A Geek’s Guide to Holy Week

Synagoge,_Enschede,_MozaiekA Geek’s Guide to Holy Week

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.”

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the King of the Universe, though he was in the “form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” This death, the one that tore the Temple veil in two and re-oriented the entire universe, is one that we remember each and every year in what’s known as Holy Week. The main event is the Triduum Sacrum, the three sacred days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Maundy Thursday is a celebration of remembrance. On the night before he died, Our Lord Jesus Christ celebrated the Feast of the Passover. All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again. Together with his disciples, he gave thanks to God for the startling deliverance of God’s people in their flight from Egypt. And he commanded us to remember this Mandatum Novum, this New Commandment, in a feast of bread and wine, in a gift of humble service to one another. We wash one another’s feet to follow Christ’s example of selfless love. We partake of the Holy Eucharist, our Never-Feast wherein we imagine & remember the world as it could be, rather than what it is. But this joyous celebration is tinged with sadness – though this banquet remembers and re-members our community as participants in the Body of Christ, by the end of the service, we remember, too, the guards who invaded the garden and took Jesus away, the man who betrayed him with a kiss. The altar is stripped of all its finery as the clergy solemnly remove each piece. The congregation intones Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses.” The consecrated Host is processed ceremonially to a new place, decorated to resemble the Garden where Jesus awaited that arrest. “Can you not stay awake even one hour?” Jesus asked. We answer by our presence, praying with him in this garden, hour by hour. And if we cannot pray, it is a time to simply be – to sit in the presence of Eternity in the knowledge that we are not alone. And neither is Jesus.

Good Friday is the center of the three sacred days, the Empire Strikes Back of our story. When we pick up after our cliffhanger of the arrest, hiding out in the garden, waiting for the bad news that will surely come, we enter the church in silence. We stand together and read the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John. We play the role of the crowd in the story. “The majority / does not make the vote correct. / Give us Barabbas.” We are the majority, the ones sufficiently frightened by the change Jesus brings to look the other way while the Republic becomes the Empire, while the Death Eaters take over the Ministry. Good Friday is our opportunity to remember our faults, even as we pray for God “graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross.” We kneel before that Cross because by Christ’s death upon that cross, he has redeemed the world.

The trilogy concludes with Easter, the triumphant celebration that Christ not only died because of and to redeem our sins, but that he rose again. Not a thin, listless waif raised to life by a Resurrection Stone (designed by Death as a trick), not awakened by a Lesser Restoration spell, but a strong victory of Deep Magic over the cruel vindictiveness of human sin. We commemorate this most holy night in vigil and prayer by walking with Christ. We kindle the new fire, the Paschal candle, the light shining in a darkness that shall not overcome. We join our voices with heavenly hosts in the ancient chant of the Exultet. We hear the record of God’s saving deeds in history in stories from the Hebrew bible. We stand with those who are buried with Christ in baptism as we renew our baptismal vows, assured that we who have been buried with him shall also be raised with him. And as the blazing light of victory rises before us, we proclaim “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Holy Week Pro Tips Edition

Cross with Birds

Cross with Birds

Dear Askie,

It’s Holy Week in my first call! I’m a solo pastor at a small UCC church, and I’m trying to gear up, but I’m not really sure what to expect or what I need to do. The liturgies are prepared, the sermons are written (well, mostly written), the bulletins are proofread, and I have plenty of bread and juice for communion. What else do I need to do? I’m sure there’s something I’m not thinking of. Besides that, I’ve heard a lot of advice to “practice good self­care” during Holy Week, but I’m not really sure how specifically to do that. Any tips? Please save me from potential disasters!

Holy Week Rookie

Dear Rookie,

Blessings and prayers for your first Holy Week in this new role! Holy Week is an odd experience, a strange mixture of hectic and contemplative, a walk through a familiar story that still feels new almost every time. It’s different at every church and in every denomination, too. You’re UCC, so I’m guessing that you might not have as many worship services as our high­church sisters, but it can be grueling nonetheless. It’s already Thursday, so you’re about to head into the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here are a few “pro tips” for your first Holy Week from Askie and her team of advisors:

  • Rethink your pre­clergy Holy Week practices: Before you were an ordained clergywoman, you were probably a very devoted lay person — most of us clergy were. Perhaps you used to fast on Good Friday, or take Saturday as a silent retreat day, or read the whole Gospel of Mark from beginning to end. Whatever time­intensive spiritual practice you used to do, I would recommend that you not do that anymore. Especially not the fasting ­ no one wants a cranky, light­headed pastor passing out in the pulpit. Re­evaluate your practices and think about what would be meaningful for you in your life as a pastor.
  • Set aside time for sleep and exercise over the next few days: Put them in your calendar. At this point, there is no logistical or liturgical task so important that you should do it instead of sleeping. Your people need a pastor who is centered and present much more than they need an exquisitely edited sermon. In the words of the New Zealand Prayer Book, “What has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done. Let it be.”
  • Prepare meals in advance: You think you’re going to come home after Maundy Thursday and whip up a stir fry? Oh,
    sweet heart, I’ve been there and it didn’t happen — I ordered another pizza. This afternoon, figure out what you’re going to eat for dinner the next few days that’s easy and nutritious. Turkey burgers and baby carrots? Quick chili you can put in the slow cooker before running out the door? Maybe scrambled eggs? Figure out what you can pack for lunches and snacks, too. Buy the groceries. Chop the vegetables. Actually, it being Thursday,, see if you can buy them pre­chopped.
  • Allow yourself time to respond to the story: We became clergy because the story of Jesus speaks to us. We became clergy because we wanted to follow him by serving his church. We’re going to be telling the story of his betrayal, suffering, death, and burial, and eventually his resurrection. No matter how many times you’ve heard and told the story, Good Friday can really punch you in the gut. Maybe that’s a good thing, but be gentle with yourself. The Passion brings up strong emotions: grief, guilt, anger, and more. Don’t be surprised; give yourself some time to process the story once again.
  • Schedule your time off now: You need an extra day off next week. Maybe two. Block them off now, if you haven’t already.
  • Find out “how we always do things”: It’s your first Holy Week at this church, so get on the phone with a few of your church’s matriarchs and patriarchs. Ask them to tell you about how they do Holy Week services. Almost every church has some idiosyncratic traditions around these days. At Askie’s church, we have special silver that is only used for Easter Communion, and we turn to face the rear during the last hymn (there’s a beautiful stained glass window there). No one might think to tell you this church’s Holy Week quirks until you’ve failed to observe them… but make your phone calls now, and at least you can say you tried!
  • Think all the way through your liturgies: Are you washing feet and then serving Communion? Do you have hand sanitizer near the Communion table? Are the congregants leaving the sanctuary in darkness? How will they be able to see to walk out? Go through every order of worship piece by piece, looking for the things that are liable to go wrong, and think about how to help them go smoothly.
  • Figure out your shoes: You’re going to be standing a lot, so figure out which ones will be professional enough without killing your feet. Make sure they’re polished, too.
  • On the other side: Take Easter Monday off. Once you’re back, though, think about what went well and what didn’t. Think about whether you want to add anything (only add one thing at a time), and whether you want to let go of anything. Think about what you’re going to do differently, and what you’re going to do the same.

    Best of luck, and so many prayers for you and your congregation, Rookie. You’ll be fine, and Christ will rise no matter what.