Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time to Panic

Although you may not be thinking this way, most Pastors are approaching panic mode by now.  Palm/Passion Sunday is but a few days away and then the fun begins.  I cannot say that I do not enjoy it but the schedule for Holy Week and Easter can be unnerving -- even after more than 30 years of it.  It is one of those things that you do not fully appreciate until you go through it all. 

I am convinced that Easter does not make a lot of sense to most folks (well, at least to those who miss the unfolding drama of Palms to Upper Room to Cross to Grave to the Vigil and the Easter liturgies that follow.  I have always urged folks to make one complete journey through Holy Week and all the services -- even if they cannot do it every year, there is great value in walking the path at least once every several years or so.  Most of the time people find that their sense of Easter is radically changed by the walk of Holy Week.  Sadly, most Lutherans do not follow the entire path and for too many the whole thing seems kind of disjointed and even jerky.  Palms to Passion, Upper Room to courtroom, Cross to Tomb, waiting to water.... if you miss the flow of it all, the whole thing loses a bit, I am afraid.

Without a sense of the whole story as it unfolds by God's design, we end up with Easter as more of "a pie in the sky when you die" kind of hope.  Some who attend must surely wonder why all the fuss since Monday morning they return to the ordinary routines of mortal life.  Yet that is exactly the point.  Monday is not the return of ordinary life for ordinary people.  It is, instead, the arena in which we live out now the new and eternal life given to us in baptism, when the cross and empty tomb became "personal."  To go back to life as if nothing had changed by the last word is to miss what God has done in Christ and what blessing He affords to us (who cannot afford it at all).

I would urge all Christians to make their way through it all.  We begin with palms, outside (weather permitting).  We read the processional Gospel and set apart the palms with prayer and thanksgiving.  The children in the crowd pass out the palms to the standing people.  Then we speak responsively "Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord/Hosanna in the highest" over and over again as we slowly make our way into the Narthex.  There the strains of the organ introduce the traditional entrance hymn: "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."  There the palms give way to the story of the Passion.  We read the whole, long Passion.  I do not like to trivialize the story by assigning parts (especially by having the people read the "part of the crowd."  I did that a few times and felt like it imposed something on the text that was less than salutary.  Then we commune as the Passion hymns retell the story.

Through the smaller services of Holy Week we come to Maundy or Holy Thursday.  Many find the individual absolution to be one of the most deeply moving aspects of the whole service.  Others find the ending the clincher -- seeing the chancel emptied of all its appointments is like watching our Lord's things being taken  from Him.  And then it ends in quietness and solitude.  From there to the noonday office in which we read the Passion, interspersed with hymn stanzas, and end with the bidding prayer.  In the evening we have used several different formats.  This year we shape the service around the text of the Litany (our prayer for Lent at the behest of Pres. Harrison).  Again, the focus is on the Passion (according to St. John) and it ends with the adoration of the cross and the Our Father.  The empty chancel and the starkness of the setting emphasize the Passion story.  Quiet and solemnity affords us no distraction from the words of the Gospel.

The Vigil will see two baptisms and perhaps the smallest of the crowds for the Holy Week and Easter services.  The smaller attendance seems to better fit the character of the Vigil and allows us a more casual atmosphere (with respect to coming and going and nearness to the action of it all).  The people there then decorate the chancel for Easter and restore the Alleluia to the song of praise for the first time since the Transfiguration.

Three Easter liturgies -- all Divine Service -- but somewhat different in character.  The first is more simple without either choir or brass.  It begins with a nod to the Easter vigil of the evening before as the Light of Christ is carried again into the darkened Sanctuary.  Then the larger (9 am) Divine Service with full choir, brass, and sung liturgy.  It is usually packed.  The final Divine Service (10:45) brings the Resurrection schedule to its end.  Then Easter Monday and a much smaller crowd extend the dawn of the eighth day and its new week of life, hope, and resurrection.  From there we transition to a season and not a week or specific days...

The point is that the whole thing makes most sense when you are part of it all -- from Palms to the Empty Tomb.  So if you have not followed the entire path before, why not put it in your schedule THIS year!


Rev. Allen Bergstrazer said...

Yes, spot on as usual. For some reason the hight of my Holy Week preparation anxiety is always Good Friday. I've only been having Easter Vigil for about 4-5 years now and though it is a low attendance service it is the one I look forward to the most, because there are no overheated expectations as to what it 'supposed' to be. I especially like the way the Old Testament readings take the worshipper on a journey from creation all the way to the firey furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar.
Peace to you dear Brother, and a blessed Holy Week.

Anonymous said...

Attendance at Holy Week services is
in direct correlation to spiritual
maturity of each Christian in your

Those who are spiritually mature will
attend as many Worship Services as
possible. Those who are infants in
the faith will probably settle for
just attending on Easter. Building
mature Christians is an important
process throughout the year. The
fruits of that effort will be
evident during Holy Week.

Lee said...

The congregation I serve has had the sunrise Holy Communion on Easter tradition for as long as any of them can remember, so it has been a bit challenging for them to embrace the Easter Vigil the night before, especially if we actually start at sundown rather than in the middle of Saturday afternoon.

The first year worked great because my son was baptized during the Vigil and of course everyone wanted to see that. Then, attendance fell off.

We tried something new and started the Vigil early, early, early on Sunday morning and had the Vigil flow into the 6AM Sunrise Service. A bit better attended, but still most people just showed up at 6AM.

Last year, we did an experiment by starting the Vigil right at sundown, outside and then coming into the church as far as the narthex for the Easter Proclamation and the service of readings. (The sanctuary and narthex are separated by a glass wall. Meeting in the narthex allowed us to gather in the round to hear the readings and sing the psalms. After the service of readings, we dismissed for the night and began the 6AM sunrise Holy Communion with the remembrance of baptism and the litany of the saints.

I know this is a bit of liturgical heresy, but attendance was much better. I am curious to see if last year was a fluke. Maybe this will be the way that a tradition of an Easter Vigil (hopefully all integrated together someday) will take root at Trinity.

Anonymous said...

"Attendance at Holy Week services is in direct correlation to spiritual maturity of each Christian in your parish."

I hope not, as I don't attend. I used to attend at my former church and loved it, because the vigil was done with great care and solemnity. It took about two and a half hours and ended after midnight. My current church also does a vigil, but it is a pale shadow of what I previously experienced. It is finished in under 50 minutes, including sermon and communion. Everything is done so hurriedly, with none of the liturgy sung (just a couple of hymns), and apparently with little preparation--the candlebearer and other assistants never seem to know when to move or where to stand, that I just find it depressing. And this is in a church that prides itself on being liturgical.

Anonymous said...

My previous church had nothing over Holy Week, save for a short service Good Friday morning. My current congregation has services Maundy Thursday with Communion and the stripping of the altar and then two services Friday, with Tenebrae ending the night.

Holy Week is a true rollercoaster of emotions, from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the crucifixion and reproaches of Good Friday to the triumph of the Resurrection. I never understood that until I came to my current church but I'm glad I finally was able to see, experience and understand.