This is Holy Week.
From Palm Sunday, remembering the triumphant parade into Jerusalem, the gathering around a table, the ignominious public execution of Jesus, the “empty” day of waiting, to conclude in an Easter celebration.
The Church goes to great lengths to bring those historical events to those of us who find ourselves removed by hundreds of years. The genius of Holy Week is to put us in the middle of this mystical drama of life, death, waiting, and new life. As designed, it is experiential.
We owe a woman named Egeria for her description in letters to her friends of the events she was observing in Jerusalem. When I was researching this material, back before the Copernican revolution, she was thought to be a Spanish nun, who traveled as a pilgrim to Jerusalem to be there for the week that has come to be known as Holy. The time period is around 380, but little detail is known of her. She writes a description of the festivities and observances of the week in detail, giving us a glimpse into the detail and feel of the time. Liturgical scholars of this past century, looking to enliven and deepen this time, were gifted by her writings, as they attempted to return to a more representative version of the events.
Palm Sunday begins the week, remembering the hopeful entry of Jesus, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Pilgrims for the Passover lined the way, waving palms, wondering who this one was who was passing by on a donkey. One of my first memories of a poetic image was that of “even the rocks and stones sang”, which was to indicate the cosmic level of excitement. And so the Church reenacts this pregnant moment into celebration in the now. Palm Sunday.
But the Church plays a sneaky trick….not the first. As soon as we have paraded with Palms into the worship space, while singing a robust hymn, there is a head-jerking shift. We overhear the story of Jesus’ sentencing by Pilate, the Roman governor, handed over by the religious leaders. It would not be the last time politicians and religious leaders conspired together in the quest for power. We listen to the Passion narrative, often read dramatically, as we come face to face with Jesus’ death. “And he breathed his last.”
The Church engineers this with a specific goal and conviction: You can not get to Easter without going through the reality of the Cross and Death.
Why does the Church insert the Passion narrative into this festive moment of a triumphant parade. The Church simply is being realistic. You might not make it to Good Friday services. It’s Spring and the weather is almost perfect, unless you’re in the wake or path of a Texas tornado. I was once in a tornado immediately following the Good Friday service, knocking down a tree beside the church, along with our power. It was out for a day and a half, causing us to do the infamous liturgical scramble. Not a pretty dance, I assure you. But power was restored right before the service…..a utilitarian resurrection.
Or, as Easter usually occurs providentially with the Masters golf tournament in Augusta. Was it Bobby Jones or God who had first dibs on Spring? For a Masters pass, I would readily opt for Bobby! Watching the Masters with resplendent greens, the fuschia of azaleas, and the stark white of the dogwoods, every golfer’s heart is tuned to go practice, and play. The golf sirens may call a wandering soul to the golf course, foregoing Good Friday on an Easter weekend. I know this all too well. Hell, they used to pay me to go to church on Good Friday!
Palm Sunday shifts to Passion Sunday to get you ready for Easter. What begins with a joyous hymn of proclamation ends in silence as you file out, just like those early disciples.
The rest of the week is filled with a variety of liturgies that remember the events in the last week of Jesus’s life. The point here is to offer you entrance into the existential and cosmic reality of Jesus who is making his way from carpenter to Christ. The question is whether or not you catch a glimpse of the historical Jesus, and at the same time grasp that he is you.
Maundy Thursday refers to “mandare”, Jesus’ command to recall his presence whenever we gather. He used ordinary objects, bread and wine, things used in his Hebraic rituals that he grew up with. And it was at a meal, one of the basic things we humans do in our life. On this particular Thursday, we recall those actions with Jesus, with holy communion taking center stage.
It’s odd to me, funny on some days, painful on others, that the Church majored in the meal of this night. But, the Church seemed to forget the other powerful symbol when weary desert travelers would gather for a meal. They would wash their feet, cleaning up for the upcoming meal. Often this menial chore was done by a servant for the house. And yet Jesus turns it around, as he washes the feet of his disciples, making the point that “service” is the mark of following the Christ, servanthood is the way of being in the world. Ponder why this was not part of the main liturgy of the Church. I have a few guesses, one in particular, but I’ll let you ponder.
In the renewed liturgy, most traditions have added this to the Maunday Thursday liturgy, though it tends to be “merely” symbolic. I remember the Bishop of Atlanta washing the feet of one of the young acolytes to make the point. I once went all Cecil B. DeMille, washing the feet of my good friend, Ledell, the black janitor of the parish. It’s debatable as to the effectiveness of such a symbol. But who knows? The sower sows the seed, and you just don’t know what will bear fruit. I rode that parable many days during my ministry. Who knows? It speaks of a humility about the efficacy of what we do, the seed we have sown, but also a recognition of the complicated nature of this life we share. Even Jesus faced that reality, as some received his good news of the Gospel, while others simply never got it.
In some churches, the opportunity is afforded to anyone in attendance to wash the feet of one’s neighbor. It’s somewhat of a logistical nightmare to make this happen. Can you say “pantyhose”? In fact, most times when I have participated, great lengths are gone to in order to emphasize the “voluntary” nature of this part of the ritual. What do you think this says to folks? We prefer comfort to transformation. And it’s way too intimate for most of us.
The other piece of Thursday that seems to miss emphasis is the event of Jesus in Gethsemane. He is seen in existential isolation, as his friends/disciples are sleeping as he prays to have this “cup” of suffering and death pass him by. To me, this is the crux of the whole drama. Jesus has to DECIDE that he will accept what is waiting for him. He has a sense of the suffering that is ahead, but he is not a puppet. He has free will. He chooses. This is crucial for his identification with our humanity, fully human, fully alive.
I often think of the only stained glass window in the church I grew up in, Oakland City Baptist Church, located in southwest Atlanta. The window was at the front of the church, depicting this moment of which I write, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, kneeling at a rock, portrayed in scripture as sweating blood. This scene is found in more churches than just about any image. And, I am not puzzled by it, for it is our common predicament. Most of us do not face an actual Cross during our lifetime, though it is symbolic of death, which we all share. But the tension of decision, of deciding, is a part of the fabric of human existence. It’s there where I first got connected with this person, Jesus, this archetype, Christ. Funny that the critical symbol of my faith was in my infant/child’s eye. Why would the Son of God be seen struggling? That was my child-like takeaway early on, a question that drove me for a while.
Good Friday is observed traditionally between the hours of noon and three o’clock, the hours in which Jesus hung on the cross in his Passion. Again, the Passion narrative is rehearsed. In some churches, a cross with the corpus, the body of Jesus, is brought into the room, with an invitation to come forward to kiss the feet of Jesus. It is a somber time. At the Cathedral, we would keep the full three hours, with readings, reflections, and meditation. Again, without an embrace of the reality of Jesus’ death, it is difficult to find the true joy of Easter.
Holy Saturday is a quiet day. The liturgy is bare, sparse, as we wait, like the original disciples who did not know what was to come. I try to grapple, wrestle with this day, because again, this is the human situation as I know it. Waiting, unsure, leaning into the future, hopefully with faith.
My favorite tradition that Egeria helped us recover is that of the Easter Vigil. I first experienced it at the Trappist monastery in Conyers. We met after dark on Saturday in a nearby field for the “lighting of the new fire” of Easter. There, the Abbot went au naturale, using flint to spark the new fire in dry pine straw. He would then use this fire to light the Paschal candle, symbolizing the Light of the World which comes into the darkness of death. The symbolism is primal, and powerful. I would pause to note that I have actually witnessed a priest use a Bic lighter to replace the flint in lighting the first fire, with no thought of the symbol. Lost in translation!
The Paschal candle is processed from the field, the faithful following the candle, to the darkened church, bringing a single light into the pitch dark of the space. Its flickering is poetic as the single flame emits a surprising power to interrupt the finality of darkness, dancing on the ceiling and side walls. As the members enter the space, this is the very definition of experiential worship.
Once everyone is in place, the ancient anthem of the Exultet is chanted, rehearsing the history of salvation from Exodus to the Resurrection of Jesus. This is a hymn of history and hope. Scripture readings follow, as the congregation sits in candlelight. At the conclusion of the readings, the Celebrant stands with a prayer. The lights, if done right, explode “on”, full tilt brilliant in what was darkness, again an experiential moment of participating in this holy mystery.
The Celebrant declares loudly: Alleluia, Christ is Risen! and the congregation responds, The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
It is Easter! The joy of that moment is amazing. It is the pinnacle of this architecture known as Holy Week, with its intention to bring you into an experience of this story. I often thought of myself as an “architect of experience” as I planned carefully and creatively as to how we would present this liturgy each year. There was no higher calling in my work as a priest. And I loved it.
I hope you will look to find an Easter Vigil service near you. Some churches offer it late Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, or early Sunday. The contrast of light and dark is the driving imagery, but the liturgy itself carries the moment.
Forgive me if I stop here. Sunday morning Easter services are joyful, full of pomp, orchestras, timpanis, brass, spendid choirs. Sometimes, it’s a family command performance, which precedes a big lunch. All of this is good, but can become mere performance. Cadbury eggs, Peeps, and bunnies compete for your attention.
As a preacher, I looked at Easter Sunday morning as “prime time”, that and Christmas as my biggest opportunity to be invitatory as to the value of a spiritual life. And so, Easter Sunday was important and got my attention. I worked hard to craft a sermon that was joyful and accessible to the casual visitor. It was another kind of challenge. However, it paled in my personal experience of Easter joy found at the Great Vigil.
It’s the middle of Holy Week, so I hope you will consider leaning in with a bit of expectation, not just mailing it in. Easter is all about connecting us up with the basic mystery of life that we all embrace: Life- Death- Rebirth….a transformative ride that we can embrace.
I wish you a joyful Easter, full of joy and wonder, as we celebrate new life, and rebirth. Spring is certainly cooperating as our stage manager. All that is left is for you to show up, and be present. I pray that you experience Easter this year. But if you miss it, remember that Thomas shows up next week for all of us who show up late to the party. My patron saint, Thomas.