Today we begin the most important week of the church’s year – Jonathan Melton, friend of St. Dunstan’s, calls it “the Best Week.” It’s demanding and exhausting and I love it. The weeks leading up to it, preparing for it, are always some of the busiest of the year, the longest hours… and that’s OK. Because this is the heart of it all.
The liturgies, or worship services, of Holy Week go back to the early centuries of Christianity. We have a wonderful description of these liturgies as they were practiced in Jerusalem in the late 300s, thanks to the journal of a traveller named Egeria, an affluent and pious woman who took a journey to the Holy Land.
We learn from Egeria that a procession with palms, on the Sunday before Easter, became a custom early on. Egeria describes the palm procession in Jerusalem delightfully: “They all go on foot from the top of the Mount of Olives, all the people walking with hymns and antiphons, calling to one another: Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! And all the children in the neighborhood, even those who are too young to walk, are carried by their parents on their shoulders, all of them bearing branches, some of palms and some of olives. All, even those of rank, both matrons and men, make the procession on foot in this manner.”
On Maundy Thursday, the Christians of Jerusalem, 1600 years ago, would gather at a particular cave which was then believed to be the place where Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples. There they would read the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and sing together until late at night. Early, early in the morning they would walk together in procession – slowly, by candlelight – to the Garden of Gethsemane, where someone would read the Gospel of Jesus’ arrest. Egeria writes, “And when this passage has been read there is so great a moaning and groaning of all the people, together with weeping, that their lamentation may be heard perhaps as far as the city.”
On Good Friday, our liturgies remember and honor Jesus’ death. The basic elements of our Good Friday observance go back to the early church: lessons and prayers, sharing the Passion gospel of St. John, and honoring the cross. In the Jerusalem church in Egeria’s time, they would bring out a piece of wood believed to come from the True Cross, the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Egeria tells us that certain security measures were necessary: “The bishop, as he sits, holds… the sacred wood firmly in his hands, while the deacons who stand around guard it. It is guarded thus because the custom is that the people come one by one and, bowing down, kiss the sacred wood. And because, once, someone is said to have bitten off and stolen some of the sacred wood, it is thus guarded.”
Our Good Friday liturgies invite us into the grief and shock of Jesus’ friends and followers. So it was in Egeria’s day – she writes, “The emotion shown and the mourning by all the people at every lesson and prayer is wonderful; for there is none, either great or small, does not lament more than can be conceived, that the Lord… suffered those things for us.”
On Saturday night, we gather for one of Christianity’s most ancient liturgies, the Easter Vigil. The liturgy places us in the darkness and uncertainty of awaiting Jesus’ resurrection. We light the new flame of Paschal hope, passing the light from person to person. In candle-lit dimness we hear the stories of God’s faithful love for humanity through the ages. And then we arrive at the holy moment, the once and always moment of resurrection, when Christ burst the bonds of death, freeing all humanity from its tethers once and for all. Egeria assures us that we keep this vigil with nearly two millennia of our forebears – she describes the Christian community in Jerusalem staying up late, sharing sacred stories and songs; baptizing those new to the faith; and sharing the Gospel of the Resurrection.
Ever since I learned about Egeria’s liturgical travel journal, I’ve loved the fact that we can look back over so many centuries and know that we are doing what our faith-ancestors have done. This year, particularly, it moves me to reflect on the resilience of these faith practices.
Christians have been doing versions of these liturgies for seventeen, eighteen, nineteen centuries. They’ve survived the rise and fall of empires, a minor ice age, and massive cultural, economic, and technological changes. The observances of Holy Week have been maintained through times of war, of hunger, of natural disaster, of pandemic illness. These practices of holding holy story together and letting it shape us anew – they’ve come through fire and flood to belong to us, right now, along with so many other churches around the world.
And whatever the next year or the next decade or the next century may bring, I have every confidence that these liturgies will still be held and honored. Not just because of human resilience and determination, though we are a resilient and determined species. But because our God is a God of life.
Because this central story – the story that love is stronger than death – is a story that the world is always going to need, and God is always going to keep telling it to us… and through us.
Take a look at the schedule for how we will be honoring Holy Week together in the days ahead. If you haven’t already made decisions about which services to attend, and how, I hope you’ll do so. There are still a few slots for the in-person Palm Procession later today. It overlaps with this service but it’s not entirely the same – and of course the big difference is that it’s in person!…
If you want to make bread with me, you can meet me on Zoom on Wednesday evening. Maundy Thursday we’ll gather on Zoom at 6:30; try to be near the end of your evening meal… and if possible, set your table as if you were hosting beloved friends for a special meal! And have some bread and wine, or equivalents, set aside. You can pick up soap and oil at church for the foot or hand-washing part of that service.
Our Good Friday liturgies are on Zoom at noon and 7pm, or a kids’ version at 4pm. The church will also be open during the day if you want to come by, pray the Stations, honor the cross, and spend a little time in prayer.
Holy Saturday morning at 10 there will be a Zoom service. We haven’t done a Holy Saturday service in the past. It’s a liturgy that pauses to dwell with Jesus’ death, Jesus’ absence, and this year we’ll use it as a time of prayer for all the pandemic dead.
Our All-Ages Easter Vigil will be on Zoom at 7pm. We’ll save most of our Easter celebration for the next day, this year; the Vigil will mostly be a time of sharing holy story. There are also a couple of spots left for a late-night in-person gathering around the fire at church.
And Easter Sunday we’ll meet on Zoom at 9am for a festive gathering with special Easter music and a Gospel drama prepared by our young folks – then there will be two in-person Eucharists on the grounds at 11am and 1pm. 11am is almost full; 1pm still has plenty of room…
As we embark on this journey, I pray once more: Holy God, mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.