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I suppose my first Ash Wednesday as a Catholic could have been worse. I dutifully turned down offers of Valentine’s chocolate at work as I fasted, and I tried not to feel too alone when I didn’t see a single ash-crossed forehead in my office of over a thousand people. After all, I had missed the early Mass too.
Leaving work late, I ran the few blocks to the Basilica and was greeted with two matching signs flanking the doors: “SANCTUARY UNDER CONSTRUCTION.” I followed the small-print instructions to the church basement, where I found an altar and about 150 empty chairs. Disappointed, I simply figured the Catholic imposition of ashes was a quicker business than I’d thought.
Still out of breath from my run, I knelt to pray. My trip to church would not be in vain, especially on such an important day. I was leaving about 20 minutes later when I saw a sign on the basement bulletin board: “Ash Wednesday service upstairs.”
I opened the imposing doors to a sensory feast: the priest’s hands raised for the words of consecration as drywall dust or incense smoke hung heavy in the air. Bells rang as beams of light from stained glass windows met beams of wooden scaffolding. A soft glow diffused through sheets of translucent protective plastic that billowed from walls and ceiling.
I had never seen the Basilica so full, or the room in such rapt attention. There were no babies crying or toddlers screaming, just government workers, the elderly and a few students. My overwhelming awe was tinged with sadness: I was the only one without the smudge of ashes, and I had arrived too late to take communion.
Holy Thursday, March 29
Confronted by two heartbreaking situations the previous evening, I decided to fast and pray on Holy Thursday. Not realizing how intense the Paschal Triduum would be, I chose a two-day water fast. I’ve always known Protestants who fasted and prayed up to 40 days with God’s help; the single-meat-free-meal fast for Catholic Good Friday almost seemed too easy.
After work, I attended my first Holy Thursday Mass, armed with only an expectation that it would be short. I had attended Maundy Thursdays before, and while the service was meaningful, it clearly wasn’t the weekend’s main event.
An hour and a half later, we had read the Old Testament account of the institution of the Passover and the New Testament accounts of the institution of the Eucharist and the Priesthood. We had watched the priest, wrapped in a towel, wash the feet of about 20 parishioners. I figured the Mass would end with communion, but as we broke my day’s only bread, the night was just beginning.
Knowing the Last Supper story, I should have expected the sombre turn. Soon, Jesus was being carried out of the sanctuary toward His night of agony in the garden. With reverence and solemn hymns, we followed in procession, the lights and our spirits extinguished as we went.
I stood silently with others in the hallway outside a crowded basement chapel. The priest placed Jesus on the altar and reminded us of his Gethsemane request that we watch and pray. The closing prayers, we were told, would begin around midnight. It was 9:30 pm.
Suddenly I wasn’t reading a Bible story or meditating on an anguished scene in the Rosary. United with the first disciples, I was confronted by the overpowering weakness of the flesh. I could barely stay awake with Him an hour.
Good Friday, March 30
The next morning I was tired, hungry, sore and sick. My bones and joints felt pulled in all directions. After several hours nearly immobile in bed, I tried to give thanks for the pain. In some small and mysterious way, I was being invited to experience the weekend in a tangible, deeper, haunting yet hopeful way.
The normally 40-minute walk to my parish was slow and laboured. As I finally approached the front steps, I saw a young mother and daughter hurrying toward the door. In a moment of grace, I heard the little girl excitedly say that she couldn’t wait for the “nice music.” It was the first time I realized the day might be more than a sombre death march through denial and torture.
Inside, I was transported back to the Garden of Gethsemane, then to Pilate’s headquarters and the Place of the Skull. We read Isaiah and the Psalms and the Gospel of John, kneeling reverently with believers around the world at the moment Christ gave up his spirit. Then we were surrounded by mournful, moving harmonies as we came forward to embrace a simple wooden cross, pouring out love for a love poured out.
Later that night, I participated in my first Stations of the Cross. Still tired, hungry and sore, I disciplined my body to join the others as they knelt for the first words of each scene. My tiny pains were nothing on the Via Dolorosa. As Christ fell, and fell again, I saw the heavy cross push thorns deeper into his skull. I heard the rough wood scrape across his scourged back.
I felt His mother’s tears as she watched her beloved son impaled on a tree. How painful her love in those anguished hours.
Easter Vigil, March 31
“Arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” – 2018 Easter Vigil liturgy
Last year was my first Easter Vigil and the most joy-filled day of my life. It was my reception into the Catholic Church, complete with confirmation and first communion. Several days later, my cheeks still hurt from all the smiling. The new Eucharistic intimacy, the significantly expanded Church family, the unspeakable joy that burst forth in song and bells and endless tears — I could only compare it to a wedding day.
And as a beautifully content Protestant, it was an entirely unexpected proposal.
A year after making vows, I was back in the pitch-black sanctuary, awaiting the light of Christ. The priests and deacon lit the sacred flame, and soon the Paschal Candle had spread its light to the hundreds of candles we held in our pews. Over the next several hours, we traced the story of God’s saving power and plan from Creation to Resurrection.
When we reached the New Testament fulfillment, the room erupted with the jubilant return of the “Gloria,” an ancient angelic hymn too beautiful and rich to sing during the Lenten season. After almost two months of sombre music in minor keys, I joined my brothers and sisters in a swelling chorus of bells and praise. The Gloria soon ended, but the voices didn’t. Worship and bells rang loud in extemporaneous exultation and heavenly harmony.
When I invited friends and family to last year’s Vigil, I almost apologized for the imposition, explaining that it would be three hours and would include incense and other potential irritants. I briefly considered switching my confirmation date to a significantly shorter, more allergy-friendly Mass.
But as usual, my concerns were misplaced. So in this year’s Vigil email I took a different tone and invited some Protestant friends to “The Most Joyful Night of the Year.”
Almost five hours from the moment the darkness was broken by a single flame — after all the readings and music and sacraments and the church-basement feast — I walked home with one of these friends. We were getting ready to part ways when she shared a beautiful hope: that one day we would celebrate and worship like that all together in Heaven.
I’m still pretty new to this whole Catholic thing, so I’m not entirely sure. But in the mystery of the sacred Mass, I think we already were.
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