In Christian churches, the celebration of Holy Week begins today, Palm Sunday, and concludes with the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. This year, the Jewish Passover coincides with Holy Week and Easter.
Greek Orthodox churches always celebrate Easter with Passover, as it should be, because as Christians we are celebrating our belief in the paschal mystery – the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The Greek word ‘pascha,’ while it’s translated as Easter in English, is rooted in the Hebrew word, ‘pesach’ or Passover. The Feast of Passover celebrates the freedom of the Hebrews from slavery and exile. Christians also celebrate liberation from the bondage of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our “paschal lamb.”
“For Christ, our paschal lamb has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival…” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
My parents taught me to revere and respect the gift of our Catholic faith. I was taught that this paschal mystery — the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ was all for love of me.
As I grew, I began to grasp some more of this gift of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ. Some of my understanding came from studying scripture and church teaching to fulfill requirements for my undergraduate degree in theology.
But my deepest understanding of this mystery has come from seeing and reflecting on this pattern of passion, death and resurrection in my everyday life.
It didn’t take long for me to see the gift of Christ’s death and resurrection manifested in motherhood. My firstborn son was only three days old when one of my sisters died in a car accident. I was holding my infant son in the middle of that dark night, as tears streamed down my face. God’s voice spoke to my heart to console me, “I gave you your son as a sign to remind you that I bring new life in the midst of death.” And so began my experience of the paschal mystery in motherhood.
These past 30 years, the Lord has used my children to remind me of the truths and gift of the paschal mystery. God used my eldest daughter when she was just four to shake up an entire church filled with people and to remind us of the profound suffering Jesus endured out of love for us.
We brought the kids to a dramatic re-enactment of the Passion, thinking that music and live action would be a powerful tool for teaching the faith. In a darkened church, shadowed figures of soldiers and the sound of hammers nailing Jesus to the cross touched my daughter deeply. The congregation was silenced as my little girl cried out a loud and long “No!” accompanied by sobs as my husband carried her out of the church. This four-year-old reminded young and old the cost of the cross was real, both human and Divine. To this day, at every presentation of the Stations of the Cross, I hear her cry in my head.
My children’s responses to suffering taught me much about the passion of Christ. On her fourth birthday, I was cuddling my third daughter in my arms and looking at her baby book, marveling how much she had grown. This little one was only three when my youngest infant daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. As she looked at her own baby pictures, she remarked, “Mommy, was this before I had my brain surgery or after?” I quickly assured her she had never had brain surgery.
For a moment I was struck to the heart with grief realizing that my little girl, a big sister for just a year, thought that all babies were born and then went in and out of the hospital for brain surgeries in their first year. Despite this, my daughter was a joyful and engaging child. Even in her young life, she witnessed to me the joy of resurrection in the shadow of the cross.
Raising my youngest daughter who struggles in an ongoing battle with life-threatening disease and disabilities has offered me daily reflections on the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The sorrowful and the joyful impact of this life has made this paschal mystery come to life.
I’ve always said just as there are no atheists in foxholes, every parent turns to God when their child is hanging onto life in a pediatric ICU. Some turn in anger, but all turn, hoping for answers that will preserve the life of their child.
I’ve witnessed more children’s deaths on this journey than I want to recall. But two, in particular, touched me the most, both little girls who lost the battle with neurological diseases which threaten my daughter’s life each day.
One little girl was recovering in the hospital from a shunt revision, the surgical intervention to control the flow of fluid in the brain, a surgery my daughter has had over 80 times these past 20 years.
The pressure quickly increased in this 5-year-old’s brain and she died before the doctors and nurses could save her. I will never forget the image of her grieving parents crying and holding each other and comforting those around them. The mother was visibly pregnant and her stomach moved as her whole body wracked with sobs. As one child is laid to rest, new life was preparing to be born — a bitter passion, death and resurrection exposed for all the world to see.
A most profound example of the paschal mystery came from a real-life image of Michaelangelo’s Pieta, Mary embracing the body of Jesus at the foot of the cross.
The mother was a fellow warrior mom whose strength I admired as I got to know her and her young daughter as frequent flyers in the PICU. But during this one hospital stay, this little one’s battle was ending as her parents invited us in to say goodbye. I was grateful for the timing of this hospital admission so that I could be there to sing a lullaby to the little warrior and offer prayers for her and her parents at this difficult time. Moments after his daughter died, the father asked me to come to join them in their final time before their daughter’s body would be transferred from the PICU to the hospital morgue.
Leaving my daughter asleep in her hospital bed, I quietly entered this child’s room as the mother sat with her daughter’s body cradled in her arms. I went to my knees at the foot of this brave mother’s seat, as the little child’s soft and lifeless hand lightly fell on my tear-stained face.
There was no mistaking this iconic image of Madonna and child. In the midst of profound grief, there was a peace in the surrender. Death in this world meant an end to suffering and the gift of eternal life.
For the greater part of the past 30 years, we have spent Good Friday at our local Shrine of Our Lady of the Island, The outdoor, life-size depiction of the Stations of the Cross have provided us with a profound and yet family-friendly way to pray and walk with Jesus on the way to Calvary.
My youngest daughter Johanna has always traversed the stations in our arms, in a stroller or a wheelchair because her balance and fatigue makes it difficult for her to walk long distances.
But one year she wanted to walk up the flights of steps for the 12th station, leading to the foot of the cross. Each step was slow and deliberate, and the profound meaning was not lost on anyone who noticed.
That Good Friday as in most days, she reminded us that our own passion, death and resurrection only finds meaning and strength in the cross of Jesus Christ. In the midst of thousands of pilgrims, I felt like we were alone, my husband and I and our children, as our youngest led the way.
Whether you consider yourself religious or not, there is great human value in pondering the paschal mystery – the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Every life is formed with this same pattern. We all endure our own passions, deaths and resurrections many times before our lives come to an end.
If we take the time to stop, ponder and embrace this paschal mystery we discover the daily gift of salvation available for all who would believe.