A journal of Holy Week, 1996 ~ Martha Ainsworth

For me, the Holy Week experience is a cornerstone of my faith life. The liturgies are so rich, so evocative. This spiritual journey is such a deep and powerful experience for me each year. The ultimate meaning of human suffering, life and death, love and redemption--in a way that cannot be explained, only experienced. Each year it becomes more three-dimensional for me, gains more depth, as I grow in my own humanity.

I remember the year that I first grasped the dimension of love in it. It was the year Damian died. I learned to see love reflected in grief. At his funeral I had a revelation, as I saw the love with which we celebrated that funeral Eucharist, and especially as we censed the coffin and sprinkled it with water to recall the promises of his baptism. It was done with such love--sorrow to be sure, but also love... Two months later, it was Holy Week, and we mirrored that same action, experiencing the same feelings. Only this time it was the body of Christ. Visions are hard to explain, but it was as if I suddenly saw love radiating through every plane of relationship--the loving care of a lover for the body of his beloved... the loving care of those who prepared Jesus’ body for burial... the loving care of my friends for me... the loving care of God for us. The rhythms of the ceremonial actions, the rhythms of the words, the deeper alpha rhythms of the liturgy, the music which in its intimacy can contain joy and sorrow and love in one note. It was the first time that I felt so deeply loved by anyone, loved by God. It was the most astounding vision. Right now as I am writing this I can’t help the tears flowing because it was such a deep feeling.

For the first time in twenty five years I am reluctant to begin the Holy Week services. Too much emotion, too much activity.

Palm Sunday

Tomorrow, Palm Sunday, is the overture. Holy Week begins. We begin our journey as we recall Jesus beginning his final journey. I am uneasy. The experience is powerful, and right now I don’t know if I have the capacity to bear it. The depth of these experiences feels to me like a very loud sound, from which I shrink. Too much sorrow... too much love.

The colors of the day are a deep red, recalling the blood of Christ. Festive decorations are removed from the church, leaving it simple and empty, with room for what is to come. The service begins with the procession recalling his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While it is filled with grandeur, there is a mood of solemn anticipation, because we know what will come next, just as Jesus knew. We must now confront our own destiny, just as Jesus confronted his.

In the midst of the service, the tone changes dramatically. As together we read the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, we must encounter what that story means for us, today. When the reading tells of the death of Jesus, we pause for a few minutes of silence, and kneel in reverence and reflection.

At this service there is a hymn which contains these words: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Despite my apprehension, I cannot resist. I am now fully in the experience of Holy Week.

Maundy Thursday

Thursday night’s service is very complex. On Maundy Thursday we commemorate the Last Supper, and a lot happened at the Last Supper. The most important thing is remembering the institution of the Eucharist. When we celebrate the Eucharist tonight, we will take the consecrated bread, which for us contains the presence of God, and carry it out of the church to another altar, an Altar of Repose, where it will remain until Friday. This year, I too have felt removed, absent, set apart somewhere in my own Altar of Repose.

Right in the middle of the service the entire congregation briefly adjourns to the parish hall and shares a ceremonial meal similar to the one they might have had that night, breaking bread together as they did. After this meal, most of us keep a fast until the end of the service on Good Friday.

Also that night, Jesus gave the new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” So the mood of the service is intimate, suffused with warmth and love for one another. To demonstrate what he meant by that commandment, Jesus took the role of a servant and washed the feet of his disciples. Lloyd will repeat this action to call to mind his servant ministry, and wash the feet of members of the congregation. He has said that this is for him one of the most meaningful actions he does each year. It is a simple, loving, intimate thing and sometimes it brings tears to my eyes.

But when the meal had ended, Jesus was betrayed and arrested, and we also recall that this evening. The organ is kept silent until the Vigil on Saturday; the fact that we sing everything unaccompanied lends to the intimate feel of the service. After the meal, we return to the church, and in a stark ceremony we remove all ornaments and decorations from the altar and sanctuary, preparing it for Good Friday. The church ends up looking bare, empty. It is a mirror of the emptiness of my own soul.

The service ends very abruptly because it doesn’t really end here, it will continue tomorrow. By tradition, instead of filing out in an orderly way, everyone scatters in different directions, to recall how the disciples scattered and fled when Jesus was arrested.

During the night on Thursday, a Watch is kept before the consecrated bread, the presence of Christ, his body for us. The tradition comes from that night when Jesus was praying in the garden, awaiting his arrest, and Peter and James and John, his disciples, kept falling asleep. Can’t you watch with me even one hour? asked Jesus. So now we take turns, each to pray for an hour in the night before the sacrament. I love doing it, and sign up for 3am. In the silence of the night, in a darkened church, in a small circle of dim light from a few candles, with no distractions, I have had some of my best conversations with God. There is a suggested series of meditations I use, taking account of my life, dropping the barriers between me and God, being honest before him and admitting my need of him. In the darkness I suddenly have a fantasy that it is my body in the tabernacle, and God is the one keeping watch, waiting for my resurrection.

Good Friday

On Friday at noon, we recall the death of Jesus in the traditional Good Friday service. The church, stripped of all ornament, is stark and bare; a visual shock. Yet the service that takes place here is wrapped with love. And that is the point: Love and Sorrow are inseparable. No matter how bare the church is, it is filled with Love. No matter how barren, how desolate your heart, Love is there. There is no place where Love cannot go. Even on this, the darkest of days, Love is here.

A cross is brought into the church. Behold the wood of the cross, the deacon sings, whereon was hung the world’s salvation. We respond: O come, let us worship.

We sing a motet by the 16th c. Spanish composer Victoria. The words in Latin are dulce lignum, dulces clavos, dulcia ferens pondera -- “sweetest wood, sweetest nails, sweetest weight is hung on thee.” It seems a contradiction; how can the cross be sweet? Few non-Christians -- even few Christians -- understand why there is so much love in our celebration of Good Friday. But love is what it was all about. As I sang Victoria’s music, I felt so much love, I thought my heart would break. There is an old Hasidic story that says God wrote his name on the outside of the human heart, so that when the heart breaks, God’s love will fall inside. Well mine did, and it did.

We keep a ceremony called the Veneration of the Cross, in which we take turns to kneel before a crucifix and kiss the feet of the crucified one on the cross. Any other gesture of veneration is suitable, too, such as touching the feet of the corpus, or gazing upon it for a moment. It took me a few years to get into this ceremony, because it is so intimate. Now I find it necessary, as an expression of my love; the Watch the night before will have prepared my heart. It is well to acknowledge Jesus’ suffering, to recall that God himself suffered, and therefore God is in solidarity with human suffering. We remember that the ultimate meaning of Jesus’ death and rising is that we are reunited with God in the fullness of life, a life larger than this time and space. That is why this day is called Good.

Friday night we observe Tenebrae, the service of darkness, recalling the time Jesus lay in the tomb. We start with nine candles lighted, and chant a series of readings and psalms. After each one, one candle is extinguished, until at last the church is left in darkness. It is very dramatic. As the church is progressively darkened, I feel my spirit darkening as well.

In the service, we chant Psalm 88. The words mirror my own inner deadness. I have become like one who has no strength, lost among the dead. Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks?

I too am now entombed, stripped of everything of my own devising that might separate me from the love of God. In this emptiness of darkness, we are prepared for the light to come.

The Great Vigil of Easter

Saturday night is the Christian Passover. Our Saturday night service, the Great Vigil of Easter, our most important service of the year, is packed with Passover imagery. Jesus’ death and resurrection took place on the day of Passover. To Christians, the story of Passover is a “type,” a metaphor, foretelling Christ. We tell the story of Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, we sing the song of Moses, we even sing a derivative of “this is the night” that Jews would recognize. We believe that as the blood of a lamb caused the angel of death to pass over the Israelites, so the blood of Jesus, the lamb of God, saves us from the angel of death; and as the Israelites passed from bondage to freedom through the water of the Red Sea, so we pass from death to life through the water of baptism.

The Great Vigil of Easter begins in a church still dark following Tenebrae the night before when we extinguished the candles one by one. But this darkness is vibrant, with hushed excitement and anticipation. We turn off all the lights so that it is pitch black. In the darkness, a fire is kindled. This is no gentle flame; it roars to life. The fire blazes up in the dark as a symbol of the light of life, Christ rising from the dead. A large candle, the Paschal Candle, is lit from the fire, and carried through the church with the chant, “The light of Christ”. Everyone has a small candle which is lit from the Paschal Candle as the light spreads to each of us.

By the light of the candles, we recite the story of salvation. By the light of the Paschal Candle, the deacon sings an ancient chant that calls to mind the Passover imagery. Then we tell stories of salvation from the Old Testament -- Noah and the Flood, Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea, Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. In the early church, this service would have begun in the middle of the night, and the storytelling would have gone on throughout the night, as they recalled God’s saving deeds in history.

I am assigned to read the story of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones. I wonder if this was done deliberately, to make a point to me. Upon seeing the valley full of bones, Ezekiel said, “...and they were very dry.” I thought to myself, yes, that is me alright. Very dry. God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” In my heart I turn to God and ask him back the same question, about myself. Ezekiel is asked to prophesy to the dry bones, which then take on flesh, and breath, and live. God then explains that the bones are a symbol for Israel, and declares “I will raise you from your graves; I will bring you home.” I turn to the Lord in my heart and ask, “When?”

Then I am to sing Psalm 30 in response to the reading. “You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead.” I sing lines that seem very distant to me. “O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health... you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.” I do not feel this, and must sing it on faith; in the hope that one day I will feel this way. If God could do it for a valley full of dry bones, why not for me?

Then new Christians, having now heard the story of salvation in history, are baptized and we all renew our baptismal covenant, reminding ourselves that we are in relationship with God, and this salvation we have heard about is ours. It is a joyous occasion and I have seen many new Christians in tears of joy as they begin their new life.

Then it’s officially Easter! Light has broken through the darkness and, in a flash of recognition, we know the Risen Lord. Even to me, it is truly glorious, bright and shining. We sing alleluia over and over, ring bells, and throw on all the lights. The place erupts in joy as we celebrate Christ rising from the dead, defeating death on our behalf. We celebrate this first Eucharist of Easter with all the festivity we can find, and we don’t stop for fifty days.

Today, I say the words. I appreciate the joy, even if I cannot feel it directly. I know it is there. Here in the grave, I can see it shining out there. Some day, when the time is right, I will rise.

© 1996 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.