Palm and ashes--I never quite understood their attraction and the seeming necessity by some people to "get them" each year. After all, while Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and the day calls us all to repentance and reminds us of our own mortality, this day is not a holy day of obligation. Yet, church attendance is often excellent on this day. Remember, also, the day never falls on a weekend, but is rather a "work" and/or "school" day for most people. Yet, the people are inevitably present in droves.
Then there is today--Palm Sunday. This is another day usually with significantly high attendance. The palm branches recall Jesus' triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Yet, palm is certainly not the most important symbol in Christianity.
The most significant days of Holy Week--Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter--are known as the Easter Triduum. Holy Thursday recalls when Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist as well as the Ministerial Priesthood. Good Friday commemorates Jesus' passion and death on the cross. The Easter Vigil sees new members welcomed into the faith and magnificently expresses the great joy of Christ risen from the dead! The Masses of Easter all continue to proclaim the joy of Christ's Resurrection. These days should be given our utmost priority and Catholic churches should necessarily be packed for each Mass or service.
Personally, as pastor I am greatly humbled on Holy Thursday to wash the feet of a group of my parishioners just like Jesus did for His disciples. Priesthood involves a mandate of service in imitation of Jesus' life and ministry. "You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet." (Jn. 13: 13-14) Praying and offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is a daily privilege for me as a priest, which we solemnly experience during Thursday of the Lord's Supper followed by a period of silent prayer with the Most Blessed Sacrament.
On Good Friday we venerate the Holy Cross, read the Passion of the Lord according to St. John, pray intercessions and have an opportunity to receive Holy Communion. This day is most solemn and is one of the two remaining days of fast and abstinence required by the Church. Afterward, we give parishioners a final opportunity for the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (confession) before Easter.
If you are coming to the Easter Vigil, plan to spend at least two hours. There is no way that we can reverently celebrate all that is contained in this Mass by rushing through it just to get it done! This day happens only once a year and is not meant for those who are looking to get in and out quickly. We light the Easter fire, spend extensive time listening to Scripture readings which trace the history of salvation, bless the Easter water, perform the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Eucharist) and other rituals all within this sacred Mass.
I hope that you will put these days at the top of your list of spiritual priorities!
Fr. Ed Namiotka