Imagine the Surprise! Holy Week and Easter

March 30th, 2012

It’s dark. The sun is just beginning to rise. The anointing spices fill the air. But wait! The stone is not over the entrance to the tomb! Run and tell the others, “He is risen!”

Imagine the surprise!

Each year, the eight days from Palm Sunday to Easter are reminders of the great surprise that awaited Mary Magdalene and that await us as we recall the final days of Jesus’ earthly life. These days are filled with meaningful traditions that help us experience the events of long ago. We praise God with excited triumph on Palm Sunday. We celebrate Holy Communion and serve one another with foot-washing on Holy Thursday. We cry as we remember Jesus’ final words from the cross on Good Friday. Finally, we shout again on Easter Sunday, “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!”

But within these traditions, can we offer some measure of surprise to our congregations? Can we surprise them with worship acts that change the way they see these days or give them new ways to praise the risen Savior?

One of my worship planning values is that every service should have some surprise in it; some moment that strikes most of the worshipers as different, new, revealing, or extra special. Hopefully, it is in these moments that worshipers are prompted to be more open to the Spirit. I believe that, when successful, this openness allows worshipers to encounter and praise God in a new and sometimes surprising way.

This is not to say that traditions should not be heeded. Holy Week and Easter are only superseded by Advent and Christmas in the amount of traditional acts that worshipers expect. And these differ from congregation to congregation. In my first church, the new pastor and I assumed that Easter worship would begin with “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today!” But the looks on the faces of the congregation on Easter morning told us that something was wrong. After the service we heard, “What happened to ‘Welcome Happy Morning’? We always sing that on Easter!”

After determining and planning for the traditions of your congregation, can you see ways to plan for a few surprises along this holy journey?

For Palm Sunday, plan a mariachi processional using “Mantos y Palmas." Children especially love this exciting tune. Use soloists, choirs, congregation, hand percussion instruments, and as many guitarists as you can muster to create an exciting beginning to your service. The first half of each refrain (“From every corner . . .”) may be sung by a soloist, with all joining in at “¡Hosanna, hosanna al Rey!”

On Good Friday, use “Go to Dark Gethsemane” to amplify the reading of the John text from the lectionary. This reading may be abbreviated or read in its entirety. Read John 18:1-11 then sing stanza 1 of the hymn. John 18:28-38 is followed by stanza 2. John 19:1-11, 16b-22, by stanza 3. Finally read John 19:38-42. After a period of silence, sing stanza 4 quietly, as a brief acknowledgment that we know what is to come. You might also combine hymn stanzas with the scriptural narrative on Passion/Palm Sunday. Dividing these texts up for a “reader’s theater” style reading can also be effective.

A haunting exploration of the “dark before the dawn” can be found in Brian Wren’s hymn “Joyful Is the Dark." As a solo sung in the darkened worship space, this can be very effective when used at the close of Holy Thursday or Good Friday services.

The church I attend always begins Easter with some surprise. People always ask, “How will the service begin?” One year, white balloons were released into the four-story gothic nave as we sang, “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!” At first I thought the idea was just too 1970's for serious consideration. But in the moment, I felt a physical rising like I’ve never felt before. I was surprised!

Another year, we began with a darkened sanctuary. Everything was just as we left it on Good Friday: no paraments or banners, no flowers, no light. As music began (first instrument, then choral), a grand processional brought in all the light and beauty of the day. When the sanctuary was ready, the organ swelled and brought us into singing “Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!”

Use your imagination to create surprise moments for your congregation. Imagine their surprise as they encounter God in worship in new and meaningful ways.

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