I grew up in the church, so when it came time for the annual youth retreat, for a camp trip, or for a special rally, I was there—reluctantly, in the back row, leaning against the wall, with one foot out the door.
I liked my church’s youth group, but these intended “highs” always bugged me. The recipe was: You pull a bunch of young people away from non-Christian influences, fill them with sugar and caffeine, and bring in your best Hype Guy to give his testimony. Even at 13 or 16, I would do an epic Liz Lemon eye roll and just wait it all out.
But as I’ve gotten older, I miss those weekends. There actually is beauty there—getting away, feeling something. It turns out the adult life is a long thread of days that looked and felt just like the one before it.
In more than a decade of pastoral ministry, I’ve wrestled with this tension. How much should we cultivate special, extraordinary experiences in the faith, and how often should we just put our heads down and follow God—living quiet lives, minding our own business, working with our hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11)?
Thankfully, we are not alone in this struggle: The Church has historically wrestled with the times and seasons of the Christian life, and the Church Calendar was formed and embraced as a way of living in this tension.
I’ve written here recently and spoken on this frequently: The liturgical calendar is something the contemporary church must recover. Even as a brand-new-and-not-even-public-yet church plant, we have no desire to be innovative. Instead, we want to recover the treasures that have been lost.
And the historic Church has one weekend each year that pulls together all our longings—for celebration, for embodied faith, and for renewed commitment. Easter is that weekend.
Holy Weekend begins with what has traditionally been called the Great Triduum, meaning Three Great Days, in the historic church. These are the days that we remember with great solemnity the final events of Jesus’s life on earth. The season of Lent officially ends on the Thursday of Holy Week, Maundy Thursday. The term Maundy derives from the Latin Mandatum Novum, meaning “a new commandment.”
On Thursday night, Jesus gathered with his disciples in the upper room (John 13-17; Luke 22). His earthly work was complete, and now he was preparing himself and his disciples for what must come next. He washed their feet in an act of marvelous humility; he promised the Holy Spirit; he spoke the new commandment of love; he instituted the Lord’s Supper; and he retreated to Gethsemane to pray and be arrested.
In my evangelical background, Maundy Thursday wasn’t celebrated. But without it, we lack an awareness of the magnitude of this day in the history of redemption. Maundy Thursday recalls the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “We are reminded of the connection made between bread, wine, and death. We are reminded that the death of Jesus is no mere human tragedy but a voluntary suffering by Jesus to be a sacrifice for us.”
In Catholic and Episcopal tradition, Maundy Thursday is a communion (Eucharist) service concluded with the solemn stripping of the communion table, symbolizing the stripping of Jesus’s garments in preparation for crucifixion. The ministers remove from the table the bread and wine, take away all signs of life (flowers lamps, candles, and tablecloths), and silently wash the table with water. These things are put away until the day of the resurrection.
In the early church, Good Friday is practiced as a continuation of Thursday night. Beginning in the fourth century, there are records of Christians going to the Garden of Gethsemane to remember and practice communion, then returning to Jerusalem by night, arriving Good Friday morning to remember Jesus’s trial, crucifixion, death, and burial.
On Good Friday, we remember that it was our sins that put Jesus on the Cross. Many parts of the Church still practice the Stations of the Cross, a slow, purposeful walk through scenes from Jesus’s trial and crucifixion.
Good Friday gatherings have become more popular in the Protestant tradition with good reason: We need an annual reminder of our sin, its penalty of death, and Christ’s willing sacrifice in our place. In a Good Friday gathering, there’s no Good News—no proclamation of resurrection, no empty tomb, no Easter Sunday. It’s simply death, burial, and darkness.
The Good Friday service ends with increasing darkness, as if we were moving further into the cave of Jesus’s burial. Finally, a final candle is snuffed out. There is no final hymn, no benediction, no soaring anthem. Christ has left the building. Ministers at the exits may take a blunt nail and press into the palms of the congregants, reenacting Christ’s pierced skin in their place.
It is finished.
We often don’t pause here. We rush to the Good News. But the great Story doesn’t rush; God is never in a hurry. Especially on Holy Weekend, we must slow down. We have to linger. We must remain, even if only for a moment, in the darkness, before we return to the light.
(Part Two is coming Friday.)
 Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year, 127.
 Webber, 128-29.
 In Catholic tradition, nine stages of the Cross come directly from Scripture, and an additional five are added from popular tradition.
 Andrew Purves, The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord, 13.