Harry Potter and the Three Days: What does Harry Potter have to do with Holy Week?

Harry Potter and the Three Days

by Emily Strand

This time of year, Christians of many denominations gather to share a particular story: a story about a young man, raised to die, who willingly meets death face-to-face, turning his dreadful duty into a loving choice for the sake of his friends. It is a grim story at first, but everything changes in a surprise ending (“eucatastrophe” as Tolkien would have it): after all, his grave is empty. His loving self-sacrifice saves not just this man’s friends, but all the world – even himself – from death itself. Sound familiar? To Harry Potter fans, it must. Both Harry Potter and Jesus Christ lived stories of service, self-sacrifice and the kind of love which even death cannot overcome.

f38699558Many Christians call the week that begins today “Holy Week,” because they consider it the most sacred time of the year. It is a week of many “holy” days: Palm Sunday, Holy or Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, etc. For Roman Catholics, three particular days within this holy week are essential: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (the Vigil of Easter Sunday). Each year during these three days, known as the Great Paschal Triduum (Latin: “three days”), many Catholics fast, pray and attend a lot of extra services. I heard Stephen Colbert describe it as a “Catholic bender”, which is pretty accurate. The point? For the faithful, it is to make Jesus’ story their own through their ritual participation in the rich sacramental action of the Church at its solemn peak. Christians who are also Harry Potter readers can, without much difficulty, make important connections between the theological underpinnings of the Triduum liturgies and some of the most compelling themes of Rowling’s books, especially Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Recognizing such connections can help Christians understand, recover and appropriate the fundamental mysteries they celebrate in these great Three Days.

Radical service, radical love

Something bothered me about chapter 24 of Deathly Hallows. In it, Harry buries his friend Dobby, the Dobbyhouse-elf whom Harry had freed from perpetual servitude several books back. Harry’s burying Dobby was fitting enough; after all, Dobby had been killed rescuing Harry and friends from imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Death Eaters. But Harry’s manner of burying Dobby confused me, because our hero refused to use magic.

“I want to do it properly… Not by magic. Have you got a spade?”

And shortly afterward he had set to work, alone, digging the grave … He dug with a kind of fury, relishing the manual work, glorying in the non-magic of it, for every drop of his sweat and every blister felt like a gift to the elf who had saved their lives. (Deathly Hallows, 478)

Harry’s unprecedented refusal to engage with his magical powers in this singular instance was a stumbling block to me. Why not use magic now, why not for this?

My imagination found the point of reference it needed to break open the passage months later, as I sat singing Francis Patrick O’Brien’s hymn “This is My Example” on Holy Thursday at my parish, and watched as members of the assembly came forward to have their feet ritually washed by the priest-presider.

In a time to come

you will know what I have done;

Let me wash you, let me serve.

This is my example,

love as I love you. (O’Brien, “This is My Example”, GIA Pub., 2001)

Christ’s radical act of service in washing his disciples’ feet is found only in the Gospel of John; it is featured in place of the synoptic Gospels’ accounts of the Last Supper. Catholics ritualize this moment in the Mandatum of Holy Thursday, because Jesus’ actions in washing the feet of his disciples both make the connection between the Eucharist and radical service, but also foreshadow Christ’s looming death on Good Friday, when he will lay down not merely his dignity and position for his friends, but also his life.

Like Christ washing the feet of his disciples, Harry’s act of service toward his servant Dobby foretells the still more radical service he will soon perform, another baldly “non-magical” act: laying down his own life for the sake of his friends. Unlike Christ, Harry does not yet fully understand his mission’s implication, yet as he toils and weeps for his friend, Harry steels himself for his ultimate task: destroying Voldemort’s horcruxes. When he is finished, he humbly marks Dobby’s resting place and walks away, “his mind full of those things that had come to him in the grave, ideas that had taken shape in the darkness, ideas both fascinating and terrible.” (Deathly Hallows, 481) These visions prepare him for his ultimate task, which will require his own death.

Glory in the cross

In the final chapters of Deathly Hallows, our hero is shown the full truth of the matter by Snape: Harry himself contains the last piece of Voldemort’s soul; he bears a horcrux, and must be destroyed. “Would it hurt to die?” (Hallows, 692) he immediately wonders, never considering a way to escape. The beating of his heart becomes a funeral drum as he walks through the castle and into the forest to meet death at his enemy’s hand. In his agony he pauses only once to pass the burden of a task unfinished to his friend and disciple Neville. Then he walks on. As the narrator details Harry’s thoughts during his solemn procession toward death, one emotion dominates: acceptance. A glimpse of his girlfriend Ginny gives him pause, but not for long. “At the same time he thought that he would not be able to go on, he knew that he must. The long game was ended…” (Hallows, 698)

Remarkably Christ-like, Harry’s self-offering is done freely in love. Christ is both victim and priest at the altar, and Harry is both victim and victor in the forest, as he stands face-to-face with death, wand purposefully pocketed to prevent self-defense, trusting his defeat will bring the community’s victory. “And that,” he is told moments later in death by his beloved headmaster, “will, I think, have made all the difference.” (Hallows, 708) Like Christ at Golgotha, Harry destroys death by accepting it: this is his glory. This is why the liturgy of Good Friday finds Roman Catholics rejoicing in the Cross, even venerating this horrific instrument of death. For it is this Cross, once wretched, which now sets us free. The liturgy of Good Friday is solemn, yes, but also surprisingly triumphant. Our colloquial name for the feast bespeaks our perspective on it: it is “Good” Friday. It is certainly not meant to be a liturgy marked by mourning, but rather by gratitude, for Christians rejoice in Christ’s acceptance of the task.

The feast of victory

Indeed, Harry’s acceptance makes all the difference. The same magic that protected him through life, his mother’s loving self-sacrifice, combines with his own offering to allow his return from death, free from the burden of evil. But all is not yet won; the man himself remains: Voldemort, now a HP Xmas 2mere mortal. It comes down to a duel by the light of dawn, which Harry wins not by committing murder, but by disarming Voldemort just as his enemy casts the killing spell. Voldemort’s wand turns on its owner, and the Dark Lord is destroyed forever.

Like Christ, Harry destroys death, personified in Voldemort, by disarming it. In his final duel with Voldemort, Harry notices his enemy’s spells “seemed unable to hold” (Hallows, 731) against the cheers of Harry’s supporters, who are filled with a new hope at his rising. As Catholics hear at the Easter Vigil in St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, “death no longer has power over him.” (Rom. 6:9)

When the Dark Lord is finished for good, cries of thankful joy erupt as survivors flock to the Boy Who Lived. The sorrow of loss mingles with the elation of victory, just as Slytherins mingle with Gryffindors, house-elves with centaurs, teachers with pupils, the living with the spirits of the dead, for though Professor McGonagall replaces the four Hogwarts House tables so the warriors can break their fast, “nobody was sitting according to House anymore…” (Hallows, 745) For Christians, this striking scene images the Paschal banquet we celebrate at Holy Saturday’s Vigil of the Lord’s Resurrection, when all come to the feast of victory, knowing no division. For “this is the joyful feast of the people of God. They will come from east and west and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God.” (Book of Common Worship, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993)

Emily Strand is a Catholic catechetical writer and author of the book Mass 101: Liturgy and Life (Liguori, 2013). She teaches Comparative Religions at Mt. Carmel College of Nursing and is the newest member of the HogPro teaching staff. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

Comments

  1. Beautiful. I just listened through all 7 books again and finished last week. I had never noticed before that Harry won through his “signature” spell, expelliarmus. While Voldemort choses murder, Harry disarms.

    And the other thing I have never noticed is how, after his resurrection, Harry passes through Dementors without needing his patronus. “The fact of his own survival burned inside him, a talisman against them, as though his father’s stag kept guardian in his heart”

    So good.

  2. http://Emily%20Strand says

    Nice spot, Chris!! I love that!

  3. http://Donna%20Fowler says

    This is a thoughtful article that really speaks to me. My husband and I are huge fans of the books and the movies and have talked about the theological themes J.K. Rowling employed in her writing. What a wonderful time to read this, Tuesday of Holy Week!

  4. http://David%20Martin says

    Thank you for this.

    Carrying the story a bit further, it seems to me that there is an Easter (or perhaps even Pentecost) feel to the final scene in the Great Hall, when all the people and house elves and centaurs (and goblins?) are mixed together. The usual – and ancient – barriers and divisions are down. It’s like Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

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