Finally, we see the end coming near. Holy Week is that time when we journey with Jesus through the final days of his earthly life and we witness at the end of our journey the most amazing event – the death and resurrection of our Lord – the Paschal mystery which is the very core of Christian belief. This year will be unlike any other Holy Week you might have experienced as we will match Jesus’ movements as closely as we can and that means changes in our readings and in our worship.
We begin Holy Week with the blessing of palms this Sunday. At St. Matthew’s, this joyous celebration, commemorating the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, is capped by a procession around the church campus so be careful as you come “flying in on Sunday not to hit people gathered outside for the procession of the palms. Then we continue to hear readings of Jesus’ day in Jerusalem before he heads to Bethany to stay at Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ house for a few days. There is no reading of the passion narrative on Palm Sunday this year – instead the passion narrative will be enacted by our youth on Good Friday when we believe the actual events occurred.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week tell us of how Jesus continued to surround himself with his close disciples and friends – each night at 7 p.m. we have a special liturgy with Holy Eucharist to share in this journey with Jesus. The readings for these services give us the background for what will quickly happen on Thursday and Friday. You may not have ever heard these readings and you are invited to come and find out how Jesus and his friends spent the first part of this week.
On Maundy Thursday we will gather for a final Eucharist. One aspect of this service is the (Mandatum which is Latin for command). Jesus washes the disciples feet and commands us to love one another as he has loved us. We join in this rite of Foot Washing to signal our readiness to serve others as Christ served. At the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy we enact one of the most solemn rites of the Church year, the stripping of the Altar. The Altar and Sanctuary (tabernacle) light are symbols of Christ’s presence. In this ancient rite we commemorate the abandonment of Jesus by his followers and the stripping of Jesus by the soldiers prior to his crucifixion. To signify Jesus’ arrest and later crucifixion we extinguish the sanctuary light to remind us that the light of Christ has gone out of the world. Temporarily darkness seems to have the final word.
At noon on Good Friday when we assume the crucifixion might have occurred, we gather to walk the stations of the cross which remind us in graphic ways of the agony of Jesus in his walk to Golgotha and his death. In walking the stations of the cross, we stand symbolically with those who stood at the foot of the cross with Jesus in those final hours.
The 7 p.m. Friday evening the liturgy of Good Friday is divided into four parts. It begins in silence followed by the Liturgy of the Word which includes the Passion narrative from Mark’s Gospel which is lead by the youth of the parish. The second part is a solemn form of the prayers of the people. These bidding prayers and collects date as far back as the 3rd Century CE. It is traditional to kneel in prayer during the bidding and to stand during the collect. The third part, the Veneration of the Cross is a time to reflect on the cross as both an instrument of death and a symbol of the resurrection. ((For a bit of historical trivia, the veneration of the cross was first described in detail by Egeria (an early Christian): a fragment of the true Cross was processed to Calvary and, while the deacons stood guard, the bishop would lift it up for all to venerate. All would then come forward to kiss the cross. The deacons were in place to guard the relic because some particularly fervent pilgrims would try to bite off pieces of the cross to take home. The rite, minus the guards, remains much the same in our liturgy today.)) After anthems and silent veneration of the cross, then all depart in silence remembering the great sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus has died and been placed in the tomb just before sunset.
Holy Saturday at 10 a.m. we continue the liturgy which began on Maundy Thursday – no dismissal of the gathered faith community occurs from Maundy Thursday until Easter. This brief Saturday service of prayer and scripture is intended to mirror the disciples gathered in the upper room trying to hide from the authorities and praying for God’s guidance as Jesus, their friend and leader, has been killed and they are in mourning.
Then when evening arrives on Saturday, the Great Vigil of Easter begins with the lighting of a new fire outside and the recounting of the history of salvation. Vigils have a long history in the Church; frequently they lasted all night and culminated with the celebration of Eucharist at dawn. Our Great Vigil is not an all-night vigil, only about two hours. It is time well spent as this is the beginning of our move toward Easter and the recounting of salvation history is one of the most beautiful and ancient liturgies of the church. It begins with the blessing of a fire kindled outside about dusk. From this fire our Paschal candle is lit. This large candle will burn at all services during the fifty days of Easter and also burns at any baptisms and funerals. This candle reminds us that Christ, the Light of the World can overcome even the darkness of sin and death. We will process behind this candle into the dark church where we will gather in the light of this candle around the Baptismal font. At this point a cantor will chant the ancient hymn known as the Exultet. This hymn begins to tell the history of God’s tremendous love for creation and humankind. Following the readings from Scripture, water is blessed and if there are candidates for baptism they receive the sacrament at this time. We renew our baptismal vows and all are sprinkled with the blessed water. At this point in the Liturgy, we end our recounting of God’s actions in creation and we return at dawn to discover what God has done in the darkness of the night.
On Easter Sunday morning Alleluias, grand music and incense fill the air as we conclude our Holy Week celebrations with the festive Eucharists at 7 a.m. sunrise and 10:45 a.m. These beautiful celebrations are the apex of our liturgical life. In these liturgies, commemorating the Paschal mystery, we are connected with Christians from all over the world in our time, from the past, and those yet to come. We celebrate as resurrection people the victory of Jesus Christ over death and the grave, and we are reminded that we too have eternal life.
On Easter morning, bring bells and cut flowers, if you have them, as we celebrate with joy the gift of God’s love. Egg hunt to follow the 10:45 service for those 5th grade and younger.
Come and journey with Jesus through Holy Week. Don’t miss out on this most mysterious and wonderful spiritual journey – 7 p.m. each evening.