Liturgy

Holy Weekend: Experiencing Resurrection (Part Two)

In Part One, we introduced the Great Triduum (Three Days) and concluded in the darkness of Good Friday:

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.

Holy Saturday

On Saturday of Holy Week, the final of the Great Triduum, there are no gatherings. There is no singing, there are no candles lit, there are no Scriptures read. Christ is in the tomb.

Holy Saturday is a day of nothingness. We must take this day seriously. We can’t rush to the Good News of Sunday without letting the Bad news of Friday linger for a full day on Saturday. Imagine the disciples’ agony: Their friend was gone; the dream was over; cold, brutal reality was left to deal with.

Unfortunately, the experience of this day is all too real to us. We are often “stuck in the mood of ambiguity and powerlessness of Holy Saturday.”[1] Think about it: We know that Jesus has died for our sins, that he was crucified and buried in dramatic reality. And while we know that resurrection of Jesus has happened, we don’t see new life springing forth in eternal beauty.

Have you felt this?

We know Jesus is the Son of God, that he reigns in power, that we are one with him. Yet our day-to-day experience is instead one of powerlessness, pain, and lonely suffering. Life between Friday and Sunday is an “almost” sort of life.[2] Somewhere along the way, the joy, peace, and wonder of life with God has been replaced by skepticism, brokenness, and sheer weariness. 

What do we do with this? I believe we have to embrace these feelings, push deeper into them, and then with equal fervor, press all the way into the pain until Easter Sunday rises in the morning.

Resurrection Sunday

Whereas Christmas has become the most significant Christian holiday in the Western Church, the birth of Jesus means nothing without his death and resurrection. A great life that ends in the grave is no Savior.

Easter Sunday celebrates the majesty of the resurrection: He was dead and buried, but…

But on the third day, he rose in victory over Satan, sin, and death! The resurrection of our Lord is the proof of God’s love for us, the foundation of our faith and life, and the highlight of the Christian year.

In my own life, I feel a familiarity with the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday, but struggle to fully embrace with joy the risen Lord of Easter Sunday. Perhaps in wanting to preserve the “lows” of the Great Triduum, though, we can hesitate to fully leap into the glorious Light of the resurrection.

When he rises, we rise—since we are in him. When he begins a new and eternal life, we begin a new and eternal life. “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).

The resurrection is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises (see Acts 13) and the fulfillment of our deepest longings. It’s really true: In the end, there is still life, there is still love. Everything sad will come untrue!

***

As Christians, we can live in the power and joy and peace of the resurrection. By pressing deeper into the events of Holy Weekend—even the darkness of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday—we discover the power of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Jesus raised and ascended, with work to do still on earth, is our joy and hope and calling. Because Jesus lives today, we live. And we live with the same Holy Spirit that filled him, giving us the same sort of life and power for community and ministry. In the resurrection, Jesus invites us into relationship with the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Nothing is ever the same again!

In Jesus’s own words in the upper room: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

***

[1] Andrew Purves, The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord, 11-12.

[2] Purves, 16. 

Holy Weekend: Experiencing Resurrection (Part One)

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.

Maundy Thursday

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.”[1]

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.”[2]

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.

Good Friday

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.[3]

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.[4]

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.)

 

***

[1] Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year, 127.
[2]
Webber, 128-29.
[3]
In Catholic tradition, nine stages of the Cross come directly from Scripture, and an additional five are added from popular tradition.
[4]
Andrew Purves, The Resurrection of Ministry: Serving in the Hope of the Risen Lord, 13. 

Ash Wednesday and the Practice of Lent

This morning, we gathered for a brief, informal Ash Wednesday service. As a liturgical church, we embrace the historic church calendar as a way to organize our worship gatherings and congregational ministries. So what is Ash Wednesday, and what does it look like to practice the Lenten season as Protestants?

Lent is the six-and-a-half week season leading up to Good Friday and Easter. It is a time for repentance through self-examination and renewal through identification with the journey of Jesus. We follow him from the Upper Room (John 13-17) to the Garden of Gethsemane and onward to our trial and crucifixion. It’s a time for prayer, fasting, and giving ourselves away. At Lent, we say, “Not my will but yours be done.”

It’s of huge spiritual value that we recover the spiritual intent of Ash Wednesday and the Lenten spiritual season. Faith is not simply a belief system; it’s an active embodiment, a life lived out in true practice in prayer, fasting, and giving ourselves away. And these are not just impersonal rituals; this is an engaging, demanding, committed relationship.

In Lent, we’re doing battle against four things: Laziness in our spiritual life; Negativity in our outlook/attitude toward circumstances; Lust for power and comfort; and Destructive words, actions, and thoughts.

Those four things are replaced through relationship and virtues: Wholeness in our spiritual life; Humility in our outlook toward circumstances; Patience in the waiting; Love—sincere care for others. (See Bruce Weber's Ancient-Future Faith.)

ASH WEDNESDAY

Thousands of years ago, the church began the practice of Ash Wednesday, centering on the themes remembrance and repentance. It is the somber day where we Remember that we will die and we Repent of our sin. (I’m convinced that when pastors came up with Ash Wednesday in the 4th Century, it was to have a therapeutic outlet for our own daily encounters with sin, grief and hopelessness. Each year, we can have one utterly depressing service.)

As Christians, we don’t have to search for clever things to say about pain, suffering and death. We have our own experience, we have the experience of our church family, and we have the Scriptures, which speak profoundly into the human problem. We each have our own personal wounds and we carry with us the wounds of our church family: Sickness (anxiety, depression, chronic pain, cancer and disease); Brokenness (broken marriages, broken homes, broken hope and the worst form—loneliness); and Death (miscarriages, family deaths, and spiritual deadness apart from Christ). 

We also know pain, suffering and death because we have God’s Word, and the holy Scriptures that are brutally honest about corruption, sin and loss. Christianity is full of paradoxes, and this is one of them. Death has lost its sting, but death still stings. Death has been swallowed up in victory, but we’re all still one call away from tragedy.

REMEMBER THAT YOU WILL DIE

One of the classic Ash Wednesday texts is Psalm 90, written by Moses, who was no stranger to the hardship of life. Orphaned as a baby, a foreigner in a heathen country, he killed a man and fled to the hills. Then God appears to him, and instead of crushing him, calls him to ministry. God uses him to deliver the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and into… The wilderness. 40 years with the Israelites: they’re sad, they’re whiney, they’re writing songs about how no one understands them—they’re the original hipsters. From the wilderness, where food and water were scarce, heat and cold were constant, and with two million people looking to him for deliverance, Moses turns his face toward God, and writes Psalm 90. 

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
   throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
   or you brought forth the earth and the world,   
   from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Moses starts with an acknowledgement that God is God— he is everlasting, he is Creator, he is our dwelling place. And now he pours out his prayer to God:

3 You turn men back to dust,
     saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”
4 For a thousand years in your sight       
     are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.
5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death;      
     they are like the new grass of the morning—
6 though in the morning it springs up new,
     by evening it is dry and withered.

The Bible is not silent about the hardship of life, the reality of suffering and the curse of death. Moses reminds us that we will die. To our eternal God, even a thousand years is like the falling and rising of the sun. So God is eternal but we are very much finite. We are swept away; we grow, dry out and wither; we are cut down.Moses continues:

9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
     we finish our years with a moan.
10 The length of our days is seventy years—
     or eighty, if we have the strength;
yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
     for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

So life is short but even the days that we do have are filled with trouble and sorrow. 70 or 80 years—gone in a moment. This is what we say: “Time flies! Where did the time go?” In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis asks why we have such trouble keeping track of time.

“It is as strange as if a fish were repeatedly surprised at the wetness of water. And that would be strange indeed; unless of course the fish were destined to become, one day, a land animal.”

Moses knew there was more to life than momentary suffering and certain death. So he finishes his prayer:

13 Relent, O LORD! How long will it be?
     Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
     that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.

Moses’ simple prayer: “Lord, have mercy!” Don’t let us suffer forever. Have compassion on us. Satisfy us with your love; let us experience joy and gladness—even in this mess. Moses is praying for what God has already promised!

REPENT OF YOUR SINS

God promises are clear and compelling throughout Scripture. God promises salvation for all who repent of sin. Repentance is turning from one way completely to another—not just a partial turn, but a complete and decisive, 180-degree turn. It is not just admitting you are sinful, that’s a partial turn; it’s also trusting in Christ.

God promised the prophet Isaiah (30:15, 18):

In repentance and rest is your salvation,
   in quietness and trust is your strength…
The Lord longs to be gracious to you;
   he rises to show you compassion.

Repentance is not just something you do once to free yourself from God’s wrath; it is a lifestyle of turning from sin and trusting in Christ. Jesus made this invitation, which holds true today (Matthew 11:28-30):

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

REST IN CHRIST

Christianity makes sense of our weariness and our burdens, and it also invites us to the One in whom we can find rest. So while you remember that you will die, and repent of your sins, you can now truly rest in Christ. 

You can rest in Christ because you are now freely accepted by God. If you haven’t fully received God’s grace in Jesus, then you cannot fully rest. But from a position of rest and security, we enjoy a holistic, full, blessed life with God; what the Hebrew writers called “shalom.” You don’t have to pull yourself together; you don’t even have to suffer well. You can suffer poorly, because Jesus suffered well.

In Christ, we can rest even while fighting our decaying bodies, while attending funeral after funeral. In the 18th Century, a Christian poet riddled with depression wrote a famous hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way,
  His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,     
  And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines     
  Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs,      
  And works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,      
  The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break      
  In blessings on your head.

Judge not the LORD by feeble sense,      
  But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,     
  He hides a smiling face.

COVERED BY THE CROSS

The ashes traditionally imposed on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday help us remember that we have sinned and we will die. We return to the dust from whence we came.

And throughout the Bible, a person’s face is a significant theme—it’s his or her true self, representing our identity as well as our deepest emotions. When Cain killed Abel, God marked his face as a curse. Moses hid his face from God because he knew he was full of sin. And Jesus called the religious people of his day “hypocrites,” an acting term for putting a mask over your true face.

The Cross is a symbol of both shame and grace, and whether it's a literal cross as on Ash Wednesday or the invisible reality of its power over our lives, we can wear it on our faces proudly. Psalm 34 says:

4 I sought the LORD, and he answered me;     
      he delivered me from all my fears.
5 Those who look to him are radiant;      
     their faces are never covered with shame.

This Cross is a reminder that Christ was covered with shame so that we can be covered with grace. The truest thing about us—our faces—are no longer covered with shame; now we are covered by the Cross.