We at St. Stephen’s do Holy Week well—if we do say so ourselves! From the drama of Palm Sunday through the reflective solemnity of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to the festive lights and sounds of Holy Saturday and Easter morning: it is an engaging story that pulses at the very heart of our faith.
But it is just as lively behind the scenes as it is at any given Holy Week service. On Saturday morning, for instance, preparations for our Easter services brought out a small army of willing workers—polishing brass and silver, trimming wicks, dusting window ledges, ringing bells, raising voices in song, setting lights and sound levels, staging liturgy. It is clear that (1) good liturgy is created by careful preparation; but also that (2) there is as much Easter joy in that preparation as there is in the services themselves.
This is one of the hidden gifts of congregational life. We may think we are attaching to a congregation for the benefits we receive—great music, thoughtful sermons, interesting people. But inevitably we are drawn in to become, ourselves, the willing ones, the workers, who end up blessing others by our efforts. We who once received become, ourselves, the bearers of the gift others are seeking.
There is in this observation a deep resonation of the Easter message. As we sing in the Prayer of St. Francis: “It is in giving to all that we receive, in dying that we’re born to eternal life.“
This week we celebrate Palm Sunday, the portal to Holy Week, the day Jesus rode triumphantly into Jerusalem riding on a donkey to the praises of the people, calling, “Hosanna! Hosanna in the highest!” Five days later the same crowd, bitter with disappointment and whipped up by the religious authorities, would take a very different tone, yelling, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
It is obvious that these were two very different moments, each decisive in its own way, on Jesus’ way to the cross. Yet, inexplicably, the two events were combined into one by the editors of the Book of Alternative Services, the standard liturgical resource for the Anglican Church of Canada, on the Sunday before Easter, a day they called “The Sunday of the Passion, with the Liturgy of the Palms”. In that service the people join in greeting Jesus in a Palm Procession at the start of the service and then, in a matter of minutes, they are hearing an agonizing account of Jesus’ death on the cross.
No one knows exactly what those editors were thinking (were they concerned that attendance at Good Friday services was down?), but the effect of the Sunday observance they created was nothing short of emotional whiplash. Fortunately, churches across the country, including our own, have returned to the older custom of observing Palm Sunday alone, focussing only on Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, while reading the account of Christ’s Passion on Good Friday, five days later. Both events warrant our observance, but separately.