By The Rev. Carlton Kelley
Holy Week is the pivotal point of the church’s entire year. In a very real sense, without Holy Week there would be no liturgical year because there would be no church! That is another way of saying without Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his institution of the Eucharist, crucifixion and resurrection, there would be no church. Imagine, if you will, the world without the church and, most especially, without Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human. The liturgical observance of Holy Week began in Jerusalem, the site of these events, in as early as the 2nd century, though they are first mentioned by a pilgrim to Jerusalem, Egaria, who wrote of them in her travel diary in 383AD.
As with all liturgies, the services of Holy Week are not simple reenactments of historical events. They bring into the present those saving works of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. We become part of these “mighty acts” as their reality is brought forward in time. The central reality of Holy Week is that we have been saved from sin and death, not by any effort of our own, but by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. That is good news, indeed!
We begin our journey with the Sunday of the Passion, Palm Sunday. Many people have said this day feels “schizophrenic” as we first welcome Jesus with waving palms and then shout for his crucifixion moments later. It does feel that way, but I would also say that this is precisely the reality of our lives. One moment we welcome the light that is Christ and the next we happily dwell in the darkness of his absence. Palm Sunday clearly illustrates the stark choice we have between life and death.
During the reading of the Passion Gospel we all have a chance to participate directly in this drama. We are the sleepy and cowardly Peter, the traitorous Judas, the unruly crowd, the cynical Pilate, Pilate’s wife who senses the truth but is unwilling to proclaim it, the fearful high priest Caiaphas and the murderous Barabbas who is pardoned instead of Jesus. We are all these people at some point in our lives and, at other times, all of them rolled into one. But the Good News, the Gospel, is that we are still loved and eternally cherished by God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Why? Because God sees us through the eyes of Jesus the eternally beloved.
This day commemorates two things: Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet and his institution of the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. It is so named from the Latin word for command, mandatum, taken from Jesus’ words… “a new commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus embodies this command by washing his disciples’ feet, a direct and startling contradiction of the prevailing social practices of his day that continues to be so even to ours. Masters are masters, servants are servants, and everyone had better stay where they belong! Jesus says no, and emphatically so. Those who wish to be great must first be servants. This cannot simply be a “religious” teaching but must apply to all areas of our lives. Winning accounts for nothing. Success accounts for nothing, Service in love accounts for everything.
Our Lord instituted the sacrament of his Body and Blood so that he, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is always available to us. We do this great thing, not merely to recall a meal he had with his disciples, but to enter into the reality that Jesus is truly God and truly human. As St. Augustine says, we become what we are by partaking of this sacrament. We are refreshed and reconstituted as the Body of Christ by partaking of the Body of Christ. This is why the church has always insisted that Holy Baptism precede Holy Eucharist. In our day, the reception of the Holy Eucharist by the unbaptized is very much a consumer orientation emphasizing personal choice rather than communal responsibility and personal discipline even unto death. God’s infinite grace is free, but it is not cheap either for God or for us.
This is the day in which the work of Jesus is fulfilled. He said “It is finished” from the Cross and so our salvation is won through his obedience to the Father. The Liturgy for Good Friday is one of the most ancient of the year containing riches upon riches for us to receive. The Lord truly dies on the Cross so that we might truly live. Our salvation is won but it must be “worked out in fear and trembling” as St. Paul tells us. And again, God’s infinite grace is free, but it is not cheap either for God or for us.
The Great Vigil of Easter
Nocturnal services of prayer, frequently ending with the Eucharist, were common in the first Christian centuries. They were popular because it was widely believed that the second coming of the Lord would happen at Midnight, according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. The vigil before Easter was and is the most important of these. In the Episcopal Church, the Easter vigil was observed in catholic minded parishes, but it was not until its inclusion in the 1979 edition of the Book of Common Prayer that this service became popular. The vigil itself is essentially an extended Liturgy of the Word with numerous Old Testament readings with prayers and psalms to accompany them.
The Great Vigil of Easter was and is the preeminent day of the year for Holy Baptism. The candidates for Holy Baptism came to the font after a lengthy period of preparation often lasting several years in which the Holy Scriptures and the disciplines of the Christian life were taught. Holy Baptism was understood to be a renunciation of an old way of living and a movement into a completely new life in Christ. Certain professions, such as acting and the military, had to be renounced if one wished to be a Christian. As a consequence of this new life, the newly baptized received Holy Eucharist for the first time.
The Feast of the Resurrection is the most joyful day of the year and is more theologically important than Christmas. This is so because God’s salvific work is completed by Jesus’ death and resurrection, a work that was begun with the calling of Abraham and Sarah. We stand in that ancient line of called and sent people who are to bring salvation to the world through Jesus Christ.