Holy Week continues

The ways in which we observe Holy Week have been through many transitions in the history of the church. Just in the span of my career as a pastor there have been many changes. I remember that the big events in my childhood church were Palm Sunday, celebrated with a parade and florist palm, and Easter, celebrated with a sunrise service and an easter egg hunt. Our church had Maundy Thursday services, but they were considered to be an event mostly for adults and on Good Friday it was a tradition for several of the protestant churches in town to cooperate with an ecumenical service. I remember my father once saying that he would not close his shop and make it a paid holiday, but that any employee who wanted to attend Good Friday services would be paid during the time they went to the worship service. A few, but not many of his employees took him up on the offer.

When I became a pastor, it was becoming popular to recognize Palm Sunday as “Palm and Passion Sunday.” In addition to the reading of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and a palm procession to “All Glory, Laud and Honor,” we would read the passion narrative, usually from several of the gospels. The service would begin on a triumphant note and end on a solemn note. The idea behind Palm and Passion Sunday was that the majority of Christians worshipped on Sunday only. Attendance at midweek services, even during Holy Week was light, so in order to have the entire congregation grasp the sense of sacrifice and the grief of the disciples, reading the passion narrative on a Sunday was required. We did that for many years. These days, however, it is more common to separate the liturgy of the palms from the liturgy of the passion. For the last few years of our careers as pastors, we held separate services and Holy Monday became the day of the reading of the passion. We held an evening service. At least once we had the reading set to music with a jazz pianist. Another year we had a multi-media event with illustrations of the passion projected as the story was read.

In that congregation we started a practice, observed for a few years, of holding a worship event every day of Holy Week. The process was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and it remains to be seen how much of the experience will become a tradition for that congregation. It certainly hasn’t caught on on across mainline protestantism.

It is interesting that Maundy Thursday has become the night for a communion service in so many congregations. Christians tend to think of the service as a reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. References to the celebration of the Seder that Jesus shared with his disciples and his institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion are common. Problems with the day of the week and Christian misunderstandings of the function of the Seder in Judaism aside, the mandate of Maundy Thursday is not Jesus instruction to “do this in remembrance of me.” Rather the mandate is the instruction he gave as he washed the feet of his disciples: “This is my commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” While foot washing is practiced in some congregations, it certainly hasn’t caught on in the congregations in which we have participated over the course of our ministry. We’ve held a few food washing ceremonies, but didn’t get many takers. And it is hard to imagine people being comfortable with the practice during a time of careful precautions to keep from spreading disease. Foot washing never became a Christian sacrament. Maundy Thursday is usually focused on the communion service. It is also a traditional time for choral cantatas and although some cantatas include the celebration of communion, most have to be adapted if used in congregations where the sacrament is offered during the same service as the cantata.

For many Christians the reading the passion is a Good Friday tradition. There are many variations on services focusing on the stations of the cross, though in protestant congregations observances tend to be quite different from the more formal observance of stations in Roman Catholic congregations. We developed a service that incorporated motion with prayers and the reading of the passion narrative during our time of serving the congregation in Rapid City. The church has a dramatic free-standing cross at the front of the sanctuary and its visual appearance makes a strong focal point for Good Friday observances. A black drape on the cross with the communion table stripped of its usual candlesticks made for a strong focus of a slow procession from the back of the room to the base of the cross.

In 1986, just after we had begun serving the second call of our careers, the United Church of Christ published a new Book of Worship. The book was the first Book of Worship with entirely inclusive language to be adopted by any major Christian Denomination. It was ground-breaking in many ways. It also was the first Book of Worship in our tradition to include the Great Vigil of Easter. Congregations of our denomination, however, did not establish a Great Vigil tradition for the most part. We held the service several times throughout our career, but attendance was very light. Of the services of Holy Week, however, the Great Vigil may be the one with the most ancient roots. In Roman times, the church developed the season of Lent and the intense time of Holy Week as a time of preparation for membership in the church. Those who did not know the full history and tradition of the church, engaged in spiritual practices, including fasting for a period of six weeks to prepare for becoming full members of the church. The Great Vigil was a kind of a review, with readings from the scriptures that start with the Creation story and continue throughout the highlights of the Bible and conclude with a reading from Revelation. It is a kind of review of Biblical traditions.

This year, we will observe Holy Week from our home. We watched Palm Sunday on the computer and we’ll watch Maundy Thursday with our own communion elements, Good Friday, Easter Sunrise and Easter Worship on our computer. It promises to be a very different week from the years of a public worship service every day of Holy Week. As the practices of the church change, we adapt. Nonetheless the week carries the promise of deep meaning and a renewal of faith. We journey onward.