Anyone new to the liturgical tradition in Christianity needs to know why the Church engages in such a rich, elaborate, and exhausting offering of worship as Holy Week. This is the single most intricate—demanding, even—time in the Calendar. All of the Church's members are bidden to participate. Schedules are to be re-structured, priorities clarified, loyalties re-affirmed.
But before we plunge into it all, why are we doing this?
The Eastern Christian liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann, in his important book “Introduction to Liturgical Theology,” makes a key point about Christian worship. He noted that under all the successive layers added to the basic structure of Christian liturgy, there is an essential foundation: the re-presentation of, and participation in, the mystery of our salvation in Christ, and a foretaste of the banquet at the end of the ages pictured in Revelation.
Though written for an Eastern Orthodox audience, his point remains true for Anglican Christians. All of our worship, from the simplest mid-week Eucharist through the Great Vigil of Easter, must have about it the urgency of the earliest Christians to be nourished in the saving message that Christ is Lord, that “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” Worship without such authenticity, such focus is increasingly becoming truly irrelevant in our secularizing era.
While this defining characteristic about worship is a fact throughout the year, the liturgies of Holy Week allow us to enter into the Mystery of Faith in a highly physical, experiential way at once deeply personal and communal. This week is the earliest “layer” of the Liturgical Year, and it contains much of the most poignant and powerful presentation of the “DNA” of Christian belief and practice. It is the fountain from which proceeds everything else in our worship.
It is easy to become fixated on the details, the “exoticism” and “pageantry” of the Holy Week liturgies, much as it is easy to focus exclusively on the brushstrokes of a great painting or the spelling in a play by Shakespeare. Such things do have their meaning. But to approach Holy Week in this manner is to do it (and ourselves) an injustice and limit severely the potential of these rites. Their purpose is to allow us direct access to the realities they speak of. Instead of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection as events exterior to us or locked in a historical past, these truths are shown to be the ever-present “now” for the Christian. When we learn to live in the “now” of God, then we can see the true potential, the true significance of our lives, the lives of others, and of the world around us. We can begin to see with the eyes of Christ.
All of this points to the significance for the Church’s mission found in Holy Week. As Christianity recedes from its cultural position of power and entitlement in our society, Christians (individually and as communities) must learn to embrace the essential Gospel message—the Kerygma—rather than the often culturally-conditioned messages we have put in place of the Gospel. American Christianity is in the midst of a deep humbling, a prolonged sorting out of what is truly about the Gospel, and what is really about consumerism, individualism, or the many other false ideologies and pseudo-gospels internalized over the years.
Only the Gospel’s message, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life,” is truly needed. This message needs regular clarifying, regular cleansing of distortion in our individual and corporate life. What we share as the Faith must be God’s message of Good News, lived by a people for whom it is the word of Life, not a book forgotten on a shelf, a slogan unthinkingly shouted, or a flatbed truck upon which to stack other, more “interesting” freight.
The great liturgies of Holy Week proclaim and make present that saving Message. As rain soaks into dry ground, or heat warms a cold iron, our fragile and weak nature is renewed in the Truth from above. Far from being “empty rituals,” these are days run like a river at flood stage with God’s transformative power in scripture, sacrament, and moments of grace. By the Holy Spirit’s presence, our participation in all these ancient and tangible encounters challenge us to live the words we pray and shine with the light we ourselves have known and received.