Traditions Change But The Story Stays The Same


Last evening, I met with our Pastor to review the plans for the liturgies of Holy Week in our parish. This marks my 21st year planning Holy Week services at my current parish, and my 41st year participating as a liturgical musician. I reflected on that stretch of more than 40 years and though about what things had changed and what had remained the same.

For the most part, the order of the services has remained the same. While there have been adjustments to the language of the prayers and responses, as well as interpretation of some of the rituals that alter the environment slightly, for the most part, the services of Holy Week continue to tell the fantastic story of Jesus’ triumphal arrival in Jerusalem, His Last Supper with His closest followers and friends (the apostles), His betrayal, passion, death, and finally resurrection. The drama of these events captured so beautifully in recited prayers and music remains as profound and richly meaningful as ever. In fact, perhaps with age (my age!) the story becomes even more meaningful.

What has changed is the number of people attending these services from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. I have noticed in the 21 years that I have been at my parish that the number of people who attend Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil services is getting smaller and smaller. It seems that other obligations are crowding out Holy Week. Many institutions, for example, do no close for Good Friday, as once was the custom for most. And spring vacation plans seem to be on the rise for many families, who use time off from school or work to travel as a family – a very important time to be together and take a break from the fast-paced daily routines that often do not give family members a lot of time together.


If you were raised in a household with strong ethnic traditions, as I was, Lent, Holy Week and Easter seasons were punctuated with signature foods and dishes that had special meaning – from the fish served on the Fridays of Lent and the special delicacies made for Saint Joseph’s Day, which often falls during Lent, to the Easter breads, pies, and dishes of fresh greens and meats to celebrate the holiday. Food preparation rituals during Holy Week had a specific timetable, so that dishes could be prepared in various stages in between Holy Thursday Mass, Good Friday services, and the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. I can remember my mother baking the last loaves of Easter bread in the oven in silence from noon to 3 p.m. on Good Friday before leaving for Church.

For me, growing up in this Church and home environment during these holy seasons was special. It seemed as though time slowed down. The daily routines were interrupted and replaced with sensory rituals that engaged your emotions.

Will these experiences be lost to more and more people over the years? And if so, will they be replaced with anything as meaningful and powerful?

Or am I too presumptuous to think that everyone finds the Church’s celebrations and, in particular, my family traditions to be so meaningful?

I recognize that people of different faiths and personal beliefs have various ways to be in touch with the spiritual and the divine. And I am sure that Holy Week is not the only time one can be hyper-focused on his or her faith and beliefs. It just happens to be a very special time of year for me. So perhaps I should be less concerned about the size of the congregation at religious services, and more focused on the words found in the Gospel of Matthew:

For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.
(Matt. 18:20)

Wishing you and your families a Blessed and Happy Easter!