I remember being a small child spending cold nights with my Great Grandmother. Her name was Ursula which she was quick to teach me meant “She Bear.” There never was a more loving woman nor a woman who was a better storyteller. On those cold nights, we would gather in the dim light of her bedroom, light the flames of the gas space heater, sit in chairs in front of that fire, feel its warmth, and she would tell me stories of her life as a little girl growing up on the Bayou Bonne Idee outside Mer Rouge, Louisiana. What I would not give to be able to hear those stories from her lips one more time! Through them I relived adventures, felt loss and sadness, and marveled at new discoveries; basically, I learned the history of the people from whence I came.
This past week was Holy Week in the Christian Calendar. It began a week-long tale recounting who we Christians are. It is the story of our people…fickle, flawed, loving, frightened, amazed. While many would consider Christmas the pinnacle of the Christian Year, catholic Christians (that’s catholic with a lowercase “c”) know that it is Holy Week, Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday) that defines us and rises (figuratively and literally) over everything else in the Christian story. It is the time we gather and recount our family history.
As important as the whole week is, like every good story, there is a core to the story that is itself even more powerful, the Great Three Days called the Triduum: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Without these three days there would be no Easter. The Triduum is where the real action is. It is where catharsis dwells and climax occurs. It is who we are and who we will become much like one watching a play becomes one with the drama. But, to become one with it we must immerse ourselves in it.
Holy Thursday is Act 1 and the dramatic action of the week rises to an unexpected level. We gather like we would on any other day for church. This night is special because it is the observance of that night when Jesus gathered with his disciples for their last meal together. It is the night he observed the Seder, a Jewish meal to relive the Passover and Exodus from Egypt, and transformed it into something shocking to those assembled and glorious to those of us who come after. He washes their feet covered with the day’s filth and tells us we should do the same for one another to remind us of who is first and who is last in this life. Washing the feet of people you know and don’t know is a very intimate act. Allowing someone to wash your own feet is even more so. It is a sign that we love one another and by this we will be seen and known to others. For us Episcopalians who love our pageantry and pomp , many outsiders would say this is seriously out of character but, we know it is who we are actually called to be.
Once cleansed of our daily muck, we are ready to eat. Breaking bread, blessing it, eating it was a normal action familiar to every Jew but this night he told them it would become for them his body. To say they were puzzled is an understatement. After supper it was common to take a cup of wine, bless it, and drink it but this night he scandalized them by saying it would become for them his blood — a horrific thought to an observant Jew. Little did they know what was to follow.
He retreats to a garden and there every thing goes to hell. Friends betray friends, violence erupts and Jesus teaches us how inappropriate defensive acts are. He is arrested, and those who just hours before swore their faithfulness flee to save their own lives and freedom. You might say it is our night to stand before the looking glass and have the rose-colored glasses ripped from our eyes. We look in the mirror and ask who is the fairest of them all and see that it is Jesus alone. Our piety and devotion is a fragile mask hiding our weak, fearful, and fickle nature. It’s fragility trumps the love we so easily professed in better times. It becomes abundantly clear that this “follower of Christ” business isn’t about hanging with friends feeling special while waiting for delivery of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. It has a dreadful cost attached to it for each of us.
Maundy Thursday is when all this is played out in our worship. It is the first of three great acts and the later two are even more powerful than this. From the happy times of gathering as friends, washing one another’s feet, eating and drinking together, to the sad times as the Messiah is cast down from the high spot he enjoyed on Palm Sunday, our world is cast into darkness. The alter and Church building are stripped of all ornaments. The altar is washed as a dead body would be prepared for burial. The church lights are extinguished and we leave in silence. In a small area outside the church, we recreate Gethsemane, the garden where all hell breaks loose, and there we wait and watch in shifts all night long till Act 2 culminates on Friday.
Good Friday is Act 2. While Maundy Thursday is unknown to many non-Christians, Good Friday is well known by them usually because it’s a day off work when you dye Easter eggs. They’ve all heard the account of Jesus, tried by the Romans, humiliated by the crowds who mocked him as he was forced to carry the Cross to his own execution, and his death by suffocation as he hung on that same cross. A sad end for one claiming to be the Son of God. Pure foolishness many would say.
On this day we gather to pray. We pray the solemn collects interceding for all manners and conditions of the people of the Earth. We venerate and meditate upon the suffering of Jesus upon the Cross. We receive communion from the reserved Bread and Wine with which we kept watch earlier. We begin the mourning of Our Lord’s death. A stillness and emptiness settles upon us as we continue on our journey toward Act 3.
Holy Saturday is the start of the Third Act. It is deadly still. The Church is filled with the silence of death just as the borrowed tomb and Jesus himself were filled with death. We wait. We sit shiva. When we gather it is short – a prayer, a reading from Scripture, the Our Father. Like the apostles, we scatter and wait.
As Saturday’s sun sets ending the Jewish Sabbath, darkness envelops the church. This building where life is celebrated is now like the tomb in which Jesus’ tortured, broken body has been placed. Sundown marks the third day of death for Jesus. In Jewish practice sundown is the beginning of a new day. We gather in the Church. It is totally dark and silent. We wait. From the back of the building, near the doorway sparks are struck and dry, dead straw catch fire. Flames leap forth like the light exploded forth from darkness at the moment of creation. In the darkness, around the fire, much like my Great Grandmother told me her stories, a voice begins to sing the ancient Exsultet:
“Rejoice and sing now, all the round earth,
bright with a glorious splendor,
for darkness has been vanquished by our eternal King.”
From the new fire, a great candle is lighted. Like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, it is carried from the back of the Church to the front. Along the way we light our own candles from its fire. Light grows and dispels the heavy darkness. This light is different however. The light does not come down from above but radiates from the body of the people. It fills the tomb-like Church.
Now we hear the stories of Creation, Noah and the flood, the Exodus out of Slavery, the tale of the Valley of dry bones, and many others. This is our family history being told in symbol and metaphor. Between each we sit in silence, reflect, and sing.
As the stories end, still in the candle-lit darkness, those desiring initiation into this bizarre fellowship come forward to be made part of us who wait. We bless water and we ask God to do all the work. Through water and their desire, they make promises (the same promises we have all made), and are washed in the baptismal waters. The priest’s thumb, dipped in blessed oil, traces the sign of the cross on their foreheads and they are marked as Christ’s own forever. Their ordination into the priesthood of all those who believe is complete. They are given a candle and told to be a light in the darkness. A stole is placed around their neck to mark their role as reconcilers between creator and created, witnesses to all humanity of the love of the One we follow. In their vows, we renew our own made long ago. The water made holy for their baptism is splashed and flung on everyone present as a reminder that we too are washed and made new. In the darkness we sit and ponder the past, present, and future of our story: our role, our life, the death of the One we long to see again.
Suddenly, a voice cries out with bewilderment and joy, “He is risen!” We all respond, “He is risen indeed!” Light blasts forth within the church and the first Great Thanksgiving of Easter begins. The light has come forth from the dark tomb of the Church just as Christ, the Light of the World, came forth from the tomb in his Resurrection. Song and music merge in our celebration. Joy is in the midst of us just as we believe the Risen Christ is there as well. Bells ring. The people sing “alleluia,” a word which as been absent since Lent began on Ash Wednesday. We eat and drink at God’s altar and Act 3 comes to a close.
Each time I heard my great grandmother’s stories, I would say, “tell me more.” The great 50 days of Easter and the rest of the Christian year will provide the more I desire. There is always more to hear even though we repeat the cycle every year. Each year one more layer of my stubbornness, distrustfulness, skepticism, self-importance, and doubt get peeled away. I know, too, there will come a time when I will witness this drama from a different perspective. I will be in the nearer presence of the Light we celebrated. A new fire will be struck within me. A pillar of flame will lead me out of bondage. Living water will flow from the desolate place and refresh me. The hands that washed Peter’s feet will lovingly wash mine. The hands that broke the bread and shared the cup with Judas now feed me as well. I will be there with my loved ones in the great cloud of witnesses who celebrate with all the people who have come through the waters — living and dead. This is not my gift alone. It is the gift God’s love bestowed on the whole of creation. Some were people of faith and some are those whose faith was known to God alone. He did all the work and all of them are wrapped in the love of the One. This is the mystery we celebrate on this profound night.
I love this three act play. I love the mystery of this week and especially the transcendence of the Triduum. If you are curious, go. See for yourself. Hear the tale of this peculiar family of people scattered throughout the earth. It is far better experienced than read about. You won’t be put on the spot; we Episcopalians are far too mannerly to do that. You don’t have to do any more or less than you are comfortable with. Whether you believe or not is unimportant. Just be present and let the mystery swirl around you. You never know what doors will open in your mind. Let your heart feel as you immerse yourself in it; and let yourself get wet with the waters of freedom and peace. You may begin to see your own place in that family history. It ain’t called Holy Week for nothing.
Here is an opportunity to see the Easter Vigil from the National Cathedral in Washington DC