Into the Mystic: The Agony And The Ecstasy
The First novel I ever read was Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy. It was a fictional account of the life of Michelangelo. My grandmother had just finished reading it, and she passed it on to me to read.
I always remember that title during Holy Week, a week when liturgically we experience the full run of emotions that stretch between agony and ecstasy.
There is the thrill of Palm Sunday, the rehearsal in memory and liturgical drama of Jesus entering the city to the throngs of the adoring crowds.
They chant for this, a king unlike any other. They prostrate themselves in homage to his sovereignty, laying down their cloaks and their palm branches as he humbly rides in on a donkey.
Before the week runs its course, a new crowd will assemble with a new chant. But before then, there is the clearing of the temple, the washing of the feet, the setting of a final table, betrayals by beloved disciples, a handing over to a king the likes of which we have seen before, the mockery of a trial. Now the new crowd. Now the new chant: “Crucify Him!”
It has always been important to me in my walk of faith to experience the fullness this week has to offer.
I thrill with the waving of the palms as the week opens and children dance as we sing with delight old hymns that tell of Christ’s majesty and glory.
I have often wept with raw emotion as the humble faithful came forward to have their feet washed – the power of that act never lost on any who participate in the ritual cleansing.
I have sat long in silence on Thursday evening as the altar is stripped bare, a single black cloth draped over the cross in a dimly lit sanctuary.
I have gathered on a Friday at midday, either chanting the haunting Were You There or walking reverently the stations that remind us of the agony of that day. I remember as a child coming in from play, and sitting silently in my room from noon until three, the time at which we re told he breathed his last.
The time from that noonday service on Friday until the start of either the evening Easter Vigil on Saturday or the sunrise service on Easter morn is a time of deep contemplation.
When finally the choir opens up at sunrise in full throat with their Hallelujahs, there is a quickening of the pulse and a radiation of joy that feels long awaited. The joy of the resurrection is approximated in that moment. The memory of a death without sting is told and retold in song, story, and sermon and no one grows weary of hearing it.
Like Jesus, like the disciples, like the women at the anointing and the empty tomb this whole week wrings out of us everything we can possibly feel – the agony and the ecstasy.
Enter it again with an open heart. Enter it again with the reverence of the creature in awe of the creator. Enter it again with the hope that what we hear, what we see, what we experience in these few precious days will feed us on this, our journey Into the Mystic.