The Greatest Show on Earth

“It’s like theatre!” my mom once exclaimed when explaining what she loves so much about the liturgies of Holy Week. When a worshipping community really puts in the work, then there really is no better ticket in town than the rites we celebrate as a Church both on Palm Sunday and over the course of this upcoming weekend. Light and darkness, fire and water, music and silence, palm branches, veils, and incense: even with these temporary modifications made for public health purposes, we have it all. Certain Fathers of the Church were happy to make this comparison. Why busy yourself with decadent live theatre when the greatest show on Earth is going on at church? It’s probably not a coincidence that extravagant rock concerts became popular in the same era when so much of our instinct as a church to de-emphasize the mystery and majesty of our public worship. Human beings have a timeless need for ritual and reverence. There are two important ways, however, in which what we do this weekend is different from mere performance.

First and most obviously, this is real. Were it intended only as a dramatic retelling of Jesus’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, the Sacred Triduum would leave a lot to be desired. It moves us the way it does precisely because it is a specially mediated experience of a real event. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, He allowed us not just to “re-enact” His Passion, but to partake – really, truly, and substantially – of that same sacrifice. The moving words that we hear from Scripture – from Jeremiah’s lamentations at the destruction of Jerusalem to Miriam’s triumphant song at the parting of the Red Sea – are the revelation of a God who is very much alive and active. The Baptism we celebrate in a special way at the Easter Vigil is not just a charming initiation ritual for a society of like-minded people; it actually incorporates us into that very same Body sacrificed on the Cross.

That brings us to the second difference between liturgy and theatre: there is no audience here. Since all of us have been baptized into the Mystical Body of Christ, this real and present event is something happening to us. As the Second Vatican Council stressed, no Catholic comes to church as a “mere spectator.” Rather, we unite all our afflictions to the Cross, we give thanks for our Creator’s abundant blessings, we beg pardon for our sins, and we marvel at the glory of God. So you may certainly “enjoy the show” this weekend, but we can never “sit back and relax,” because the Hero of this story is laying down His life for you!

Br. Philip Neri Gerlomes, O.P. | Meet the Brothers in Formation HERE