Holy Week – Why is this week different from all others? (with a nod to the question at the Passover Seder)
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of this week focus on the things that Jesus did in Jerusalem after Palm Sunday: teaching in the Temple, turning over the tables of the money-changers (Cleansing the Temple), trying to prepare the disciples for his death. The collects for each focus on aspects of Jesus’ suffering. And in the Episcopal Church on Tuesday (usually) the clergy of the diocese gather with the bishop to renew their ordination vows, and receive the oil for baptism and healing (chrism) that the bishop has blessed.
But the most intense focus in Holy Week is, of course the Three Days (Triduum, in Latin) that are at the heart of God’s saving work in Jesus’ death and resurrection – what we sometimes refer to as the Paschal Mystery. Why do we take the time to observe and celebrate these days? Since the Crucifixion and Resurrection happened long ago, and our faith is not bound by time, why should it matter when – or even if – we pay particular attention to these events narrated in the Gospels?
We do this because we know that the things and people we pay attention to and spend time with are the things we end up valuing, and being influenced by. Our faith in Christ is central, and each year we spend Holy Week “getting back to basics”, remembering what’s at the heart of our faith. And we are not alone, we are connected by faith and baptism to other Christians, we are part of the Body of Christ – and so we come together in this week to be renewed in our identity as Church, as the Body of Christ.
The Triuduum starts Thursday evening, because in the Jewish way of counting time a day starts at sunset the evening before. We know this at Christmas – in fact most of us worship on Christmas Eve – but it applies throughout the Church calendar. Jesus has gathered with his closest followers for a Passover meal that becomes what we know as the Last Supper. In this service we have two major themes: the theme of servanthood which was displayed in Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and the foundation of the Eucharist, coming from the bread and wine of the Passover seder. Everything else that happens on Maundy Thursday – a fellowship meal, stripping the altar in preparation for Good Friday, and keeping a prayer watch in the Church in front of the Reserved Sacrament (some parishes keep it until Friday dawn; ours goes until midnight) – helps to make the different aspects of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest present and real for us.
At All Saints’ we hold a Stations of the Cross at 12 noon, the traditional hour of the Crucifixion. This is a devotional service where we “walk with Jesus” on his way to the Cross. We use the eight Biblical stations with pictures, objects, singing and actions to follow Jesus. The practice of the Stations came into existence centuries ago as a way to replicate in local churches what a person might do if he or she went to Jerusalem and walked the Via Delorosa, the Way of Sorrow – taking the route through the Jerusalem streets that Jesus took to Golgatha.
The Good Friday Liturgy (which we celebrate in the evening) is a stark recognition of violence, suffering and death. This is very hard to face; it is no wonder that many people stay away. But Good Friday is not a “funeral for Jesus.” We read John’s version of the Passion, in which Jesus actually becomes the judge of Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor), and asks us to consider what is truth. We pray for the world, in all its need. And we adore the Cross which moved from being the instrument of Jesus’ torture and death, to being the symbol of God’s victory. We go to the depths on Good Friday, but in the full knowledge and assurance that God will not leave us there.
This is the day in which Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. In traditional thought, it is the day that Jesus visited the souls of those who had died, to lead them out of death and into God. Being Saturday it was the Jewish Sabbath – the day of rest. It reminds us that after a death there is a period of lostness, of shock, of numbness.
At All Saints’ the children gather for a very brief service – a Bible reading, a prayer, a hymn, and thinking about getting ready for Jesus’ resurrection. The Church is not decorated until this, and the children have their Easter Egg hunt.
Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection, the victory of life over death. It is because of Easter that our faith is valid; we put our trust in a God who acts – and acts decisively to defeat sin and death. Our Easter celebration begins with the Great Vigil on Saturday night. This is truly the night of the Christian Passover – the night in which Christ carries us from death into life. We start in the memorial Garden and light a fire that represents the Resurrection. The Pashal Candle (large baptismal/Easter candle) is lighted from the fire, individual congregational candles are lighted, and then we process into the darkened Church and sing the Exsultet, a hymn to God extolling the Light of Christ. We then hear a number of readings from the Old Testament, interspersed with hymns and prayers, which recall the story of God’s action throughout history to save us. Water represents the waters of the Red Sea, through which the Israelites were led in their flight from slavery in Egypt. At the Vigil, water is poured into the baptismal font and adults and children are baptized. Even if there are no baptisms, the water is poured, the congregation renews their baptismal vows, and are sprinkled with water. Our baptism is a direct result of Christ’s Resurrection. Finally comes the Easter Acclamation: “Alleluia. Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!” We ring bells, a fanfare is played on the organ, the lights come up and Easter has arrived. We then celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter. It’s the same feeling as counting down the seconds to midnight on New Year’s Eve – only much more profound, joyous, and of eternal significance.
The celebration continues on Easter Day, full of joy and gladness. In fact, Easter is not just one day; it is a whole season that continues for fifty days. The new life and rejoicing of the Resurrection and what it means for us who follow Jesus (and, by extension, for all Creation) cannot be contained! Easter lasts longer than Lent – it goes all the way to Pentecost.
This is the reason that Holy Week, and the Triduum especially, are at the very core of our faith. To renew our trust in God and love of the Lord we attend to the worship and devotion of these days. Each year will be different. Each year we should learn a little more, see a bit more clearly, delve a little more deeply in the Paschal mystery, and our faith will develop and grow and flourish.
Holy Week & Easter Schedule
Wednesday, 7 pm - Taize Worship
Maundy Thursday, 6 pm - Agape Meal (Parish House); 7:30 pm - Holy Eucharist & Stripping of the Altar; Prayer Vigil until 12 am
Good Friday, 12 noon - Interactive Stations of the Cross; 7:30 pm - The Good Friday Liturgy
Holy Saturday, 10 am - Kids' Service (15 mins.) and Easter Egg Hunt
Easter Eve, 7:30 pm - The Great Vigil of Easter; followed by the First Party of Easter
Easter Day, 8 & 10 am - Festival Eucharist