My Holy Week Experience

Palm Sunday

Holy Week kicks off! I’ve been excited for this ever since I found myself not just doing drive-by visits to the Episcopal church, but attending regularly. I’ve dipped in and out of different Holy Week events in the past, but I’ve never gone to all of them. This is actually my first time attending a Palm Sunday service.

We meet in the courtyard outside the chapel, and they distribute palms as we enter. We hold them up as they read the opening liturgy outside. They have a choir with handbells, and the music is just gorgeous. We slowly process into the building. Most of the service is taken up with a reading of the Passion narrative. They’ve assigned different people in the congregation to voice the different characters, which really brings it to life. (I’m amused to note that one of the rectors is playing both Judas and Pilate.) Since that’s the focus, there isn’t a sermon, although they do have Communion. (I’m coming to realize that Episcopalians pretty much do the Eucharist whenever possible.) They don’t read the Resurrection part of the text, of course, since it’s not Easter yet, so the service ends on a rather serious note. The congregation leaves in silence; unlike regular Sundays, the rectors don’t stand near the doors afterward and shake hands with people. But I leave on a real high nonetheless, excited for the coming week.

Maundy Thursday

The foot-washing service. I’ve never been to one of these, either, though in my confirmation class they modeled it for us so we would be familiar with it and could decide whether to participate. I don’t feel quite up to that—it seems intimate and vulnerable to let a stranger wash your feet, though I imagine powerful for those exact reasons. They do the usual readings (a reading from the Old Testament, followed by the singing of a Psalm, followed by one of the epistles from the New Testament, and finishing off with the the story of the Last Supper in John.) Maundy Thursday, I learn from the bulletin, comes from the Latin mandatum, meaning commandment. (Yes, I did a whole PhD in theology and never managed to learn that.) The congregation reads aloud the verse about a “new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another” at the end of the Gospel reading.

They have beautiful music during the foot-washing (they always have fabulous music at this church), and I’m content to sit and listen. As it’s wrapping up, we sing repetitions of a soft “O Lord hear my pray’r, O Lord hear my pray’r. When I call, answer me. O Lord hear my pray’r, O Lord hear my pray’r. Come and listen to me.” It’s quite soothing and peaceful.

After the Eucharist, they do the stripping of the altar. I’ve never seen this before. As they remove all the ornamentation from the sanctuary area, different soloists in the choir sing verses from Psalm 22 (the one that begins “My God, my God, why you have you forsaken me?”) It’s very solemn, even haunting. Near the end, they dim the lights. The congregation sings “Stay with me, remain here with me, watch and pray, watch and pray.” We sing it again and again and again, and then finally just the choir sings it, and they sing it more and more softly. Then everyone leaves in silence. I feel quiet and sober, and also kind of blown away; it’s one of the most powerful church services I’ve ever attended.

Good Friday Liturgy

This is the noon service on Good Friday. It begins in silence (continuing the silence of the previous night). They do the usual readings (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle), and after a short sermon, we read John’s Passion narrative. Again, different people in the congregation read the different parts. The congregation plays the role of the crowd, so we all say together, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” It’s a deeply unsettling experience to be part of that—but unsettling in a good way. (As I said when I posted about this on Facebook, I like how there’s no liturgical option to set yourself up as superior to the misguided people in history, to congratulate on yourself on being someone who wouldn’t do that. Instead, you find yourself right there in the middle of the mess, and have to reckon with your own guilt and culpability.) The story ends with the dead Jesus being pierced with a spear.

After the reading, they set up a simple wooden cross at the front, and people can go up if they feel so moved to kneel before it and pray. (Meanwhile the choir sings selections from Bach and Brahms). Once again, I stay where I am and don’t participate. But even as I’m taking my time to get a feel for this before diving in, I’m coming to appreciate the physicality of Anglican worship, all the standing and kneeling and crossing yourself and holy water and all of that; I think it speaks to a need to worship in a way that is more than intellectual, a way that you enact with your body.

Perhaps the most challenging part of the service isn’t really related to Good Friday at all. The bulletin says we’ll be doing the Solemn Collects for Good Friday in the Book of Common Prayer, so I look ahead to skim the liturgy, and I see that it calls for us to pray for the U.S. President by name. I think wow, will they really do it? I’m coming to know this congregation, and as is typical of contemporary Episcopalians, they are quite socially progressive. To say that they don’t care for Trump is an understatement. But when they get to that part, the Deacon who’s reading the prayers doesn’t hesitate: “For Donald, the President of the United States,” she says. I hate it, honestly, and yet at the same time it seems like absolutely the right thing to do, what’s demanded of a disciple of Christ.

At the conclusion of the service, we kneel, and listen as the church bell tolls 33 times, one for each year of the life of Jesus.

Stations of the Cross

The evening of Good Friday. I’ve been wondering how they’ll do this, since the chapel isn’t all that big. But when I get there I see that they’ve put up the fourteen pictures, and the small congregation (maybe two dozen people) walks from picture to picture. As we walk the very short distance between each station, we sing “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us.” At each station the rector begins, “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,” and the congregation responds, “Because by your Cross and precious blood, you have redeemed the world.” Then there’s a scriptural reading, a meditation, and a prayer. I’m most struck by the meditation at the Eleventh Station, which references Luke 23:49 about the people who knew Jesus watching the Crucifixion from a distance:

We look on from a distance:
a distance of time and space and culture.
And for us it hurts to watch Jesus dying,
even at a distance.
It hurts to know that we are being rescued.
It hurts to know how much we are valued and loved.

We conclude with a prayer at the Fourteenth (and final) Station: “For all who are waiting, For all who are longing for light, God in your mercy, Hear our prayer.”

Holy Saturday Liturgy

The noon service on Holy Saturday. It’s quite short. There aren’t many people there, so we all sit in the far left pews in the chapel. The rector points to the light hanging from the ceiling which is always on, representing the continuous presence of Christ. Except today, it’s turned off. Christ is in the tomb. I keep looking at that extinguished light. We read part of the liturgy for a funeral, and the rector points out that we tell stories about the deceased at funerals, and suggests that we sit and think about what stories we would tell about our experience of Jesus in our lives.

Interlude: Easter Extravaganza, with Helicopter

After attending the Holy Saturday liturgy, I go with my sister Eve and her two kids (ages 8 and 6) to a giant Easter Extravaganza put on by a large nondenominational church in the community. My niece’s best friend is going to be there, which is how we got sucked in. They go all out: there are fire trucks you can sit in, and the Easter Bunny, and a climbing wall, and a bouncy castle, and basketball, and hot dogs, and lots of candy and prizes. And wildest of all: an actual helicopter that periodically flies in the air to drop Easter eggs for the kids to collect. Everyone is super friendly and welcoming, and I’m impressed with the effort they’ve made to put on this totally free event. But a large crowd on a hot day is not exactly my idea of fun, and while I’m glad that my niece and nephew have a good time, I’m happy when it’s time to leave. I do feel like going from an Episcopal Holy Saturday service to a helicopter dropping Easter eggs means that I’ve covered the spectrum of Easter observance pretty well.

Easter Vigil

Okay, so Easter Vigil is my absolute favorite religious service of the year—and this was true long before my current flirtation with the Episcopalians. I’ve had some really good experiences attending it in the past. But that also means that my expectations are pretty high, and I’m a little nervous about that, wondering if it will be a disappointment.

We start out in the garden, where they light a fire, and then the flame is passed along from person to person until all the candles we’re holding are lit, and we process into the church, which is only dimly lit. We sit holding our candles and listen to the story of the Creation in Genesis 1, followed by the choir singing Psalm 36, followed by the story of the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus, followed by the Song of Moses, followed by the text in Ezekiel about getting a heart of flesh to replace your heart of stone, followed by a song based on Psalm 42, followed by the gathering of God’s people in Zephaniah, followed by Psalm 98. As you can see, it’s a lot of reading, and I only half pay attention to it. But I love just sitting in the dark church holding a candle.

They have one person to be baptized, a young girl, so they do the baptismal liturgy. Her parents and godparents answer the questions on her behalf: “Do you renounce Satan? Do you renounce the evil powers of the world? Do you renounce all sinful desires? Do you turn to Christ?” Then the entire congregation renews their baptismal vows, beginning with statements of belief in God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, which echo the language of the Nicene Creed, and then responds to five  questions:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To each one, the congregation responds, “I will, with God’s help.” These questions have particular meaning for me, because I’ve just completed six weeks of confirmation classes (not to be confirmed, but just to learn), and we spent the first week on the creed, and the other five going over those five questions, so I’ve spent some time thinking about what each of them means. The girl is baptized—they pour water over her head three times, once for the Father, once for the Son, and once for the Holy Ghost. Then they do what’s called “aspersion,” which is basically sprinkling holy water on the congregation, so it’s kind of like everyone is getting baptized. I really like how communal the ritual is.

And then, we’ve finally arrived at the Resurrection! They turn on all the lights and the rector says exuberantly, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and the congregation responds, “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!” and they play something triumphal on the organ. I have to say, after having gone through of all of Lent (with no Alleluias anywhere in the liturgy) and then all of the darkness of Holy Week, when we arrive at the Resurrection at last, it really does feel like the joyful end to a long journey.

The rest of the service is pretty similar to a regular Sunday service, building up to the Eucharist. As usual, I don’t take Communion. They wouldn’t have any objections, I don’t think—their stance is that if it’s your tradition to receive it in your own denomination, you’re welcome to take it from them as well—but I have complicated feelings about it that I’m still sorting out. But I do go forward to kneel before the altar rail and get a blessing. We have the final dismissal (the Deacon says, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Alleluia, alleluia,” and the people respond, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia”), and go out into the night. It’s not the fanciest Easter Vigil I’ve ever attended, but I think it may be the most meaningful to me personally; as I said, it’s really something to experience it in the context of the whole week. It gives it a whole new depth and resonance.

Easter Sunday

Since I’m on a bit of a churchgoing high, I decide I want to go wild and fit in as many Easter services as I can. Fortunately, the downtown area of the city where I live has a lot of churches in close proximity, so I look up the times of all their services and make up a schedule for myself involving four different churches.

Presbyterians, 7:00 am. This is a somewhat informal sunrise service, held on the lawn of the Presbyterian church. It’s a beautiful morning, and I sit in a folding chair and mostly look at the sky. We sing two hymns at the beginning and end, and the minister reads the Resurrection account in John, but most of the service is taken up by a sermon. This is the first non-Episcopal service I’ve attended in quite some time, and I realize that unbeknownst to me, the Anglican worship style has kind of taken over my brain; I’m struck by how little liturgy there is, and how the audience mostly just sits quietly and listens to the minister preach. (To be fair, this isn’t a regular Presbyterian service, just an early sunrise worship, so I don’t know how typical that is.) I do appreciate, though, that the minister seems very down to earth. She talks honestly about her life, and relates it to the theology of the Resurrection.

Methodists, 8:30 am. The downtown Methodists meet in a large, beautiful building that I’ve often walked past and been curious about, so I’m excited to go inside. They have a lovely chapel, large and spacious, and I’m enthusiastically welcomed by the greeters as I go in. We begin with an Easter call to worship, saying repeatedly, “Christ is risen! Alleluia!” They have handbells and brass to accompany the choir, which is exuberant and really fun to listen to. There’s a bit of liturgy, but a bit to my surprise, no Communion (do Methodists not do that every Sunday, I’m wondering?) They read the Resurrection account in John, and then have a rather long sermon.

And I have to admit, I don’t really care for the sermon. If there’s a factory out there that churns out the sort of polished, charismatic types who regularly appear in CES contexts, this pastor came straight from there. I swear, if he’d been a Mormon, he would have been speaking at BYU Education Week—he has the same mannerisms, the same sorts of stories about his experience as a football player, the oh-isn’t-this-clever connection between theology and university rivalries (in this case, I think it was Duke vs. North Carolina), and even the same put-downs of other churches (he talks dismissively about churches that “don’t dare” to preach the Resurrection and instead just talk about flowers on Easter). He keeps on saying that he is going to bravely go into the “deep waters” of the Resurrection, but for all that, it doesn’t seem to me that he actually has anything of depth to say about the Resurrection. When at the end he has us all stand up and exhorts to go into the world and share the gospel, it feels to me more like a motivational speech than a sermon with any real theological grounding. I really did go in with a super positive, “I’m looking for the good in all the churches I attend” attitude, because I wanted to enjoy Easter, but this just leaves me cold. I may be being unfair to this guy, but I have a lot of baggage from dealing with this particular style in the CES wing of the LDS tradition, and I find it a real turn-off.

However, all is not lost, because at the end they have the choir sing the Hallelujah Chorus with accompanying brass, and it is absolutely stellar. So that takes the bad taste out of my mouth, and I remind myself not to judge all Methodists—whom I generally have a good impression of, actually—by this one pastor. And I eagerly head out into the rain (with no coat or umbrella, oops) to walk around the block to the next church on my schedule.

Disciples of Christ, 10:00 am. I’ve never been to a Disciples service, and don’t actually know a whole ton about the tradition despite having a good friend from grad school who joined the denomination and is now an ordained Disciples minster. I know that her experience with them has been really good, though, so that predisposes me to see them in a positive light. Like all the churches I attend on Easter, they meet in a gorgeous building. There is a kind of relaxed and down-to-earth feel about their congregation. As I read through all the materials they hand me and look around while I’m waiting for the service to start, I’m particularly struck by the effort they’ve put into welcoming families with young children—they have pews at the front reserved for them, so that the children can sit up close and see what’s going on, as well as suggestions in the bulletin for including children in the worship service. And later, once the service has started, they have a children’s moment and hand out activity bags.

As far as the structure, it reminds me somewhat of the Methodists, in terms of having some liturgy combined with a fairly long sermon—though unlike the Methodist service I’d just attended, they also have Communion. They have a lovely choir, which performs from a balcony at the back, which is kind of cool. The pastor is lively and engaging, but in a way that feels genuine and not canned. Before giving a rather lengthy opening prayer, she instructs us to say “Christ is risen indeed!” every time she says “Christ is risen” in it, and that’s pretty fun. Unlike the other three churches I attend that morning, they read the Resurrection account in Matthew (rather than the Johannine one). I also notice that they make a real effort to have gender-inclusive language, for both humans and God.

I’m really interested to see how they do Communion. It’s distributed Mormon-style—the Deacons (adult women and men, so that part’s not so Mormon) pass around trays of wafers and little cups of water and grape juice to the congregation. But in a twist, you don’t take it right away, but wait until it’s been handed out to everyone, and then everyone eats and drinks at once. I like the communal feel of that. I also note that it’s completely inclusive—they say flat-out that everyone is welcome to partake. My inner theologian’s ears also pick up on the fact that they seem to emphasize that this is definitely not transubstantiation; they use the word “symbol” quite prominently, and say something like “you’re eating fellowship and drinking love.” (That’s a striking contrast to the Anglican/Catholic intonation “the body of Christ” and “the blood of Christ” as you’re given the wafer and wine.)

I unfortunately have to dash out before the service ends, because it’s past 11:00 am at this point, and I don’t want to be late to the Episcopal service.

Episcopalians, 11:15 am. I hurry down the street—it’s fortunately stopped raining by now—and into the Episcopal church. As I’m walking up to the doors of the building, I see the choir and clergy lined up to process in, and the Archdeacon sees me and smiles and waves, which makes me realize I’m starting to feel connected to this community. The church is packed, full of way more people than I’ve ever seen there, and I don’t get to do my usual thing and have a side pew to myself, but have to find a space in a middle pew.

I expect a really good service, and it does not disappoint. Like the Methodists, they have brass accompanying the choir, which I love having on Easter—it adds the triumphal feel that seems appropriate for a celebration of resurrection and new life. They go through the readings, finishing with John’s Resurrection account. The sermon is interesting and thoughtful, but not too long (the Episcopal ones never are very long, which I’m especially appreciating today because it’s my fourth sermon). Then we go through another renewal of the baptismal covenant.

For the Prayers of the People section of the service, there’s a real treat: we do it all based on the well-known prayer of St. Francis. So the reader begins, “With all our heart and all our mind, we pray to you, O Lord,” and the congregation says, “Make us instruments of your peace.” And then the reader says, “For the peace of the world, that a spirit of respect and forbearance may grow among nations and peoples we pray to you, O Lord” and the congregation says, “Where there is hatred, let us sow love.” And so on, until we finally conclude, “For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” I absolutely love it.

As always, the service concludes with the Eucharist, which takes somewhat longer than usual because of the number of people there, but of course is accompanied by gorgeous music. The local  Episcopal church I’ve been attending almost always has someone play a recorder during Communion, and I really like it. We finish up with a prayer, an Easter blessing, an Easter recessional hymn, and the final exchange in which the Deacon says, just like the night before,  “Let us go forth in the name of Christ. Alleluia, alleluia,” and we respond, “Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.” And I go out into an Easter afternoon, which I spend with my sister and her kids, hunting eggs in the backyard and eating ham and talking, and coming back to earth after all that church.

So anyway, despite the sour note of the sermon that bugged me, it was overall a really good Easter morning. I don’t know where I’ll be next year, mood-wise or church-wise, but I’m thinking I’d love to try it again, and maybe sample a few more denominations. (But still finish up with the Episcopalians, because all that church-hopping made it clear to me that while there’s good stuff everywhere, I really do love liturgy, and Anglican services speak to me very powerfully.)

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