For the next four weeks we will look at the individual liturgies of Holy Week – especially Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. This series of liturgies (really just one liturgy now celebrated over three days) plus Palm Sunday form the heart (the crux even – meaning the Cross) of the Christian life and year. Participation in these Rites has made and marked Christians from the earliest days of the Church.
Two years ago, Karrie and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The visits to holy sites were powerful and evocative. Walking the Way of the Cross, sitting in the Garden of Gethsemane, venerating the site of Christ’s birth and of his crucifixion – each of these places drove home the very simple and yet life-changing fact that Our Savior walked among us. Each of these places is transformative in its own right. Yet, I found myself equally transformed by the conversations we had with local Christians living their faith in the midst of a place suffused with obvious holiness and yet awash in so much grief. Their lived experience is a distillation of the totality of the Christian life – an intersection of grief, joy, and hope that marks life in Christ. This is the living history – the story – to whose source we make our common pilgrimage in Holy Week.
The heart of the Christian Faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see in Jesus the full glory of God’s own life and the full development of human dignity. Every story of the Gospels adds to this fullness; the events we commemorate during Holy Week bring us to the heart of the story. What we see requires a response. It is quite possible to look at Jesus and find nothing to attract us or even reasons to scoff. It is possible to find something compelling, and still to finally turn away. There are those who follow if only at a distance and there are, in every generation, those who can stand by the cross and who will arrive early at the Empty Tomb. Holy Week exposes us to the story each year and requires from us, those who name ourselves Christians, a response.
The series is offered as an introduction to the way we tell the story, inviting us into a deeper understanding and ever more thoughtful participation. The way the story is told has changed and taken on the language of many cultures and is infused with the skills of artists and enriched with an unimaginable weight of prayer over the ages. These are the most ancient of our liturgies and we seek to enter them with an awareness of the deep significance, history, and mystery of which we are inheritors.
The earliest celebration of Holy Week (also called the Triduum) was one event. It began in the night that ended with the Dawn of Easter Day. During that long night the Church told the key stories of Scripture, kept vigil, and prayed as new converts were baptized into Christ’s Death and rejoiced as they joined with them in sharing the Bread and Wine – the Body and Blood of Christ by which the Risen Lord sustains his people and binds them together as One Body.
After the period of persecutions had ended, in the Church in Jerusalem, it became a custom for the various events of Jesus’ last days to be remembered with prayers, hymns, and ceremonies in the places where they occurred. A Spanish Nun, Egeria, made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem about the year 400AD. She returned inspired by what she had seen and the customs of the Church in Jerusalem spread through Western Europe. Rites were developed that re-enacted the events of the week. The full range of human creativity exploded in poetry and music, painting and statuary, to impress the story on the hearts and minds of Christians.
In the 16th Century, as our particular Anglican tradition was being forged and fought over in England, the customs were sharply curtailed and simplified (this coincided with events like the sacking of the monasteries of England and the destruction of much sacred art). Over the last four centuries, the Anglican Tradition has recaptured much of what had been lost, while never losing the insight that it is the hearing and responding to the story, and not the ceremonies themselves, that is central. The ceremonies vary from the exuberance of Palm Sunday’s procession (complete with children using palm fronds for sword fights at coffee hour) to the silence of the watch at the Altar of Repose from just after the Maundy Thursday liturgy to the next day’s Good Friday solemnities.
Some, like the basic shape of the Vigil, come from the earliest days of the Church. During Holy Week, we draw upon thousands of years and countless cultures as we follow the way of the Cross, pray with Jesus in his agony, and announce the Good News of the Resurrection.
More is going on in even the simplest Eucharist than we could name or describe; and with certainty the liturgies of Holy Week are even more deep and multifaceted. We, as Anglicans, have a rich array of resources that are ours as inheritors of both the catholic and reformed strains of Christian piety and practice as we seek to explore the mystery of Christ’s own self poured out for us on the Cross, from the Tomb, and in the Cup.
These Rites are powerful; the yearly repetition creates deep memories and shapes our imagination. It is a demanding week, requiring attention and effort to participate fully. If we answer Jesus’ call to “watch with me,” God will work through word and action to accomplish in us his own purposes. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to the observance of a Holy Lent – may we complete that observance, our pilgrimage, by entering with joy, reverence, awe, and wonder into the mysteries of Holy Week.
I would encourage your full participation – if you have a routine that has been unvaried for some years then this may be the year for that to change. If you have not been to the Easter Vigil or Maundy Thursday or Good Friday then make this a year when you add those observances to your Christian journey – the worst that can happen is that you feel that you have wasted 90 minutes. On the other hand you may find yourself caught up and drawn into the mystery of Christ in a new and holy way – as countless Christians for nearly two thousand years have. This year there will be some change in our liturgies – but much more will feel familiar – for the patterns of washing, weeping, and rejoicing are the same from generation to generation. Even as the eddies may shift, the tide of God’s love remains ever and forever, given anew as we live this ancient story afresh.