Thursday, May 03, 2007

Holy Week Celebrations

Holy Week is the last part and the culmination of Lent. It should be mentioned that according to the Liturgical Calendar, Easter is the beginning of a distinct section from Lent. Holy Week is a term that in and of itself should give us problems.

Palm Sunday is the beginning of Holy Week. This is where the triumphal entry is re-enacted as the congregation parades in waving palm branches (or a variant depending on the availability of palms). I have often wondered why this is a day the church celebrates in such a fashion. After all, Jesus wept when he saw the Hebrews waving their palms in the air because he knew their praises false and empty. Why would the church want to re-enact such a thing. Let us not forget that the palms are considered sacramentals just like the ashes for Ash Wednesday.

Maundy Thursday is the next big day in the Holy Week celebration. It is the day of the institution of the Last Supper, so the churches gather together and take communion or Mass. Many churches also practice foot washing at this particular service. All of the extra communion bread and wine are kept for the Good Friday service (at least in the Roman church) because no consecration of the bread is allowed on Good Friday. The notable ending to the Maundy Thursday service is usually the stripping of the altar bare. Everything is removed.

Good Friday services and Holy Saturday are usually services devoid of communion. Any communion taken on Good Friday had to be left over from Maundy Thursday, and usually the main event is an unveiling of a crucifix as the only adornment on the walls. All the other things were removed at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service. Holy Saturday services usually forbid the taking of communion and all liturgy. They are centered around prayer vigils awaiting the Easter morning. Just for some perspective John Armstrong blogged about Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday this year as a time of worship that involves body and mind.

Again, my opposition to the Holy Week is the underlying purpose of Holy Week and its special celebrations. No, I do not think the purpose of Holy Week is to remember the death of Christ. Don’t we do that more often than once a year? The purpose for Holy Week is to prepare for Easter, but to prepare by re-enacting the end of the life of Christ. In case you disagree notice how Greg Grant feels when a Christ candle is reintroduced during a Tenebrae service. The re-enacting the life of Christ fits with the message of expiation from our sins of Lent. Not only does it fit it teaches it. It is built into the rituals of Holy Week. Read the Duke Divinity school online article. Notice how the Hatians were "bodily participating" in the suffering of Christ, and more importantly:

they knew that it was somehow wrong to listen to words proclaiming the death of Christ while resting comfortably.

Why on earth would it be wrong to listen to death of Christ in physical comfort? The answer is that there is something important about the suffering you inflict upon yourself. Not unlike the monks who flogged themselves for their sin. No liturgy is offered on Holy Saturday because as Father Cusick explains:

No liturgy is celebrated on Holy Saturday, for Christ's Church cannot pray except through the living Christ.

What? We have no living Christ? Does not this take the re-enactment of the last week of Christ’s life to far and miss the glory that we have living on this side of the Resurrection? I think the obvious answer is yes, unless all of this is part of a ritual package that focuses on penance and expiation of one’s sins that somehow needs to relive the sufferings of Christ every year.

The idea of penance, expiation, Lent, and Holy Week are bound together. Protestant churches that practice these things with the same rituals do nothing to free themselves from such teachings. Take a look again at the practices of more Roman Catholic countries at the bottom of the Holy Week page. The self-flagellation and suffering in order to do penance is astounding, and should not be dismissed as besides the point. If one thinks that this is still not part of the make up of Lent itself then a few questions need to be answered? Why does Lent have to involve giving up something hard to give up? Why cannot it not be 40 days of praying more or going to church more, but giving up nothing? Why is it not promising to watch 40 movies with religious themes, or spiritual themes? Why is it not just a prescribed set of Bible readings? Why does the preparation for Easter involve suffering at all? Why is the Good Friday service austere? Should we not celebrate the death of Jesus Christ as a good thing? The same can be said of Holy Saturday. I hope Protestants will think more seriously about taking on these type services. They are becoming more and more common, and I am not sure the church is reflecting enough upon these matters. Even if one disagrees with me surely we can agree that real thought and dialogue needs to take place prior to taking on these practices.


Matt Powell said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this, Lee. I hope some people at least hear your warning.

Andrew McIntyre said...


As always, you present good points. You are always a tough guy to debate. But, I must say, you are making many generalizations in this post. Many Anglican churches which engage in Holy Week do not do many of the things you mention. Just because Rome practices Holy Week in this way and Johnny X feels this or that way about a candle, does not speak to the practice in the churches of the Reformation. Again, most Reformational Christians do observe Holy Week, and most of them do not infuse the meaning you claim is necessary.

The palms and ashes are not sacramental. The Anglican and Lutheran standards are clear on that. They are not included as sacraments in any denomination.

Regarding the reservation of the host, this is explicitly forbidden by the 39 Articles. Some Anglican churches do it, but, then, many do not.

So, again, I think you are lumping all liturgical churches into one group, thus creating a straw man. You are neglecting many lower church Anglicans, among others, and simply dismissing them as inconsistent. This does not do justice to the cause of men like me who seek to retain the good things of the ancient church, while setting them within the context of Reformational truth, which, by the way, did not begin with the Reformation. Christians have been doing this for Centuries. Your argument is the same one used by Anglo-Catholics for the opposite reason--to condemn lower churchmen.


Lee said...

I had to generalize a little bit. I did describe the more Roman rituals because I thought it best to go to the end of the spectrum so each could judge their own experience or services by a standard. I do freely admit that not all churches follow every practice listed.
That being said, I do think the bigger points are the same across even the Protesant-Rome divide, which is one of the things that worries me. For example, Lent is focused on penitance, Holy Week is reliving the suffering of Christ, Good Friday services are somber and Tenebrae services cross over the Tiber to name a few.
I think you bring up the point most in debate is whether or not the celebrant of Holy Week or Lent infuses the meaning into the service or whether the service and its rituals contain meaning, even if unspoken, and that inherent meaning is infused into the celebrant. I think that is why what Johnny X feels is important because it is a glimpse into this debate. That is why the questions are also important. If someone in a liturgical church such as the Anglicans or Lutheran church tried to keep Lent by reading through the gospels in the 40 days of Lent would he be treated as a man preparing to celebrate Easter or would he be treated as a man who 'missed the meaning of Lent'?

Andrew McIntyre said...


To your questions, it would depend on who you ask. I would say that would be a wonderful way to celebrate Lent. Most lower churchmen or Reformationally minded higher churchmen would agree. I think you would be hard pressed to find a conservative Lutheran who would have a problem with it as well. After all, it is far more meaningful than giving up cookies, for example. It is also penitential, not that it is a punishment, but that it is part of true repentance focused upon the Good News of the Gospel.

As to the symbols carrying inherent meaning, I am not sure I agree. The meaning assigned to the symbols has not been unified. Rome does not have sole claim to the true meaning behind the symbols. I would say most of their infused meanings are historical developments that have never enjoyed unanymity.

So, I would agree with your concerns regarding the extreme of the spectrum, but I do not think it is an all or nothing proposition. In other words, if a church refused to celebrate Lent because it was afraid of the extremes, I would not have a problem with that. I just think that the extremes can be avoided by means other than abstinence.