I am getting excited for Holy Week and Easter! Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday) is April 14-20. As it approaches, I want to highlight some of the deeply meaningful practices that make it the culmination of the Lenten season, and—If you include Easter itself—the culmination of the entire Christian year. The week is a huge marathon of church (trust me, I know), but I cannot stress how valuable, transformative, and excited it can be when you throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. My heart is racing just thinking about it (seriously).
Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil (Saturday Night) are all uniquely tied together. They even have a special name as a group: The Tridiuum (tri-dee-um). In some senses they are each different movements of the same service. Maundy Thursday (6:30PM, April 18), doesn’t have a dismissal at the end. A normal service ends with “Go forth in the name of Christ” or something like that, but Maundy Thursday just cuts off. Likewise, the Good Friday liturgy (6:30PM, April 19) does not have the normal beginning to a service—there is no Procession, song, or even opening acclamation (normally services begin with: “Blessed be God…”). The Good Friday liturgy just jumps right in. And then there’s the Easter Vigil (8PM, April 20). Don’t even get me started right now on the Easter Vigil. Next week I am going to gush over the Easter Vigil, but suffice to say that the hair stands up on the back of my neck and my eyes get watery every time I even think about it.
I want to circle back to Maundy Thursday, the night we celebrate Jesus’ last night before his death. He sits down to one last meal (the Passover Seder) with his disciples. He washes his disciples’ feet. He institutes Holy Communion, the Eucharist. He adjourns to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray with his disciples, who can’t stay awake, and he is betrayed and arrested. These events are re-membered and made alive in our own lives in a number of ways:
1. We will have an Agape meal with each other. Agape means “love” and it is about the love that Jesus has for his disciples (us). Various elements of that meal will have symbolic value and will remind of us of the story in various ways.
2. Next, we will wash each other’s feet. This is awkward and weird, and it’s supposed to be. That’s the point. Jesus demonstrated that in his Kingdom the King himself is a servant to all, and that we, as disciples, must learn to serve each other. Gross feet? Don’t care. Jesus—in the visage of one another, his body—is going to wash them anyway, if you let Him.
3. Next, we will have a Communion service that re-members (yes, I’m putting the dash there on purpose) and celebrates the first Lord’s Supper in a special way. This will be the last time we say the Eucharistic prayer together before Easter, although extra elements will be consecrated (see below). This will be followed by the Stripping of the Altar, a devastating ritual, where just about everything ceremonially removed that can be removed from the chancel (the area around the altar). This symbolizes the movement of Jesus to the garden of his betrayal, and sets the stage for the starkness of Good Friday.
4. New to us this year is a practice called the Altar of Repose. At the Stripping of the Altar the extra bread and wine, including that which we always keep in the Ambry (that special wooden cabinet to the left of the altar) will be carried to a special altar outside our normal worship space. Since we believe Christ is truly present in the bread and wine of Eucharist, this movement symbolizes Christ’s removal to the Garden. Here, Christ prays in agony and asks his disciples to keep watch with and pray. In the story (Mark 13:32-42), the disciples can’t do it. They fall asleep. Jesus returns and wakes them and says, “Could you not keep watch with me for one hour?”
At the Altar of Repose, we are listening to Jesus’ call to us to keep watch and pray with him. You are invited to sign up (alone or in pairs) for an hour-long time slot Thursday night and the early hours of Friday morning for which you can return to the church, to the Altar of Repose, and pray with Jesus. There will prayers, readings and devotions available for you if you wish. This is can be an especially meaningful time to take your own agony, or the agony of those you love to the presence of Christ and offer it there to him to be taken up into his passion & death and be transformed by his Resurrection. On Good Friday, we will consume this reserved Sacrament with which we’ve prayed all night. Even on the darkest day, the day when God dies on the cross, Jesus is still present to us in our own lives.
James – What a beautifully written and meaningful explanation of the significance of Holy Week. Thank you.