As a performing artist, there are few moments as surreal and electrifying in joy and terror as that moment before the curtain rises. Audience members have been alerted to exit signs, donors have been thanked, and the overture is coming to an end. You hover between reality and the narrative you are about to enter, desperately trying to calm nerves while praying in gratitude for the gift of performance. Even more curious is that sensation of stillness when you must force your body, petrified for an instant, to step past the wings and onto the stage. But you step onto the stage and no matter what the stage is, whether it’s Lincoln Center in New York City or a ballet studio in Indiana, your tutu brushes past the thick black curtain and you find yourself at home.
For the past five weeks, we have been in intense preparation for the culmination of C.S. Lewis’ “Great Dance,”1 the dance of the liturgy. Through fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, we have readied our hearts to step into Holy Week, into the story that all dance, poetry, music, and paintings point us to. And now, the curtain has risen once more on these sacred liturgies. Now it is time to step onstage.
But maybe you aren’t as prepared for this dance as you believe you should be. Maybe you haven’t put as much effort into Lent as the Lord was inviting you to. Perhaps you’re feeling defeated as you succumb to the same sins once more. Maybe you’ve felt waylaid by sickness or inconvenience (quarantine, anyone?) and haven’t been able to enter into Lent as you have in the past.
If this is where you find yourself, you don’t need to worry. Because the Holy Week liturgies are not only a dance, but a poem. Poetry does not exist primarily for analysis. Above all else, poetry should be experienced, something that “happens to you,” as my Great Books professors from high school explained. This is not a passive experience of art, but an eager receptivity to a beauty which enthralls and longs to wash over the reader or listener.
This week, “Beauty ever ancient, ever new”2 longs to wash over you and make you new. And He’s not waiting around. Whether you’re finishing up the best or worst Lent of your life, it’s go time. This is the week of the Great Dance, the song of songs, the poetry of the True Muse, the Holy Spirit. This is the week when your life can change. Perhaps this is the week when your life must change.
I encourage you to do all you can to enter into Holy Week with your entire heart, mind, and soul. Hold nothing back but offer all to the Father who has offered all to you in the sacrifice of His Son.
But how do you enter into the narrative of Holy Week? A simple way is to pay attention as you read the Passion story at Mass today. What character stands out to you? Maybe it’s a character you relate to or a character you aspire to be. Or a character you despise, only to realize you two aren’t very different. Then pray with and be that character for the rest of the week. Comfort Jesus like that character. Reflect on the way you crucify Jesus like that character and beg for mercy. However the Holy Spirit leads, be not afraid.3
The beauty of the liturgical year is that we’re not just calling to mind an event which took place 2000 years ago. Rather, we acknowledge the direct role that we play in the events of Christ’s final days. We carry palms into the church, only to hear our own voices cry out, “Crucify him!” twenty minutes later. We watch the priest wash feet and hear the voice of Jesus Himself say, “This is my body.” We kiss a Cross, knowing that through the beatific vision, as Christ hung in torment on Calvary, He could see that very action and receive consolation. We light a fire because we know that the light shining from the empty tomb remains unquenched to this very day.
This is our story. It’s a story of atrocious crime and miserable suffering, a story of an eminently rational Creator who loves like a madman, and a story of seeming failure turned to unfathomable beauty. It’s time to own our part in the story. It’s time to beg for forgiveness like never before and gasp with joy at His mercy. It’s time to enter the Great Dance, the liturgy that immolates and beautifies all.
This week, let His poetry happen to you.
1 – From Perelandra. “The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect until the peoples…are gathered into it. We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made. Blessed be He!”
2- St. Augustine, Confessions
3- This form of prayer is prominent in Ignatian spirituality