Yes, yes, I know. We aren’t there yet. Still a few days before Palm Sunday. But I wanted to share why the services of Holy Week are among the most profound, most meaningful liturgies we celebrate as a Church.
Holy Week officially begins on Palm Sunday. The most ancient Palm Sunday service commemorated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, with the reading of the people greeting him with palms and branches. Through the years, the Passion Gospel reading became part of the service. My sense is that, as attendance at the Triduum waned, we forced the Passion reading into Palm Sunday to make the move to Easter a bit less abrupt.
However, the ancient liturgy of the Triduum in the Church has a particularly beautiful sense of movement, drama, and time, the three holy days of one service. There is so much meaning in the singular liturgy it takes the Church three days to express it all.
So, back to Palm Sunday. We arrive. We hear how much the people loved Jesus. They had an impromptu parade. And then, later in the service, we hear how complicit we were in Jesus’ death. And there we are…faced with the truth of how fickle we humans are. We can love someone, as long as they agree with us, make us feel happy, and don’t challenge us. But the minute they act in a way we dislike, our favor fades. We gossip. We betray. We wound. Or the minute they become enemy or simply fodder for someone more powerful than we, our favor fades. We become silent, distant. And we yell, “Crucify him.” Or we just watch from the distance as someone else (thankfully, not us) is beaten and abused.
We can simply come to Palm Sunday and return a week later to Easter and God will love us. We will get some portion of the story, participate at some level of the meaning, and experience the journey. But I liken it to reading the first, middle, and last books of the Harry Potter series. You’ll get the gist of the story, but you’ll miss the fullness of all that is the narrative.
Which is why the Triduum is such an key part of Holy Week. Beginning with Maundy Thursday, we gather with Jesus, hear the commandments, wash each other’s feet (which invites us into all sorts of emotional responses of washing and having feet washed – not to be dismissed as an important part of being a disciple), and do this in remembrance of me. Then, in the quiet aftermath of it all, we strip the altar while hearing the words of the Psalm. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” What began as a celebration ends abruptly…except it really doesn’t end at all. We just pause the action. We leave empty, confused, even sad. We know what is coming, just as Jesus’ disciples do. Grief invades our bones.
Some Churches have places of prayer and meditation between the pause of the Maundy Thursday service and the beginning of the Good Friday service. It reflects the time in the Garden, when Jesus is praying and the disciples are trying to pray, but falling asleep instead. And we aren’t much different. Some stay for a few moments, but we fall asleep. We have work, children at home, things to do. We have reasons not to be part of such an unreasonable thing like sitting in prayer in the wee hours of the morning.
Some do. They pray with us and for us. They are present, and yet, what will happen will still happen. Good Friday is suddenly here.
Good Friday is a stark, solemn service. We read the Passion Gospel. We venerate the cross. We do not celebrate the Holy Eucharist. When you kill God, you don’t get to participate in a feast of love and welcome. Maybe there is music, maybe not. And we pause again. No blessing. No dismissal. Just empty silence. God is dead…right?
And then what I think is the most beautiful, powerful service of the Christian year – the Easter Vigil. We begin in the garden, in the dusk, and we light the new fire. And it’s a fire. None of this match to Paschal Candle dainty proper stuff. Nope. It’s a whoosh fire that recalls the sound of the breath of God moving over the chaos of creation. We follow the Light of Christ into the church. After prayers, Bible readings, hymns, and Baptisms, there is that moment of quiet. The church is dark, lit only by candlelight. The air is heavy. Maybe we hear some birds. The silence is pregnant. Then I say the words, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!”
We celebrate. We sing. We ring bells. We cheer. We celebrate the Eucharist. We sing some more. The service, which began tentatively with Maundy Thursday, fell into despair on Good Friday, now finds its end in joy and blessing. For the first time in over 6 weeks, I will pronounce God’s blessing at the end of the service.
And then we have champagne.
So this year, if your Church offers services during Holy Week, go. Be part of the full journey. Hear the words. Experience the emotions. Be inconvenienced, troubled, and sad. Weep if you are so moved. Sit in silent grief and confusion. Then celebrate. In the span of a week, we journey together through the full emotions of life with and in Christ. Trust me, the journey is worthwhile.
~The Rev. Laurie Brock, Rector of St. Michael’s Church in Lexington, KY and one of the celebrity bloggers for Lent Madness