Three Days and A Great Day: Holy Week and Easter
Last updated 3/27/2018 at 9:27am
By Michael Plenkon
Over the centuries, Christians developed a week of services and prayer to mark the last days of Jesus’ life and his death and resurrection. The pattern for much of this “holy week” came from pilgrims’ accounts of the celebrations in Jerusalem and the surrounding area as early as the diary of a 4th century pilgrim from Spain, Egeria, who described the daily services there in great detail. By the early middle ages the arrangement now familiar to most Christians in both the Western and Eastern churches had evolved. In the Eastern churches, the day before Palm Sunday is devoted to the raising of Jesus’ good friend, Lazarus.
This is a looking forward to the culmination of the coming holy week, the first day of the week when the women disciples found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, with men in white garments telling them the Lord was raised from death and gone before them to Galilee. For most Christians then, holy week begins with Palm Sunday and this often includes a procession with people carrying palm branches as the crowds in Jerusalem did as Jesus entered, riding on a donkey, following the prophecy of Zechariah in the Hebrew Bible. St. Barnabas Episcopal begins at its pilapa and processes to the church building. Other local congregations celebrate in their own churches. The joy of the shouts of “Hosanna,” welcoming the Messiah into the holy city lead into a reading from the account of the passion, the sufferings of Jesus later in the week.
Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday together are called the Triduum or the great three days. Holy Thursday is also known as Maundy Thursday, from the Latin word “mandatum” for the command Jesus gave at the last supper for us to love one another. The details of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples are celebrated. At St. Barnabas this service starts at 5:30pm. There is the washing of the feet of members of the congregation, following Jesus doing the same for those at the supper, with his urging them, in John’s gospel, to love each other always and stay in communion with him. Since this supper is the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion, the giving of the bread and the cup are the high point of this day’s services. The service concludes with the altar being stripped of its cloth and all other items removed from the sanctuary, a kind of re-enactment of Jesus later being stripped of his clothes before being scourged and then again, before being nailed to the cross.
On Good Friday — “good” because Jesus died on this day for the salvation of all, the readings and attention are focused on the cross. Here in Borrego at 3 p.m., people start at Christmas Circle and walk up to Church Street and to St. Barnabas in a “way” of the cross, also called “stations of the cross.” A large cross is carried, in turn, by those on this walk, with short scripture readings and a prayer at several stops along the way. At 4 p.m., the service continues with a reading of the passion from one of the gospels, with the parts of the narrator, Jesus, other figures in the story and the crowd taken by different members of the congregation. In some churches, there is communion too, but also a prayer for the whole world and all people in need. Some come forward to pray before the cross in the middle of the church.
Holy Saturday is when Jesus is in the tomb, seemingly a nothing day. But it is the start of Easter and was, in early centuries, the time when many would be baptized at a night service or vigil, with multiple readings from the Hebrew Bible, psalms — a keeping watch at the tomb, with finally the gospel of the empty tomb and communion being shared. At St. Barnabas, this service starts at 7 p.m., in twilight outside in the memorial garden, where the departed are remembered. It starts with the new fire and the Easter candle lit from it symbolizing the risen Christ. It resembles the telling of stories, so sacred stories – God’s creating the world, Noah’s flood, the sacrifice of Isaac, the saving the people in the Red Sea and other mighty acts of salvation around light in the darkness – exactly what the Risen Lord is. On Easter Sunday morning, a community-wide sunrise service starts at dawn behind the Methodist Church, with a choir coming from various congregations and the clergy of these too. There are Easter hymns, prayer and the reading of the gospel account of the empty tomb, with words from one of the pastors. Then members of the Borrego parishes go back to their churches for Easter services. At St. Barnabas, there is communion right after the sunrise service, and later at 9:30 a.m., a festival service of Holy Communion.
All kinds of celebration extend this “feast of feasts” into the homes of Christians, from the familiar Easter eggs (and hunts for hidden ones by children) to the Easter chocolates and other delicacies: roast ham, lamb. Some churches have special Easter sweet breads. Many restaurants have special brunches. The egg is a symbol of new life, the other foods are for feasting, for the hope and gladness the resurrection of the Lord brings to the world.
Does this sound like a lot of church in one week? Yes it does, and I say that as a priest myself. Why do we continue what seem to be ancient rituals, so distant from a world full of business, work, and so many pressing social and political issues? What do we actually believe we are doing by following Jesus through holy week to the Easter Sunday? Surely it is not to criticize everyone else or pretend to be better spiritually—which we very well may not be! But just as the faithful of other traditions—Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others – in the course of the year stop, reflect, pray, even fast then feast, followers of Christ also do in order to return to what is true and good and beautiful — what we live for, in a way. Easter’s real name is Pascha, the Greek for Pesach or Passover, the Jewish feast that celebrates not only the freedom of those once slaves but also the very creation of the world by God and the Lord’s continual caring for, sustaining all that is good — God’s creation, the world, all of the human family. Holy Week and Easter are Christian celebrations, to be sure. But like Passover, Yom Kippur, Ros Ha’Shanah, Ramadan and other feasts, they point to things we all hope for and need—renewal, forgiveness, compassion, all of which mean that life can be made new no matter how old we are.
We are also reminded that we are all sisters and brothers, regardless of income, race, ethnicity, religion or any other social or political status. The Torah says that the stranger, the outsider, the immigrant, is welcome as the table. So too the followers of the Risen Christ, the table is the Lord’s the feast is the Lord’s and it is for all.