for Good Friday. * The Easter Vigil will close with the "Hallelujah Chorus." Since the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, the Catholic Church has put increasing emphasis on congregational participation in the music. At most parishes, that means Catholics now sing hymns and some parts of the Mass. At a cathedral, the possibilities are richer. "You can actively participate by being drawn into something beautiful like medieval polyphony," Stehle says, closing his eyes as if he can already hear the strains of the "Adoremus Te" by Clemens non Papa that the choir will sing at Tenebrae.

The Rev. Mark Knestout, who will be one of the masters of ceremonies all week, has less ethereal worries. He has to make sure that enough pews are roped off for the 170 priests he expects at the Chrism Mass. In addition to blessing the oils, this Mass will see the priests of the archdiocese renew their vows. Knestout also has to prepare the sanctuary for the archbishop of Washington, two cardinals, Vatican Ambassador Archbishop Pietro Sambi, four auxiliary bishops, and dozens of monsignors. It is the greatest annual concentration of prelates in D.C.

Knestout is joined by two other MCs, one a priest at the cathedral, the other the archbishop's secretary. Seminarians help light all the candles, move the benches for those who will get their feet washed, carry the logs for the fire that starts the Easter Vigil, distribute communion, and dress the newly baptized in their white garments.

At all of Holy Week's standing-room-only services, seats on the left of the very front are reserved for those who will be baptized or received into the church at the Easter Vigil. In the early centuries of the church, the vigil was the only time that those seeking to become Christians were baptized. By the Middle Ages, virtually everyone was Christian, so there was no need to baptize adults, and the liturgy lost its focus and got shifted to Saturday morning. Only in 1951 did Pope Pius XII restore the nighttime vigil with its focus on adult baptism and the renewal of baptismal vows for those already baptized. In America, would-be converts join a yearlong process called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. They, along with God, are the stars of Holy Week.

This year, 22 people will be fully initiated into the Catholic Church at St. Matthew's, according to Jeannine Marino, the director of the RCIA. Marino has been meeting with the group twice a week for a year, on Sundays to discuss the readings at Mass and on Wednesday nights, when she instructs them in the history and teachings of Catholicism. Some of the converts have been discerning their conversion for more than a year. Karla has been going to Catholic churches since she met her husband eight years ago, but she was reluctant to "swim the Tiber." She worried that becoming Catholic meant "turn[ing] my back on my Protestant upbringing," but now she sees her decision to become a Catholic as growing out of that upbringing. In fact, she has embraced that most distinctive of Catholic practices, confession. "I never saw confession to a priest as being necessary," says Karla. "I had a relationship with God and could confess to Him any time. But after my first confession … I truly felt unburdened of those sins after confessing them."

The entire staff at St. Matthew's can be forgiven for pleading exhaustion by the end of the week, but they will not need to go to confession. They will simply need to find the time to absorb the profound spiritual significance of all the concrete minutiae to which they have attended. After Marino shepherds her converts at the Holy Week services, leading them up to the altar, telling them when to sit and when to kneel, she plans to sleep in on Sunday morning. She will go to a noon Mass with her boyfriend and his family at their church. "No one knows me there. I will have no responsibilities. Finally, I will be able to just pray."

Correction, April 6, 2009: This article originally misidentified the century in which William Byrd composed his "Ave Verum." (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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