Thursday, March 24, 2016

Three Holy Days Enfold Us Now

As a parish priest for almost twenty years, my favorite time of the year was Holy Week. It is also the most exhausting week of the year for parochial clergy and other church geeks.

I required (to the extent a parish priest has the authority to "require" anything) that my confirmands and their mentors attend the three evening services of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil of Easter. In truth it was an invitation and a promise more than a requirement: I assured them that their faith would grow and deepen more after these three holy days than a whole year of Sunday mornings. I still believe that.

I was blessed, both as a young associate rector and as a rector to have partners in ministry - and large enough congregations to do these liturgies well while sharing the preaching duties. One thing I see now and encourage in my diocesan role is for congregations to find local partners to share these days with, so that the week is not quite so exhausting and so that there is some kind of "critical mass" for offering these liturgies, which can be found on pages 274-295 in The Book of Common Prayer. 

T. S. Eliot once wrote, "we had the experience, but missed the meaning." Below is my attempt to find meaning based on years of experiencing these liturgies, for any who may find these thoughts helpful.

Maundy Thursday

The Latin root from which this day takes it's name is maundatum - mandate. Jesus gives us a mandate on this day: a new commandment to love one another.

In truth it's an old commandment. The Torah itself summarizes itself as love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus reiterates this in his ministry. To put it directly, religion that is not about love is not of God. Religion that peddles in fear, or hatred, is not of God - since God is love.

Why a commandment? Because love is hard. Some are squeamish about washing feet - although it always strikes me as a little ironic that people will go pay for a pedicure (before church!) without thinking twice - so they can come to church with better looking feet! Some say this belongs to a very different cultural context. But as a priest, I can tell you I "got it" every year. I have, over many years, washed the feet of people I did not particularly like - of people who hurt me, intentionally or not. But something changes when you are holding a person's foot in your hand and pouring water over it. I've come to believe that this is the most important liturgy of the year and am sad when people replace it with Christianized seders and other ways to avoid "naked" feet. I find myself wondering what it would mean for me to wash Donald Trump's feet - or to allow him to wash mine. I don't expect that to happen, and doing so would not make him "right" on anything he's wrong about. But it would change my own heart. I know this because of years of practice.

Good Friday

I've never been a big fan of the Stations of the Cross, or The Seven Last Words. I'm not criticizing those who are; it's just not my way of experiencing Good Friday, although I will say that I'm taken with recent experiences of "stations" that are out in the streets of places like Springfield, or Worcester, as a way of connecting us to all the ways that Christ is still crucified.

For me, though, the simplicity of hearing St. John's Passion (in spite of the challenges it poses for interfaith conversations) and praying The Solemn Collects (BCP 277-280) brings me to the foot of the cross, and to ask the question again: what wondrous love is this? What I love about the Prayerbook Liturgy is that it resists over-theologizing about the cross, and focuses on helping us to behold. Why does Jesus die? That's a challenging theological question upon which we can spend a lifetime. But that this good man was executed, and that the innocent continue to suffer at the hands of imperial power, used and abused, invites us to ask together what makes this Friday "good?" At least in part the answer is that Jesus stretches his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of God's saving embrace. And that we who behold this great mystery are called to reach forth our hands in love...

Holy Saturday

Hidden in The Book of Common Prayer - and largely unknown - is page 283. I used to gather the participants for The Easter Vigil for a rehearsal, along with the Altar Guild who came to decorate the church, with this very short liturgy. I think the metaphor of "Saturday waiting" is where we tend to spend a good bit of our lives - between suffering and the empty tomb. Waiting for new life, waiting for hope, waiting not passively but as people who are part of this story of the Paschal mystery.
In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help? From you alone, O Lord...

The Great Vigil of Easter

My first Vigil was as a young associate rector at Christ and Holy Trinity Church in Westport, CT. I'd been raised a United Methodist on ecumenical sunrise services - for me Christmas Eve was candlelight and Easter morning was the sunrise. I really didn't "get" that first Vigil. Over the years, however, I have grown to appreciate the depth and wisdom of an ancient tradition that is ever new. Find a place where the Vigil is done well - you will not regret it.

Let me close by inviting you check out the Easter homily of St. John Chrysostom which was written over 1600 years ago, but it seems to me is still relevant today. How do you know if a faith is true? You know if it is about love, not fear. You know it is Easter faith if it is about welcome and hospitality and building bridges, not walls. You know if it is about non-violence, not violence.
First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

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