The celebration of the most crucial events in Christian history takes place this month. I use the term takes place advisedly, because through our liturgies during Holy Week and Easter, we relive the various acts of the sacred mystery and make it present both within our congregations and within the hearts of all Christians. Thus, even though Jesus’ actual entry of into Jerusalem, His suffering, death, and resurrection all date from nearly two millennia ago, by our participation in the services with open hearts and spiritual presence, like Christians throughout the ages and across the Church, we can become witnesses in our own time to what God has accomplished in the mission of the Son.
Episcopalians subscribe to the idea that what we believe is mirrored in how we worship–Lex orandi, lex credendi, (“as we pray, so we believe”) to use its traditional Latin designation. In this way, when we celebrate our weekly Eucharist, we not only “remember His death” but the Spirit present in the gathered members of His Body also make Christ present with every celebration of the sacrament, so we can also “proclaim His resurrection.”
In the same way, our Palm Sunday procession reenacts Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem – the triumph being seen with the eyes of faith, because the actual event may have gone entirely unnoticed by the throng of pilgrims entering Jerusalem to celebrate that Passover that year. Our gathering again on Maundy Thursday not only marks what Christians generally consider Christ’s institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion, but during that service we ourselves gather around the table with His presence and His spirit as we replay the action. Our presence of spirit makes that night different from others, and we ourselves become present to His institution of that lasting participation in His offering of His broken body and outpouring of His saving blood.
Of course, individual parishes vary in the extent to which they observe those last days. After the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, our parishes ritually strip the altar and remove from the sanctuary of all outward signs normally associated with making it a sacred space. In many congregations, various parishioners will take allotted times throughout the night and early morning to keep vigil with our Lord throughout His hours in Gethsemane and before the Sanhedrin. We do these things not as acts of piety per se; rather, they mark outwardly our suspension of the normal business of our life in order to observe sacred time because we long to be near our Lord in His time of trial. The drama of these final hours and days of Jesus’ life now involves us as well by our participation—that which is recorded in Scripture becomes our present reality.
The power of the Incarnation–the mystery of God entering into human form to be one with us–shapes our whole understanding of who Jesus was. The human Jesus, depicted in painting and in films as beaten, bruised, and physically tortured, becomes a living reality for us during Holy Week. Our observing and participation in these rites and rituals (such as the Stations of the Cross or the dramatic reading of the gospel narrative on Passion Sunday) balances the equation: as the Christ of God becomes a human equal to us, so by our prayerful observance of these rites, we attempt in our own spiritual way to become one with Him. Doing so is physically and emotionally exhausting, but at the same time spiritually enriching.
This need to connect with the sacred drama is why I always opt for the account in John 20:1–18 as the Gospel read to proclaim the Resurrection on Easter Sunday itself. Here is Mary Magdalene, coming grief-stricken to the tomb to try to assuage her grief by offering what burial rites she can. We can relate to her human suffering: Mary loved her Lord and is trying to live with her loss. Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a loved one can put themselves in Mary Magdalene’s place. We can be shocked and awed with her as she finds the tomb open and the body she had hoped to tend gone. The emptiness of the tomb resonates with her worst fears that someone has stolen the body of Jesus. In the enormity of her grief at what she fears has happened, she will not be comforted or, unlike Peter and John, content herself with a tomb which is empty for no comprehensible reason. And so she weeps, as I believe we would weep in her place. Even the vision of angels sent to comfort her does not stop her search for her lost Lord. Only when she encounters Jesus – not even recognizing him but “thinking him to be the gardener” – is she finally able to stop her search. Only when Jesus speaks her name in that voice which she has known and loved does she realize that her search is over. At that encounter, we have the wondrous, divinely resurrected Lord who has overcome death reaching out to comfort this bewildered but faithful woman—what a sign of God’s love for us wretched humans!
Our 2000 years of tradition recognizes this as Easter Sunday, the day of our Lord’s resurrection. But for us, as for Mary Magdalen, the letting go of the present and its propensity to disbelieve creates the ability to re-experience the terror and the awe of Christ’s death and resurrection that will finally open our eyes of faith and give us a new peace. This is why the Church’s rituals are there: to provide the means of experiencing what we call the Paschal Mystery and being personal witnesses to Christ who lives now and forever.
I always embark upon this week like a tree that has shed its leaves in the fall and endured the Michigan winter, only to have the sap rise and to put forth new buds of faith in the new life of Easter tied. The journey through Holy Week, the painful recounting of Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion, the death that leaves everyone present numb, the silence of that Sabbath after His death, and the wild almost unbelievable accounts of His resurrection are worth every moment we spend on them. Every tear we shed and every irrepressible swell of joy within our hearts renews and strengthens some portion of our faith.
We often say to ourselves that we can do without all the “drama” which seems to surround us as we try to carry on our lives in peace. But the liturgies of this week, the drama which accompanies the incarnate, living, human-as-well-as-divine Christ is the well from which we draw to bring water to our parched souls and to quench our thirst for a meaningful piece in our spirit – the same piece which Mary Magdalene finally found when she proclaimed, “ I have seen the Lord.”