Holy Week & Easter

by The Rev. Dr. Jason Parkin, Rector 

As we enter Holy Week, we come to the central events that shape our common faith as Christian people. The heart of the liturgical year is the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising of Jesus. Our participation in the saving acts of God finds its deepest expression in this great Week. Our celebration of Holy Week is the occasion above all others when we stand before the awesome mystery of redemption, bringing to God all that we are both as individuals and as a community of faith at this moment in our lives.

The rites of this week are based upon sources and practices stretching back to the fourth century in the Church at Jerusalem, and even earlier. On Palm Sunday, for example, we process into church singing a jubilant hymn just as joyous crowds waved palm branches and strewed their garments in Jesus' path as he entered the holy city*. This year, we will read together the story of Christ's Passion from the Gospel of Matthew at the end of the liturgy rather than in the place of the Gospel, so that, as the service ends and we go forth into the world, we might remember that, although separated by distance and time from the Jerusalem of 2,000 years ago, we were nevertheless part of the story then, and that the story of God's redeeming work continues in us now. In essence, then, Palm Sunday gives us a concise presentation of all that we will experience in the coming week.

On Maundy Thursday, following a meal in the Great Hall reminiscent of the Last Supper, we wash one another's feet*, echoing Jesus' commandment to his disciples to love one another as he loved them, the mandatus novum, or new commandment, that he uttered while bathing their feet; and all who wish to have their feet cleansed by one of the clergy will be invited to come forward at the Maundy Thursday liturgy. The liturgy that evening concludes with the solemn Stripping of the Altar as a sign of our humility before God. The sacrament consecrated for Good Friday resides on the Altar of Repose throughout Thursday night, and all are invited to spend time in prayer and meditation through the rest of the evening and the next morning.

On Good Friday, The Stations of the Cross will be offered at 12:00 noon. This simple, ancient yet poignant rite is modeled on a custom widely observed by pilgrims to Jerusalem from the early centuries of the Church to the present day: the offering of prayers at a series of places in that city traditionally associated with Jesus' passion and death. The service will be held at the hour when Jesus was placed on the cross, and this year we will walk around the church grounds as we observe the stations.

The Good Friday Liturgy, at 7:00 p.m. is the most solemn rite of the entire Christian year. It begins in complete silence, and includes the hauntingly beautiful Passion according to St. John, sung by members of the choir and the Rector to a Gregorian chant tone. A time of extended reflection and prayer for God's world also takes place. Some of the most ancient prayers from the Church's early centuries, known as the Solemn Collects and the Reproaches, are offered before a simple wooden cross, and Communion is shared from the sacrament consecrated on Maundy Thursday.

And at the Great Vigil-the preeminent celebration of the year, and the first proclamation of the Lord's Resurrection-we begin the liturgy in darkness and light a fire by which we bless and inscribe the Paschal Candle, the symbol of the Resurrection and the light that spreads into our lives. The Exsultet, a magnificent chant recalling God's saving presence with humanity, introduces the series of sacred scripture passages, songs, and psalms that recount the history of God's saving presence in our lives and world. In the celebration of Holy Baptism, we are reminded that we are buried with Christ in his death and by it we share in His resurrection; and the Resurrection is then proclaimed. With an explosion of light, a great organ fanfare, and cries of "Alleluia, Christ is Risen," the New Day and the New Creation sing out from every voice under heaven. As one author has said, "At the Great Proclamation, all heaven breaks loose." So it does, as we celebrate with great joy the new and reconciled life made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. The table is spread and all are invited to the first Eucharistic feast of Easter.

Yet during Holy Week, we do not merely mimic the ancient rites of earlier Christians. Far more significant is the reminder that, like our ancestors, we share in the celebration of Holy Week so that we might once again find ourselves immersed in God's grace. It is from this week that all the other weeks of our life take their meanings.

Each of the liturgies within Holy Week contains its own unique beauty and power. Please resist the temptation to move straight from Palm Sunday to Easter. Come, take your place in the entire journey: join the crowds that shouted "Hosanna," the circle of friends who shared in that final sacred meal, the throng that saw the Christ be offered up for human brokenness. And then, like the stupefied few who were present for Jesus' rising, rejoice in the dawning of the New Day and the New Creation.

*Please note that, weather permitting, the 9:00 and 11:15 Palm Sunday services will begin outside-on the front lawn at 9:00 and in the Columbarium Courtyard at 11:15, weather permitting-for the distribution and blessing of the palms before the procession into the church. In addition, all who wish to have their feet washed by one of the clergy on Maundy Thursday will be invited to come forward at that moment in the service, rather than having one person represent all. If you think you will want to take part in this moving rite, please come prepared by wearing shoes and socks that can be easily removed.