Christians mark start of Holy Week with Palm Sunday

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

In this file photo, a parishoner selects palms to distribute during Palm Sunday observances in Port of Spain. – Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

Today – Palm Sunday – marks the official start of Holy Week, a significant period for Christians all over the world. Historically, the observance commemorates Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem.

Celebrants usually wave palm branches before and during masses, re-enacting the way in which the crowds greeted Christ when he rode into the Holy City.

For RC priest Fr Leslie Tang Kai, Palm Sunday lays the foundation for the events leading up to Christ’s resurrection on Glorious Saturday night. Tang Kai, parish priest of St Joseph RC Church, Scarborough, Tobago, believes Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, persecution, death, and resurrection offer a telling lesson for mankind.

He said although the sequence of events may appear “off balance” to some, it is the fulfillment of the Christian reality.

“In life, one minute you are glorified and hailed and the next, you are crucified,” he told Sunday Newsday. “I often like to tell people that even within the church, in the midst of victory, there are trials. So without the trials, there can be no victory.”

Singling out Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus as an example, Tang Kai asked, “Why should we think that within the church, all is hunky-dory and good?” “In the midst of it all, there are challenges. And that’s life. No life is free from challenges. The Messiah bled for us, led the example. He embraced the triumph, to the crucifixion, to the resurrection. He did it all for us.”

But Tang Kai said this has not stopped people from having unrealistic expectations of the church. In fact, he observed, some religious leaders, including RC priests, sometimes preach what he called the “prosperity gospel,” fueling such expectations.

Fr Leslie Tang Kai – File photo

“So they make you feel that way by how they preach and when you really get into it and you experience the challenges, you ask, ‘Why am I here?’ and they become bitter, hurt, frustrated, and disappointed with the church.”

Saying that style of ministry exists in every religious sect, Tang Kai said Christ paid the ultimate price through his death and resurrection. “But he also said, ‘If you want to be a follower of mine, pick up your cross and follow me.’ He never said it would be a bed of roses.”

The Easter liturgy, known as the Triduum, comprises Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Glorious Saturday. At St Joseph RC, the Holy Thursday Mass of the Last Supper on March 28 begins at 7 pm while the Good Friday service starts at 3 pm. On Glorious Saturday, the vigil starts at 6 pm and goes straight into the liturgy.

But even before the start of the Triduum, the Monday of Holy Week, chrism masses are held in which priests renew their vows. Sacramental oils for baptisms and for the sick are also blessed during masses.

Tang Kai said in some countries the chrism masses are usually held on Holy Thursday. “So in Rome, the Holy Father, cardinals, and priests will celebrate the chrism mass on Holy Thursday morning where they renew their priestly vows.

In the evening, we celebrate the mass of the Last Supper, the institution of the Eucharist, the washing of the feet, where Jesus really let down himself as a real servant and washed the disciples’ feet.”

While doing so, he said, Jesus had told the disciples, “You have called me Lord and master. I have given you an example.” Tang Kai asked, “So how can you get a prosperity gospel when we are called to be servants? No servant is treated like a king.”

He said on Holy Thursday, the congregation leaves the church in silence. The same obtains for Good Friday. “When we come back on Good Friday, we have a service, not a mass, a commemoration of the Lord’s passion and when we leave, the church is quiet and bare.”

At sundown on Glorious Saturday, Tang Kai said, the church is transformed to reflect Christ’s glorious resurrection. “There is the lighting of the Pascal candle, the seven readings from the Old Testament, Epistle, and gospel. The church by that time is gloriously decorated and lit.”

Outspoken with a knack for tailoring his homilies to prevailing social issues or everyday experiences, Tang Kai has been the parish priest of St Joseph RC for almost nine years, serving eight Catholic communities.

He replaced Tobagonian Fr Steve Duncan, who is now assigned to the supercluster of St Francis of Assisi, Sangre Grande. Tang Kai regarded his tenure, thus far, as a work in progress. “It has been challenging at times but not too bad.”

Apart from Catholicism being the minority faith in Tobago, Tang Kai said he was the only priest within the church for the greater part of his eight years on the island. He now has an assistant, an African priest, Fr Mathias Mulumba Ssajjabbi, who was ordained in August 2023.

Tang Kai said Sunday masses and other services are attended mainly by visiting Trinidadians or tourists.

As a result, he said, getting support for activities can sometimes be burdensome. “So even trying to structure to do any kind of project, you never sure where the income is coming from. So that makes it a little challenging.”

Tang Kai believes his experiences as a priest in Tobago are reflective of the Easter message. “The message of Easter or the message of the resurrection should always call us as Christians to look deeper at ourselves.”