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.”
B. LITURGY OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
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.
C. STRIPPING OF THE ALTAR
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 .
WHEN IT COMES TO CHRISTIAN WORSHIP, EASTER VIGIL SAYS IT ALL…
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.