Some time ago, I had a conversation with a lady who had attended the Oberammergau Passion Play in the south of Germany in 2004. The play, enacted every ten years since 1634, involves 2000 performers, musicians, and stage technicians, all of whom are residents of the town. The play, which runs for seven hours, acts out in a highly dramatic fashion the final events of Christ’s earthly life.
She wondered why the Church does not incorporate the kind of vivid portrayal she saw at Oberammergau into its Holy Week liturgy. She thought a more dramatic liturgy might appeal to larger numbers of people, have a greater spiritual impact, and represent a more appropriate idiom for the Church’s worship in the twenty-first century.
My response was that while passion plays have a valid place in Catholic life, the official liturgy of the Church has a purpose and significance far beyond dramatic reenactments.
The Holy Week liturgy does not merely help the Church cast its mind back to Jerusalem and Calvary. The function of the liturgy of Holy Week is to celebrate what God in Christ is doing now, today among his people.
Holy Week begins officially with Palm Sunday. The liturgy of this day calls to mind the Lord's entry into Jerusalem. But Palm Sunday also entails a living proclamation of Christ's lordship over the Church and its people here and now. We carry palms not merely for historical reasons, but as a sign of our present commitment to Christ.
On Holy Thursday, the Church recalls the gathering of Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper, an event that inaugurated the Christian Eucharist. But on this day, the church celebrates more importantly its present identity as Christ's living Body, and it renews the centrality of Christ's sacrifice in its life.
When the priest washes the feet of his parishioners, he is not merely repeating dramatically what Jesus did on the first Holy Thursday. He is expressing and renewing his own commitment to service of the people of his parish now. (This, incidentally, is why women should always be among those whose feet are washed--as Pope Francis did last year).
On Good Friday, the liturgy calls to mind the terrible events of Christ's crucifixion. But the solemn Good Friday liturgy is infinitely richer and more significant than any passion play or historical drama. Its purpose is not only to call to mind the original event of Calvary, but to recognize and celebrate the Cross being lived out today in the church and in the world.
In the vigil of Holy Saturday, the Church is not awaiting, as in a play, the original resurrection on the first Easter. It is awaiting the return of Christ in glory at the end of time, an event anticipated in a powerful way in the Easter Eucharist. Already in baptism, Christians share in the resurrection. This is renewed when new Christians are baptized at the vigil. In the Easter sacraments, we glory in Christ's resurrection as a present, living reality and we celebrate the promise of the great and eternal Easter.
The need to dramatize and recapture the historical events of Christ's death and resurrection is an important feature of Christian life. However, in a passion play, the event of our attention remains in great part in the past, and we are spectators. In the Holy Week liturgy, the event stands in the present, and we are participants. Knowing the difference between the two is the basis of the profound and vital spirituality that is crucial to the fruitful celebration of Holy Week and Easter.