“Which one do you like better?” my friend said, a potted plant in each hand. We were at a garden center buying last-minute Holy Week decorations for our parish.
I glanced up from my cell phone and shrugged. “They look the same to me.”
“You’re not exactly in the spirit for the highlight of the liturgical year,” he said, sensing my indifference.
And he was right. Hours from celebrating the defining mysteries of our faith, I found myself dreading the long week of liturgies and the preparations for them. I already wanted to flee the chattering crowds, the incense that always wafted into the choir loft and made me cough — and all those words through which we relived the final days of Christ’s earthly life.
This year, I didn’t want to hear the cowardly, hateful phrases that had condemned an innocent man; I didn’t have the strength to echo Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. Even the wondrous proclamation that had transformed bread and wine into his body and blood was too much to bear; I thought of how, having shared himself so completely with his friends, Christ would be utterly deserted by them only moments later.
Words, spoken and written, had beaten me down of late — savage headlines, relentless hashtags, insistent ads. Emails had flown at work over a dissatisfied client. A woman next to me on the train had yammered through my sleepy commute home; drivers at a snarled intersection had shouted in frustration. Text messages blurred together, while an annoying song lyric thrummed through my mind.
I tried to pray, to meditate on Scripture, but stress and fatigue had dulled my soul. All I wanted was silence — pure, wordless silence in which I could escape everyone and everything. And that was something Holy Week, with all its hosannas, hymns and homilies, wouldn’t provide.
Or would it?
As he submitted himself to the Father’s will, allowing the Roman and Jewish authorities to put him to death, Jesus fell remarkably silent. With a single breath, he could have slain them, calling on the Father for “more than twelve legions of angels” at any moment (Matthew 26:53). Yet Christ’s refusal to engage in a war of words so stunned his accusers that Pilate finally demanded, “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” (John 19:10)
Jesus responded, reminding Pilate of how limited the Roman prefect’s authority actually was, but as his passion unfolded, Christ spoke little, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
What few utterances he did make amidst his unimaginable agony have come to be known as the “Seven Last Words” — seven phrases drawn from the various Gospel accounts of Christ’s crucifixion:
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
“Woman, behold, your son.” (John 19:26)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
“I thirst.” (John 19:28)
“It is finished.” (John 19:30)
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
Framed by the bleeding Savior’s silence, these words — spoken by the very Word — resound throughout eternity, piercing the crazed din of hell and the clatter of the mundane. Holy Week, when we relive Christ’s passion moment by moment, calls us to an inner quietude. There we find not a passing escape from the world and its noise, but the creation of a new reality, where Love takes our very breath away, only to return it to us in shouts of joy.
As my friend and I finished decorating for Holy Week, I prayed for the grace of expectant silence, that I might hear an eighth word, one spoken tenderly to the distraught women who sought to anoint their buried Lord:
“He is not here, for he has been raised just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay” (Matthew 28:6).
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