Thursday, March 30, 2017

Holy Week and Easter 2017

OVER THE CENTURIES, the church has elaborated upon its experience of death and resurrection with dramatic liturgies on the days leading up to Easter.

1)          Palm Sunday begins with a parade that serves as an “acted parable” with Jesus being welcomed as a Jewish hero, but this high-spirited joyfulness rapidly changes into the stark reality of Jesus’ death on the cross.   The “Passion Gospel” readings are extremely long, and recount in detail the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution.

2.       MAUNDY THURSDAY= Latin mandatum= “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15
Jewish custom in Jesus’ time would have the youngest person present wash the hands of the eldar who was to preside over the ceremonial meal. In John’s Gospel, Jesus reverses the custom and proceeds himself to wash, not just the hands, but the feet of his students.
This ritual was known in the early Christian Church, but was neglected in most churches until its revival in the 1960’s. Indeed, it is hard to justify NOT doing so, given the words ascribed to Jesus in John 13: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”


There are many instances in the gospels where Jesus uses the rituals of a shared meal to express the meaning of his mission. The “Last Supper”, observed shortly before his arrest, has always been regarded by the church as the basis for its Eucharistic practice. On this occasion Jesus takes the ordinary components of a Jewish ceremonial meal- bread and wine- and charges them with a new and very odd significance by referring to them as his “body” and “blood.” Exactly what was meant by this obscure (and even nonsensical) language has been debated over the centuries, but it is clear that, after the Resurrection, the apostolic community regarded the Eucharist as its principle and essential connection to the Risen Lord.

Following the Eucharist, the sanctuary is solemnly emptied of any symbolic object (crosses, candles, sacred vessels, etc.) that is not too heavy to move. Once this is accomplished, the church is left empty and dark, symbolic of the emptiness of the world without the active presence of God.

D. Consecrated bread and wine from this Eucharist is taken to an “Altar of Repose” in the back of the church to be used for communion at the Good Frday Liturgy. Some may choose to observe a “watch” at the Altar of Repose, in response to Jesus’ invitation to his disciples that they “watch with him for an hour.”

In the stark and empty church, bereft of all its color and symbolism, the Good Friday Liturgy is observed as it was in Jerusalem in the 3rd Century.
A.      The Passion Gospel of John and other scriptures are read.
B.      Solemn Prayer is offered for the church and the world.
C.      A cross is brought into the church and honored.
The Eucharist is not celebrated again until the Easter Vigil, but Holy Communion is distributed from the sacrament reserved from Maundy Thursday .  

The earliest Christians followed the Jewish calendar, attending synagogue worship on Saturdays and gathering in people’s homes for the Eucharist on Sundays (which was a work day, so they had to start early, or finish late). The annual observance of Passover very early became the principle day for baptism. The vigil service took all night, and concluded with the First Eucharist of Easter as day was breaking.
The vigil as most Episcopalians observe it today is nowhere near as rigorous an event, but it still seeks to rehearse the entire drama of salvation through the use of light and dark, fire, water, and the First Eucharist of Easter. Some of the most significant parts of the Hebrew Scriptures are read. When the Gospel of the Resurrection is read, all the lights come on, candles are lit, the organ blasts, and “alleluia” is sung.

The Easter Vigil, and the celebrative worship of Easter morning, seek to enact and express the profound mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. All the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter arose out of the church’s experience of the Risen Christ, and invite us to enter a place “behind” normal expectations and even beliefs, a world where death no longer has dominion over us, where disciples are transformed, and apostles sent out.
“How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”                   
                         Exsultet chant, sung to bless the Paschal Candle during the Easter Vigil.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Easter begins with emptiness

Easter begins with emptiness, proceeds to mystery, and only then to power.
   Easter begins at an empty tomb, with bewildered disciples, and an absent Jesus. It is like a church on Good Friday afternoon, stripped of its symbolic art, its congregation elsewhere.
     Easter begins at the boundary of our own emptiness, a void into which all our greatest loves have either disappeared or soon will.
     Easter begins with mysterious visitors, cryptic hints, strange coincidences, and unexpected promises.
“He is going ahead of you into Galilee,” the women are told. “Oh great!” They complain to each other. “More of this discipleship business.”  They were right: much more of it.
          At the door of the empty place we hear the words: “more of this!” More love. More hope. More broken bread and shared wine. More brokenness of every kind. 
        And then the power, the Spirit, the ecstatic joy. The empty place becomes strangely full, and smells like Easter lilies and candle wax. The absence becomes a different sort of presence. The broken body becomes a different sort of bread.

The original group of disciples had a problem...

The original group of disciples had a problem. They had been witness to many miracles, yet the significance of these events was apparent only to them. The disciples interpreted them as signs of God’s kingdom breaking in, but what good was that to them if Jesus declined to use his miraculous powers to impress the powers who crucified him? If they had expected Jesus to pull out all the miraculous stops once he got to Jerusalem, it’s no wonder they all deserted him.
 This could be easily explained if we were to say, “miracles are hogwash,” but the disciples were unable to come to that conclusion. Something occurred that led them to emerge from the crucifixion more committed to their discipleship than ever, despite the apparent absence of their Lord. That “something” is what we call “The Resurrection,” which is churchly shorthand for the experience of Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and our own experiences of graceful transformation.   
As I see it, miracles are great, but they don’t have any more to do with salvation than any other act of kindness or mercy. What matters is that, in Jesus, God has shared our life as an ordinary human being. Well, maybe not THAT ordinary, but certainly not as a glowing, transfigured being who would dazzle everyone in the neighborhood with supernatural light-shows every night.
As I see it, it is essential that the “power” of God remain incognito, that “faith” always be a matter of  embracing what’s right here, not pointing to some giant Jesus in the sky and saying, “see, I told you so.” If God’s power were more obvious, so that even unbelievers could see and no longer deny, it would be something less than God that was being seen, because God is not an object to be observed.
What this signifies to me is that we are where we are supposed to be, with Christ and each other on a generous but problematic planet. Our calling is to follow Christ regardless of miracles. The real miracle is that we find ourselves doing exactly that, despite our disabilities. And that, for me, is quite dazzling enough.