The experience of Holy Week

April 10th, 2017

One of the greatest joys and responsibilities of my vocation as a minister and a priest is to lead my congregation through the events and liturgies of Holy Week and Easter. Yes, there are a lot of bulletins and sermons to prepare. No, I never quite get the congregational turnout I would like. Nor are ministers the only ones who put in a lot of work and effort this week — church musicians, altar guilds, lay servers and readers all contribute to creating a meaningful experience for those who attend these services.

Every year I am reminded how deeply my own call story is interwoven with Holy Week and Easter. I do not think I would be an ordained priest and possibly not even a Christian were it not for my experience of the Christian story as it is told by the church throughout Holy Week. Sure, someone can tell me about what God did through Jesus or I can read about it myself in Scripture, but that is different from experiencing it through the liturgies of the church.

Starting with Palm/Passion Sunday, we are invited to be a part of the story. We welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, waving our palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” A few minutes later, our shouts change to “Crucify him! Crucify him!” during the reading of the Passion. On Maundy Thursday, we break bread and drink wine, remembering Jesus’ Last Supper and the betrayal of Judas, and we might even wash one another’s feet. Good Friday finds us at the foot of the cross with the disciples, looking upon the glorious death and agony of our Savior.

At the Easter Vigil, one of the oldest liturgies of the church, we kindle a fire in the darkness and hear the story of our salvation from Creation to the Exodus to the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. We renew our baptismal vows, when we too passed from slavery into freedom, from death into life.

Growing up, my family was not an Easter morning family; we attended the Easter vigil. I’m sure it was equal parts the liturgy itself, not wanting to deal with Easter morning crowds, and the remarkable spread of food after the service, but even at a young age, I had a sense that I was participating in something deep and ancient and beautiful and true. I watched in awe as the altar guild swooped in to change the paraments to white and gold during the singing of that first Easter hymn, the first cries of “Alleluia!” as the lights came on and the sanctuary was illuminated.

In my years of observing Holy Week, I cannot remember a single sermon, what a preacher said or taught from the pulpit, but I do remember the experience of those liturgies: the tenderness of a stranger washing my feet, my forehead against the hard wood of the cross, the baptisms of my friends in campus ministry and sharing their first Eucharist with them. This is a huge part of how I have come to know grace — that I have betrayed Jesus just as much as Judas, that I have denied Jesus just as much as Peter, but that I too am beloved and forgiven and saved.

Given the distressing times in our nation and in our world, I enter this year’s Holy Week with a very real sense of the sin and depravity in humankind. There is darkness and death, but I believe in God who overcame death and the grave. I believe and follow Christ who processed into Jerusalem on a donkey, who washed feet and broke bread and suffered violence and betrayal. And God’s love is more powerful than all of that. The experience of Holy Week and Easter reminds me that it is not enough to talk about death and resurrection; I have to live it. And that is the most challenging part of all.

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