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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter - an introduction for the uninitiated

Christianity’s most important festival occurs each year in Holy Week (sometimes called 'passiontide') and the first day of the Paschal (Easter) season. Beginning with Palm/Passion Sunday, Holy Week commemorates the last week of Jesus’ life. Through a series of public services of worship, Christians everywhere join with Christ as he enters Jerusalem, shares a last meal with his disciples, is arrested, tortured, crucified and buried. Finally, at the Easter Vigil - which takes place sometime after sundown on the evening of Holy Saturday - Christians all over the world gather to celebrate Christ’s resurrection and renew their baptismal promises to follow Christ faithfully.

Palm/Passion Sunday

There are two parts to this opening service of Holy Week. The first part is familiar to most Protestants. It is the Liturgy of the Palms, commemorating the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem to cries of ‘hosanna’ and the waving of palm branches. The second part of the service is not, perhaps, so familiar. The Liturgy of the Passion is a reading of the whole story of Christ’s suffering and death, which might be interspersed with the extinguishing of candles to symbolise the ebbing away of Christ’s life. Because the service is best completed in almost total darkness, the darkness at the moment of Christ’s death, many gather for this service in the evening.

Maundy Thursday

The Maundy Thursday service commemorates the last supper Jesus shared with his disciples. According to John’s gospel, Jesus took a servant’s towel at the evening meal and washed his disciple’s feet. He did this to show that he had come amongst them as a servant, and that they, too, were called to serve one another. In memory of this event, the liturgy gives opportunity for the worshippers to wash each other’s feet. Afterwards, worshippers share a supper of bread and wine together, in thanksgiving for that first supper or 'eucharist' Jesus shared with his friends. The service is completed with a reading of Psalm 22, which is all about being betrayed by a friend and how an experience like that can cause a person to feel betrayed by God as well. While the Psalm is being read, the church is stripped of all colour and light. In this way, worshippers are prepared to walk with Jesus to Gethsemane, where Jesus is betrayed by his friend Judas through the bitterness of a kiss.

The Maundy Thursday service should not be regarded as an event that stands on its own. It is part of one great act of worship that lasts for three days, in a multi-service rite known as the Paschal Triduum, or Great Three Days of Easter. For that reason, there is no blessing or dismissal at the end of the Thursday event. Instead there is the simple expectation that all will gather again for the events of Great Friday.

Good (or Great) Friday


There are two kinds of service on Good, or Great, Friday. The first, an ecumenical 'Stations' or 'Way of the Cross' procession, has its origins in a private devotional practices from fourth century Rome. There the journey of Christ to Golgotha, carrying his cross, was commemorated by a rhythmic movement of walking, reading and prayer. Today it has become a means by which separated churches may come together to publicly share their sorrow at Christ’s death. An ecumenical Way of the Cross is often planned for the late morning of Good Friday.

The second service of Good Friday may best be celebrated at 3pm, in memory of the hour of Christ’s death (Matt 27.45). This second component of the paschal Triduum incorporates a reading of the story of Christ’s death, a series of ‘reproaches’ as from God the Father towards a world that would crucify his son, and a final movement of silent prayer that is known, traditionally, as the ‘veneration of the cross’. Here a great wooden cross is laid on the floor of the church and people are invited to stand or kneel before it, to touch the cross and offer their prayers of penitence and thanksgiving for Christ’s great sacrifice. Many church traditions have no eucharist on Good Friday because the period between the Supper on Thursday evening and the Easter Vigil on Saturday evening is a fast.  In those churches that cannot abide a fast, the eucharist is sometimes celebrated silently, or in an abbreviated form, using the blessed symbols from the night before.  In any case, this service can be very, very moving. Again, there is no dismissal or blessing at the end of the service. Instead, the participants are invited to continue their worship at the final component of the Triduum, The Great Vigil of Easter.

Great and Holy Saturday (The descent to Hell)

The Western Church has always been a little perplexed about what to do with Holy Saturday, and especially the notion from 1 Peter 4.1-8 that Christ, upon dying, went 'in the Spirit' to all those trapped in the underworld who had not heard the gospel and preached to them that they, like the liviing, might repent.  Again, one should not take such accounts as 'history' but as theology. Peter wants us to know that the gospel is preached to all creation, from its heights to its depths, and all people are called to make a response.  One way to celebrate these themes is to meet on the morning of Holy Saturday around a cross that is layed on the ground with a burial shroud over it. The service then takes the form of morning prayer, except the psalms, prayers and canticles are taken from 'Matins for Great and Holy Saturday' in the Eastern tradition.

The Great Vigil of Pascha (Easter)

The Great Vigil is the most important service of the Christian year because it celebrates what, for Christians, is the central event in human history, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The service begins sometime between sundown and dawn with a 'Liturgy of Light'. Worshippers gather outside the church around a fire from which a new Paschal candle is lit. The Paschal (Easter) candle is a symbol of Christ’s resurrection. It burns in the church every Sunday during the fifty days of the Easter season to remind us that Christ is risen.

Following behind the raised candle, worshipers then process into a darkened church where they are seated for the 'Liturgy of the Word', a reading of selected passages from the whole history of God's dealings with humankind. As each reading passes, the worshippers say a prayer and light a new candle. The church gets gradually brighter. At the final reading, an account of the resurrection, all the lights go on, the Easter banners are unfurled, and the congregation rises to sing a joyful song of praise to the God who alone is able to give life to the dead.

What follows is a 'Liturgy of Baptism', in which catechumens who have long been preparing to embrace Christ are finally welcomed into the church through baptism, a washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Rising from the water, each new Christian is annointed with oil, as a sign that God's Spirit has now taken up residence in their lives as advocate and guide. Ideally, a bishop can be present to say the prayers of 'confirmation' over them before all the other worshippers - those already baptised - renew the vows made at their own baptisms or confirmations: to turn from evil and to follow Christ, and to live in the faith of the church. The congregation is sprinkled with water as a sign of renewal in that vocation and mission.

Finally, worshippers share the 'Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper' as a sign that Christ is for ever amongst his people as the crucified and risen one, feeding and nurturing them for their mission in the world. The newly baptised joyfully receive the supper for the very first time! A blessing and dismissal indicates that the Paschal Triduum is now over. At this point, the champagne often flows very freely indeed!

Feast of the Resurrection

A morning service on Easter Day can be relatively informal. Because many worshippers will have been up late the night before, this service may be built around a breakfast meal of bread, fish and wine. This mode of doing thing commemorates St. John’s account of the appearance of the risen Jesus to seven of his disciples on the beach of Lake Galilee where they were fishing (Jn 21). Worshippers may be invited to bring some bread, fish and wine (or grape-juice, if you prefer) to share with others. The service includes the ancient greeting ‘Christ is risen: He is risen indeed!’ and there are stories, prayers and Easter hymns aplenty. This is a morning of great joy and celebration at the new hope of resurrection. The celebrations continue over the next 50 days until Pentecost, which commemorates the giving of the Spirit of Christ at his ascension to the right hand of his Father. This is the season par excellence for the celebration of baptisms and various ceremonies of renewal in faith.

A final word about 'Christian' and 'Pagan' versions of Easter

You may have noticed that there is no mention in any of these specifically Christian forms of Easter worship of either eggs or bunnies. Some may find that surprising. In fact, the celebration of Easter using eggs and bunnies owes far more to pre-Christian Europe than to Christianity. The pagan celebration of Easter was essentially about the turning of the seasons from the dark of winter to the brightness of spring and the new harvest this would make possible. For pagans Easter was, and is, essentially a celebration of the returning fertility of the earth every year at springtime. In this context, symbols of fertility such as eggs and rabbits make perfect sense.

The Christian Easter celebrates something rather different, however. For Christians, the risen Christ is not simply another version of the 'Corn King' (C.S. Lewis' phrase) - a god or goddess who returns to life when the earth has been warmed by the spring sun in order to bless the fertility of the earth and guarantee a successful harvest. Christ is not, in this sense, an 'eternal return' (Nietzsche) of that which we have come to expect on an annual basis: the eternal fecundity of the earth, and a symbol of our endless capacity to become what we have always expected we can become as human beings. No. Christ is something more than this. Christ is the arrival, within human history, of something which neither nature nor history could produce on its own, from its own cycles or resources, as it were. Christ is the arrival of something genuinely new: a new idea, a new creation, a new way to live.

For in Christ, so Christians believe, God has acted to liberate human beings from the despair of their eternally cyclic imaginations. To the cry of the wise: 'there is nothing new under the sun', God poses not a confirming answer but an eternal question: 'What kind of world would be made if you abandon yourselves, your resources, your imaginations and allow yourselves to be re-made - from the outside in - in the image of this human being from another time and place, this Christ?' For what does the risen Christ mean, for Christians, if not the arrival within the possible of that which is not, strictly, possible: life, where there was only death; light, where there was only darkness; peace, where there was only conflict; hope, where there was only despair; purpose and vocation, where there was only accident? For Christians, then, the resurrection of Christ is nothing less than the contradiction of every expectation built on the principle of the 'eternal return'. It is the shattering of every pattern or model built on what has happened before. It is the beginning of a future which is genuinely new, genuinely revolutionary. SO new, SO revolutionary that we can barely glimpse its import.

For me, that is good news. Because I am tired of iterations that never solve anything, answers that simply confirm what we already think we know, solutions that never really worked in the first place. It is the good news that it is God who can save us. We are no longer condemned to save ourselves.

A holy Passiontide and joyful Paschal season to you all!

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