This is the first year that my family and I have been part of a Christian tradition in which the historic church seasons are formally observed, and we looked forward, with much anticipation, to what the Lord wanted to teach us through the Lenten weeks of solemn reflection, prayer, and lamentation. We attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service for confession of sin and imposition of ashes. It is such a wonderful mystery how that experience is, all at once, heart-rending and beautiful! We are dust, and to dust we will return. Yet in our unworthiness, we have glorious hope…
My husband and I had prayed, independently, that God would reveal to us how He wanted us to fast for these 40 days, and an answer was not immediately forthcoming. A few weeks went by, still with no clear idea of what we should sacrifice. “We make really terrible Anglicans!” I was thinking to myself (only half-jokingly).
Then, in the middle of the season, as I sat in the dusky silence of the predawn hour, contemplating the prayers, canticles, and Scripture of the Daily Office, the Holy Spirit made it suddenly clear to me what the appropriate sacrifice was for me–for us–this year. It was something that could be done all at once, so it didn’t matter that we were already well into Lent. I kept the epiphany to myself for a day or two, until my husband said one morning, “You know, I think we’re supposed to make this particular sacrifice for Lent…” and I smiled, my heart reveling in the undoubtable direct confirmation. This is just one example of how blessedly evident the Spirit has been. Oh the stories I could tell you about all the marvelous ways He has shown up lately…
So here we are, just a couple of days away from Holy Week. I’ve been reflecting upon the final days of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry–the sorrow, the urgency, the sense of spiritual isolation, the bittersweet time with his dearest friends…the abandonment.
This Sunday, we will commemorate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the time of year when the city was filling up with those coming to celebrate Passover.
The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)
When Jesus looked at the jubilant faces around him, what did He feel? These people were celebrating triumphantly. They didn’t see what was coming–a bloody cross, a broken body, a darkened earth. Our Lord Jesus probably felt many things, but nothing more than love…love for the world he was about to sacrifice himself for.
And thus our Holy Week will begin, with Hosannahs, declarations, and waving palm branches. But we do know what followed that day, and that makes observance of these days indescribably meaningful.
The week continues with additional opportunities for quiet prayer and Holy Communion. Maundy Thursday is the remembrance of Jesus’ last supper with His disciples, the night he instituted Holy Communion in the breaking of bread and sharing of wine–and the night he washed His disciples’ feet. “Maundy” is from the Latin word Mandatum, which is translated “commandment” and refers in this context to Jesus’ commandment to love one another. In the Anglican tradition, Maundy Thursday may include feet washing and something called “the stripping of the altar.” In The Anglican Way, Fr. Thomas McKenzie describes the stripping this way:
This can be somber or dramatic, or both. The holy objects that we normally use in worship–the candles, books, chalices, hangings, etc. –are hastily removed…When we treat the holy things of the sanctuary as common, we are showing that the Son of God was treated as a common criminal, a man of no account. Afterward, we’re invited to stay before the now-barren altar. We wait with Christ, as he asked his disciples to do in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36), but no matter how much we love him, eventually the sanctuary empties. Everyone leaves him.
Some churches may use a black pall on the altar to symbolize the impending crucifixion day. Recession from the church occurs in silent solemnity.
Good Friday (“Good”=”Holy”), the day that commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion, is when the Stations of the Cross are visibly represented. These stations are spots to meditate upon each major scene of the final hours of Christ’s Passion. Then, Holy Saturday recognizes the dark, mournful day during which Jesus’ body reposed in the garden tomb.
Then comes Resurrection Day: a grand celebration–the feast day that tops all other feast days. In church tradition, Easter is an entire festal season, lasting 50 days! The mood of worship is joyous, and the church is adorned with white flowers, white fabrics, white candles. Hearts, minds, bodies, and all the trappings of worship proclaim that Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.