Holy Week-Lite

Like many things in our modern culture, Holy Week has become a muddled grey paste of a religious experience.  Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter all get jumbled up together in an atheological hodge-podge that leaves the veteran confused and the novitiate clueless.  I have already sung, “He Lives!,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” “Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus,” and “‘Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies,” and it is the day after Palm Sunday.  In the past couple weeks, Jesus has already instituted the Last Supper, has been before Pilate and Herod, has been scourged, both Peter and Judas have played their respective screw-up roles, Barabbas has been released — as well as Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the colt of an ass with crowds waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna.  Talk about anti-climax.  It feels like someone dropped all their index cards with their speech notes and they shuffled them together in random order and proceeded to launch into their talk.  Welcome to Easter 2011 A.D.D.

Is it that we really don’t get the story?  Lent ≠ Palm Sunday.  Palm Sunday ≠ Good Friday.  Maundy Thursday ≠ Easter.  Maundy Thursday ≠ Good Friday.  None of these things are equivalent.  Each is distinct and adds incredible texture and meaning to our Christian faith.  Each phase of the journey to and through Jerusalem to glory is rich in significance.  To jumble them up, conflate and deflate them, to blur their lines is to do violence to the gospel.  And this is not meant as structural legalism — there is an elegant and sublime trajectory to the stories as they are presented — even though they are presented differently in the four gospels.  Reading those retellings that made it into the canon as well as the many extra-canonical perspectives, there are some glaring differences: running the full gauntlet from Jesus being unaware of what was to come to having inklings to knowing full-well, to being the grand architect of his own death and resurrection; of the events of his last night with the disciples; of the nature of the betrayals and denials — the story gains credibility because key players remember it differently.  However, there are some striking similarities: the decision to go to Jerusalem for the Passover forced a “High Noon” showdown, Jesus struggled with how ready his friends were to be left in charge, humiliation and degradation were part of the result whether forced by politics or religion, an execution occurred, (and moving away from Mark’s gospel) a resurrection event changed hearts, minds and lives for all time.

The progression follows something like this:

Palm Sunday — the underdog challenger comes to town, with those betting on the long-shot turning out to rally behind their Messianic hopeful.

Monday through Wednesday — challenging the status quo, irritating the powers that be, making the power structure nervous, preparing the faithful for coming crisis

Thursday — celebration of faith and identity, friendship and community, solidarity and farewell.  A fundamental paradigm shift from Jewish Passover to Christian communion, not meant as ritual practice but as way of life (not a once-a-month church worship experience, but a multiple-times-daily covenant of unity (as often as you eat, as often as you drink, remember me…)  This a fore-shadowing event of resurrection — old life being replaced by new life, physical life being upgraded to eternal life.

Thursday night/Friday morning — natural and supernatural disaster, relationships broken and damaged, misunderstandings and ignorance abound, malevolence attempts to destroy good, human will-to-power matched with power of God’s will.

Friday — apparent defeat, total despair, fear replaces faith, emptiness and a cold dark tomb, the end of hope.

Saturday — life in the void, hope gone, faith erased, wilderness, futility, why bother?

Sunday — act of loving compassion to visit and anoint, but not an act of faith; surprise/fear/shock/confusion — dawning awareness, hope restored, glimmers of joy, jubilation, a world turned on its head, the defeat and destruction of death itself.

How cool is this?  An absolute roller coaster.  Coming from the remembrance of the forty days of denial and temptation — hunger, thirst, aches, weakness we are whipped into the frenzy of the adoring crowds looking for a very practical, very physical salvation.  Jesus rides on in triumph.  Days pass with a mounting sense of tension and foreboding.  Regardless of one’s powers of prescience, something is coming — the storm clouds are gathering.  In the calm before the storm, one of the most personal, loving, compassionate and transforming experiences in the upper room.  Jesus takes the ordinary (eating bread, drinking wine — done every single day of one’s life from early childhood to the day of death) and makes it extraordinary.  Then he enters into a life-ending series of events that, while nowhere as gruesome as Mel Gibson might want us to believe, are horrendous at their most basic level.  The lowest low ensues — the end of all that is good and decent and positive and possible in the lives of hundreds of men and women.  End of story.  But it’s not.  End of Act I, maybe.  But the story God has in mind is bigger and better than any other we might conceive.  Yet, the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is commensurate to and dependent upon the depths of despair of Good Friday — with out Maundy Thursday, without Good Friday, without the despair of black Saturday, THERE IS NO EASTER!

We need to get Easter back — stop singing “He Lives!” during Lent, having Jesus institute the Last Supper of Palm Sunday, nailing Jesus to the Cross on Maundy Thursday, and celebrating his imminent return on Good Friday — that just spoils the story for everyone.  Oh, I know why we do it — most people only give us one or two hours to tell the whole thing.  Easter has become just another Sunday, and the elements of Holy Week leading to the main event aren’t even on most people’s radar screen.  (And how did THIS happen?…)

This is one story of our faith that should not be watered down or conflated.  This is the story of human faith in the face of human life that leads to transformation through resurrection.  This is our whole story in microcosm, and we need to honor and revere it as its caretakers and stewards.  I am probably revealing myself as an old coot who wishes things were more like they were when he was younger, but I hope it is more than that.  I believe our world needs Easter as much today as it ever has, and that the power of Easter exists in contrast with the misplaced hope and misunderstanding of Palm Sunday, the anxiety and poignancy of Maundy Thursday, and the darkness and despair of Good Friday.  Ah, well, that’s my opinion anyway.

22 replies

  1. P.S. I hope you don’t mind if I save your post for reference. I have started planning a power point on the Christian Year to use in teaching my congregations who after two years of my ministry have gotten use to the idea and for teaching other groups. Blessings!

  2. Like all, I agree very much with this, with the recognition that the lectionary has moved from Palm Sunday solely focused on the Triumphal Entry, to Palm to Passion Sunday, which gets us to the cross. It’s my understanding that old lectionary actually had the Passion Sunday the week before Palm Sunday, confusing things even more. What I have tried to do with Palm Sunday is to structure the service with two movements, the first focusing on the celebration of the entry into the city, and the second considering how the same crowds that cheered Jesus were likely the crowd shouting for Barabbas (cheers to jeers). This year, for a variety of reasons, we are not having a formal Maundy Thursday service (although the church will be open for prayer through series of prayer stations) but our Good Friday service picks up where we left off on Sunday, focusing on our sinfulness as contributing factors to Jesus’ crucifixion. There is a movement and flow, and we don’t jump the gun, although it may not be the traditional flow.

  3. Wonderful insights here Dan. I agree with you and Taylor – so much so that during the seasons of Advent and Lent I find myself more and more drifting towards Anglican and Catholic liturgies because the UMC seems to be liturgically adrift. While this obviously isn’t important to everyone, it really does deep down define us as Christians. Thanks again.

    • Jeff
      I too am drifting, as you say.
      Our Anglican cousins, IMHO, have not lost their way through the commercialized, business-modeled, ways “we” Methodists seem to have sold out to.

      Blessings On Your Journey Through Holy Week

      Todd Anderson

  4. I really like your post. But I have so many thoughts running through my head right now, that I don’t have time to respond. But I will say one thing at this point. It would help if our Bishops and their cabinets and our District Superintendents and their DCOMs would require that all pastors in the UMC actually be Methodists. It is my opinion that in congregations that cannot afford full time pastors, the first available warm bodies that want to preach and pick up an extra paycheck are appointed. (As long as apportionments are paid, who cares? Seems to be the attitude.) These part-time pastors may graduate from our courses of study, but that doesn’t mean they are Methodists. This is one of the reasons that there are many Baptist churches with UMC signs out front and that the Church has lost touch with its Judeo-Christian traditions. I may write more depending on the responses you receive to your post, but for now I just say “Thanks,” And I encourage pastors who value the Christian year to have the courage to teach it to your congregations and District Superintendents and Bishops to have the courage to back your pastors up. (I am a full time local pastor cleaning up messes from the past.)

    • David — I agree with you 100%
      We’ve lost not only the focus and understanding of HOLY WEEK — yes all 6 days of it — but — we are so far from the basic fundamental precepts of Methodism we are “vanilla” — an “also ran”.

      We need to rediscover, study, practice, and apply the Basic Wesleyan Concept and Understanding that created the denomination out of the renewal group that it started as.

      Blessings In Your Journey in Holy Week

      Todd Anderson

      • I serve a three point charge with worship times at 9am, 10am & 11am. Since, the formal liturgies aren’t practical to use in such a setting, my focus is on getting my churches to recognize the Christian year in ways that strengthens the worship experience. Thus, I adapt the liturgy to fit my situation. The main thing is that it helps the church and the individual to order their lives around Christ throughout the year. Unfortunately, I think that worship just isn’t seen as being important to most Christians. That’s why there are many who will show up once or twice a year, e.g. the annual Christmas program or the Easter Sunrise service. Even for most who attend worship regularly, I think the focus is on preachin’ and not on worship. All Christians need to see that worship isn’t an option but is central to our calling as God’s people.

      • Replying to David’s second comments, below.

        Is it possible that “watering down” the church year (not that you’re necessarily doing this) and keeping a schedule of only 1 hour of worship (at most) is actually reinforcing a consumerist, worship=preaching (for the most part)idea among many of our congregations? My experience is that a more thoroughly liturgical expression of worship (liturgical doesn’t mean “high church” but “work of the people”) means people are much more directly involved in every element of worship, not just there to hear some singing and preaching as passive consumers. If the ritual demands more of them– as the basic pattern and our more elaborated versions of that in the Book of Worship do– they tend to give more, too. The easier we make it for people to receive, the harder we make it for them to give in worship– and last time I checked, nowhere in scripture are we instructed to go to worship to get something out of it for ourselves. In fact, such a perspective is given a rather tough name: idolatry.

      • To Taylor: I didn’t create the charge or the worship times. That was determined close to twenty years ago. Two of the churches haven’t had a full time pastor since about the time the UMC came into being. Therefore, as far as I can tell there has never been an emphasis by any previous part-time pastors on the Christian year, excepting Christmas program and Easter Sunday. I’m not “watering down”, rather I am building up the churches within the context of my particular pastoral setting. I’ve introduced Advent meditations and Advent wreath and offer a Christmas Eve (I’ve good participation and support in these services); I focus on Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, and Transfiguration; I’ve introduced Ash Wednesday and Lent. This year I and a fellow pastor, who also serves a three-point charge, are offering a joint Holy Thursday service. Further, I emphasize the value of other special Sundays throughout the year. All this is to help my congregations become more Christ centered at all times and in worship. Also, we celebrate Holy Communion at all three churches on the first Sunday of each month. Prior to my appointment, only one of the churches celebrated HC each month. The others were not even celebrating quarterly! Here’s something else: These congregations never adopted the UM Hymnal and until I was appointed hadn’t used worship bulletins since the 1970s. I am not watering down, but doing what other pastors failed to do: educating a charge about their Christian heritage and emphasizing worship over Sunday morning preachin’. It’s been a gradual process, but the majority of my parishioners seem to appreciate my emphasis on these things. One church now uses the pre-1989 UM hymnal and a couple of members serve as liturgists. This particular church was highly suspicious of my use of the RCL for sermons. All that being said, these are rural churches that support the conference (100% apportioners). They are very faithful Christians and are highly charitable in their communities. I’m just trying to make worship more meaningful by making Christ the center of it. So going back to my original point: The loss of the Christian year, is ultimately due to lack of leadership by District and Conference leadership. (By the way, I have heard their former part-time local pastor preach: He’s a dispensational Baptist if there ever was one. And I know of Calvinists serving other UM churches.) Christians have lost touch with the Christian year, because they haven’t been taught. And I suspect that many DSs and Bishops have no idea what’s going on their churches.

      • David, as another Local Pastor serving a multi-point charge, I understand what you are saying. The resources of the Book of Worship have to be modified in order to fit the reality of time constraints – when you have 3 services on a Sunday morning it takes a great deal of effort to provide a worship experience that involves the congregation at more than a superficial level and get to the next church and do it all over again. I commend you for the effort that you are making to educate the congregations that you serve. Keep up the good work.

      • Wayne: I have subscribed to the BOW through Cokesbury. This makes it easy for me copy the various services and other worship materials into my word program. This makes it easy to modify them for my services. For our monthly Holy Communion, I use the brief thanksgiving combined with a short corporate prayer of confession. I also make use of the Online Book of Common Prayer collects. One of my churches likes using these as opening prayer: http://www.bcponline.org/ Thanks for your comments. We’re in this boat together: And I belive we pastors need to get out and walk, even at the risk of making some folks mad. The truth has a way of doing that to some people.

  5. However, on any give day of the week during any given week of the year, our people are experiencing all of these things or any number of these things. While I do agree with following the church year, I also believe, when done for a purpose, we can deviate some from the “script”. However, when it’s done with no regard whatsoever to the church year, history, tradition, experience, or anything else, sometimes it just makes no sense what United Methodists do!

  6. Dan, I also agree. However, I did like what a church did a couple year ago be making each Sunday of Lent a progression of the days of Holy Week. It seemed to make more people take the journey that did not come to the “special” Holy Week services.

    Thanks for your thoughts and I hope all is well with you!

  7. So, how have we come to this. I have experienced basically everything you describe, but until I read your post, I didn’t even realize what I was seeing. You make a compelling argument, and you explained the trajectory of holy week better than I have ever heard it before. Definitely better than I have been hearing it in the church i am attending. I asked my pastor to read your blog and he shrugged his shoulders and said that it really isn’t such a big deal. We all know how the story comes out so there isn’t anything to gain by waiting until Easter to celebrate it. If pastors don’t care, doesn’t that mean there’s no chance of things changing? And is it really all that important anyway?

    • Well, Kyle, obviously a lot of people agree with your pastor. Like I said in the post, it’s just my opinion, and a minority opinion it appears to be. Whether it is a big deal or not? No definitive answer possible. I think it is; many people don’t.

      • And I think it is, too. And apparently, so did General Conference in 1992 when they approved our Book of Worship and Lectionary which give readings and celebrations for each of these as separate events– as Christians worldwide have done for centuries, at least as long as the third century.

        Thanks for this, Dan.

    • It is “a big deal” — and for me, to devalue the journey — to not “back up the bus” as is said — and not rush/cram everthing into those 2-3 hours (breaker) is necessary for this travesty of “going through the motions” to not be the “big deal BREAKER”.

      Blessings On Your Journey Through Holy Week

      Todd Anderson

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