Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week in Full

A warning to regular readers: this post is much more reverent than my usual fare. It's downright spiritual. Oh, and it really has nothing to do with parenting. And it's too long for proper writing on the web. Oh well.
If you're a person of faith, it might resonate with you. If you're not, it may pique your curiosity or put you in a fit of pique. If it's going to be the latter, maybe you just skip this and catch my normal snide self in my next post.

I hate Palm Sunday. Not that I would have it any other way, but I hate the way the service starts with Hosanna and gets to Crucify! by 25 minutes in. Nothing brings home the role of my own sin in the crucifixion and my own need for the redemption of the resurrection quite like Palm Sunday. Which is precisely why I don't like it.

To back up, I grew up worshiping at The Salvation Army, where the church calendar means nothing. Easter Sunday arrived with no prelude, except maybe some shopping for a new outfit. Out of nowhere, we just woke up one frigid April Sunday and went out on a hill or even on folding chairs in a church parking lot for a "sunrise service". The closest we had to a liturgical tradition was the stop at McDonald's for breakfast sandwiches between the sunrise service and regular church. The egg has some spiritual significance, but a) I don't think those are necessarily real eggs and b) combining them with American cheese and English muffins, while trans-Atlantic, probably robs them of their Trinitarian meaning.

Now, I worship at an Anglican church and have learned to love the richness of the church calendar. The Lenten season through Holy Week makes Easter mean so much more.

At Ash Wednesday, we start with the pleasing symmetry of having ashes applied to our foreheads created by burning last year's palms. Hard to say whether that's a resurrection or a reverse resurrection. Either way, it's an important reminder that we are all ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

In Lent, worship changes in subtle ways like the eliding of the word "Hallelujah" from the liturgy and a much-less decorated altar. Purple stoles remind us that we are awaiting the crowning of a King. Individually, we give things up or take things on as a discipline. This year, I've found that I could live without facebook during Lent, a valuable lesson.

Then, we arrive at Palm Sunday, and the Hosanna!-Crucify! whiplash occurs. That whiplash sensation used to catch me unawares. I would forget from one Palm Sunday to the next everything but the joyous waving of the palms in what insiders call the "holy pretzel" processional. Then my complicity in Christ's death would rise up just a few liturgical minutes later. The past two years, though, I've been cast as Peter in our congregation's passion play. Apparently, i'm typecast as being disloyal in times of trouble. Anyway, rehearsing for the Passion means that I'm tuned into Palm Sunday for weeks in advance. We yell "Crucify!" over and over again. Reciting Peter's denials, I embody all the most obvious flaws of disciples, both biblical and contemporary. I don't actually need Peter's words to embody those flaws, natch.

Maundy Thursday claims two superlatives in the liturgical calendar: 1. most mispronounced day (Maunday Thursday seems more like a trick of the parallelism-craving mind and tongue than a mistake about how Maundy is spelled.) and 2. coziest service of the year. I like to think it's cozy because we remember the Last Supper in the Upper Room not because the service is so poorly attended. Jesus and the Disciples lived such a public life together during His ministry that the Last Supper strikes me as a rarely intimate moment. The most intimate act that happens in the sanctuary at any point in the year happens on Maundy Thursday as friends and family members wash each others' feet. And in case you didn't know what was coming the next day, this service ends in total darkness and silence.

When a friend in college talked once about leaving the Good Friday service in grief, I had no idea what she was talking about. Again, at that time, I knew nothing of the rhythm of the church calendar, and the notion that a service could bring home the reality of Christ's death as much as she described it (her face was altered, she discovered upon seeing her reflection in a store window). Three hours in length, this service reminds us of what it must have been like for Jesus' disciples and family members to watch and wait, scared witless, while he died and was taken away. The oft-quoted "Today is Friday, but Sunday's a-comin'" sermon undersells the importance of pausing on Friday to take in all the dire sadness of The Death without which there is no resurrection. Today is Friday. Let it be. Sunday has its own business.

Finally, having turned our minds and hearts in so many directions for 40 days (plus the Sundays that are feast days and not technically part of Lent). we arrive at Easter with the proper appreciation for all the fuss. At our church, we bring bells and ring them like crazy people as we celebrate the empty tomb and worship the risen Messiah.

To paraphrase a Pittsburgh political slogan: I hate Palm Sunday because I love it so much. Even if you missed Palm Sunday this year, I encourage you to participate in the rest of Holy Week at a church near you that observes it. And next year, you can do the whole shebang. There will be no denying it: It'll be your most meaningful Easter ever.


Rob Reardon said...

Great thoughts! I agree that the Army ought to observe the Liturgical Calendar more closely. For the record, my wife and I strive to make Holy Week meaningful for our family and when possible for those we minister with/to.

Azure said...

Someone should start a petition to eliminate the term "Good Friday" for being misleading. I'll take "God's Friday," "Holy Friday," "Grief Friday" or "Mourning Friday," please not "Good Friday!" JMO.

Lauren Jackson said...

Thanks for this, Jeff.

Cindy Leonard said...

Growing up in the Pentecostal sect, I get you. Easter Sunday just sort of happened. You got a palm frond the week before at church and on Easter Sunday you got a basket full of chocolate stuff after church (and wondered what exactly that had to do with Jesus dying on the cross, but didn't question 'cause it tasted good).

When I took on an Episcopal church as a website client a few years back, I was surprised at how big a deal Lent and Easter really are in a dare-I-say-normal church. The first time I put Maundy Thursday on the church's Google calendar, I emailed my contact to ask 1) if it was spelled correctly, and 2) what the heck it was. The differences between denominations are fascinating. I still sometimes wish I'd grow up a Catholic like all my friend, though. :)

Cindy Leonard said...


I did have more than one, despite what might be extracted from my misspelling in my previous post.