The week leading up to Easter has always been, for me, a break from busy life. Last year I spent the long weekend holidaying with friends in Wales. Previously, it’s been time off from university and school, time to laze around and maybe go on the odd Easter walk with family.
There’s always been a good bit of church involved: on my keener years in the past, I’ve joined the Maundy Thursday meal of lamb and couscous as we remembered the last supper. The most important tradition for my family was the Good Friday Walk of Witness, in which we’d parade behind a large cross through the local shops and eventually up to a large green hill overlooking the city, singing badly all the way. And of course, there was the usual church service on Easter Sunday morning.
So when I heard that the Anglo-Catholic churches I’m with for my placement this year “do Holy Week” in a big way, I thought I was prepared. Something on Thursday and Friday as well as Sunday, and maybe hot cross buns after the service, right?
How wrong I was.
>> Holy Week began yesterday with Palm Sunday – here, that included the procession with palm branches in the morning, and benediction in the evening (for those not in the know, that’s when a piece of the wafer we use for communion gets put in a sort of holy-sun-frame and everyone kneels in front of it in adoration).
>> Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are not days off, as previously assumed. No, we have ecumenical worship every evening, and a daily Eucharist which follows either morning prayer or evening prayer. Unlike our normal evening services, these include sermons, so I’m gearing up to preach tonight.
>> Thursday is when it gets serious though. I’ve heard repeatedly that Thursday through to Saturday night is one all one liturgy, but if that’s true it’s a flipping long one. Thursday will begin with morning prayer at 8.30, continue at the Cathedral with silence from 10am, followed by a thing called Chrism Mass. As far as I can work out its a chance for all the clergy of the diocese to dress up and get together, they reaffirm their ordination vows and the holy oils for the coming year are blessed. This all seems very nice but I haven’t yet worked out why it happens in Holy Week; I’m not sure it’s what Jesus and the disciples were up to on the day before Jesus died.
Anyway, the day continues as we head back to church to prepare it for the evening – what that will involve is as yet a mystery. The evening itself includes a rehearsal, for which I’m thankful if a little bemused, then evening prayer and another service that involves foot washing, and of course a Eucharist. As if that were not enough, we then sit in silence until midnight, remembering the hours of anguished prayer that Jesus spent in the garden on Gethsemane.
(I’m not sure exactly when we are expected to eat. There’s no lamb and couscous on offer though, as far as I can tell.)
>> Friday brings with it more prayer, preparing the church, and rehearsals of services. There’s an afternoon of liturgy (I’m not sure what that involves, but I imagine more prayer), evening prayer, and stations of the cross – that’s where you walk through the story of the crucifixion contemplating the various events. I think.
>> I’d assumed nothing much happened on the Saturday – after all, Jesus is dead in the tomb and the disciples are in hiding that day. But wrong again. Along with prayer, preparation of the church (which seems to have endless set changes this week), and more rehearsals, we’re doing something with an Easter garden for the morning. That evening comes the vigil and the first Eucharist of Easter. It’s a curiosity I’ve discovered that in Anglo-Catholic Churches, the first Eucharist of a day can happen the night before. So instead of a dawn service on Easter Day, it’s a bonfire in the evening, followed by a processing of lights into church. It’s seems odd though, that we’ll celebrate the dawn of the resurrection in the dark, then go home to bed before we come back in the morning.
>> The day of the resurrection itself, Easter Sunday, looks strangely like a normal Sunday, after which I’ll head off to see my family for roast lamb and an Easter Egg (looking hopefully at you here, Mum), and probably a good nap.
That, I’m told, is doing Holy Week properly. And truth be told, I’m nervous.
Nervous about the length of the services, watches, vigils. Nervous about the number of services that need rehearsals, of not knowing what I’m meant to do, of tripping over my alb. Nervous about feeling like a fraud. Nervous about falling asleep at the point I’m supposed to be watching and praying, just like the disciples did. Nervous about my mind wandering and whether I’ll really pray at all.
I’m afraid that I won’t understand what we’re doing and why. That I’ll just get more and more frustrated, and spend the week wishing I was elsewhere. I’m afraid that it will all feel alien.
But yesterday as we arrived at the front of church, first bit of choreography and procession complete, the organ struck up the Graham Kendrick classic “Make Way”, and my heart was strangely warmed. There was something about singing this all too familiar song in what still feels like an unfamiliar context, that moved me.
I felt Jesus whisper, “It’s still all about me. You know me. It’s about me.” And it’s that truth which makes me not only nervous, but also expectant this week.
It’s all about Jesus; yes, I know Jesus. The Jesus I came to know through youth groups and sermons, the Jesus I met in charismatic worship and intense Bible studies, the Jesus who sustained me through difficult times as a teenager, the Jesus I wrestled with in my studies, the Jesus who stuck with me when I wobbled, the Jesus I speak with each day – this week is about him.
And I trust that he’s got plans for this week; that as I commit to showing up, to fumbling my way through the unfamiliar, through the many words and the long silences, he’ll meet me in some way. And if I catch a glimpse of him, that’s got to be enough for me. Our priest here speaks often of entering more deeply into the mystery during Holy Week. I don’t really know what that will mean but I think I’m up for it.
Worship might look a little different to what I’m used to. The smells and the rituals and the words might not be the ones I’d choose – though I’m sure there’ll be some I come to love. But whatever else I discover this week, I know Jesus, and I know it’s him I want to worship in the days ahead.
See you on the other side!