The forty days of Lent culminate with the final days before Easter. During this last week of Lent, called “Holy Week,” we walk with Jesus’ disciples as they experience Jesus’ final days before his death. We parade with them, eat with them, flee with them, watch with them, mourn with them. After all this, we celebrate with them on Easter when our Lord was resurrected from the dead. And this celebration on Easter is that much sweeter because we have walked through the darkness that, in the end, does not overcome the light. What follows is a description of the services we are doing this year at the church where I serve. It is a fairly typical representation of Holy Week services in the Episcopal Church. If you have not experienced a full slate of Holy Week services, I commend them to you. I promise that your experience of Easter will be substantially different than it has been in the past. So without further ado…
…Our walk with Jesus and the disciples begins on Palm Sunday (April 17 this year). We lift palms in joyous celebration as Jesus enters Jerusalem humbly on the back of a donkey. We cry out, “Hosanna in the highest heaven.” We are part of the crowd that witnesses the spectacle. We lift our voices in praise. But is this the kind of messiah we have been expecting? Our shouts of praise turn to cries for his blood when the service shifts to the reading of the “Passion Gospel.” We read about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, and as the crowd, we condemn him. This reading prepares us to hear the good news of the Resurrection on Easter. But if we hear only this reading between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, then we miss the rest of the walk with the disciples.
The walk continues on Wednesday (April 20). We gather in the church for a service called “ Tenebrae.” Coming from the Latin word for “darkness,” Tenebrae recounts through the praying of the psalms God’s relationship with God’s people. The psalms we read tell of the lamentations of the people of God in exile. As we read, we slowly extinguish candles to show the gradual gathering of darkness. This is not a joyful service. Rather, it is a service that profoundly connects us via the psalms to the suffering and sorrow that happens in the world. But this is not the end of the story. It is the middle. The disciples are afraid, worried, anxious about their Lord. And we are afraid of the darkness surrounding us. But all is not lost for Easter is coming.
But before we get there, we sit at table with Jesus in the upper room. On Maundy Thursday (April 21), we share a meal and we wash one another’s feet to remember that Jesus commands us to love one another as he loves us. (The word “Maundy” comes from the Latin for “commandment”.) By this love others will know that we are his disciples. We move to the church and strip the altar of the vestments to show the starkness of the next few days, the days when Jesus died and was laid in the tomb. We go outside and hear of Judas’s betrayal in the garden. We take turns staying up through the night to wait and watch, as Jesus asked his friends to do when he went off to pray.
Then on Good Friday (April 22), we watch from afar as Jesus goes to trial. He is condemned. He carries the cross to the site of his execution. We stand there with the women and the disciple whom Jesus loved as he suffers and dies. In our liturgy, we recount once again the Passion Gospel, we pray at the foot of the cross, we sit in silence and contemplate the unbounded love that exists within the sacrifice.
On the morning of Holy Saturday (April 23) we hear the story of Jesus being taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Then, after the sun goes down, after the next day has begun according to old Jewish custom, we have the first liturgy of Easter, the Great Vigil of Easter. We sing the praises of God in the beautiful words of the “Exultet,” and we read of God’s movement through the lives of the people of God in the Old Testament. As did the early Christians at this service, we baptize new members of the body of Christ and renew our baptismal vows. Then the service shifts and we raise the first “Alleluia!” of Easter. We celebrate the breaking of darkness and death, the repairing of the way between God and people, the resurrecting of Jesus Christ. We run with the disciples to the tomb and see it empty. We rejoice.
Then on Easter Sunday (April 24), we continue to praise God for God’s love made known in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The walk which began a week ago on Palm Sunday is over. We will have moved through Holy Week – through suffering and death – to the life and new hope of Easter. And then a new walk will begin.