The walk with Jesus to the cross
Wednesday. It’s 8:00 pm. I’ve just come home, put my PJs on, heated dinner and popped the top of a beer.
This is the third night of four in a row I’ll be out at the church building to lead worship. It’s already the fourth day in a row I’ve led my people in worship. I will do so twice tomorrow, once each Friday and Sunday. Eight services in eight days: Holy Week in the Christian Church.
Strangely, though, half way through this epic journey, I am not as weary as I was when I began. Why?, you ask. I wonder.
Starting with the reason for the weariness at the beginning of the week, to understand what that was. It had been an exhausting process: collating, curating, creating these eight invitations to gather, worship, and enter the stories of the season; collaborating with and coordinating the many people needed to facilitate those gatherings. And life, of course, continues around us ministers as we do this work of preparation; work such as attending to pastoral concerns, planning for the congregation’s significant conversations about our engagement in the mission of God, strategic growth and development of significant areas of the congregation (for us, the audio visual system that supports our gathered worship), staff support and team building … and I haven’t mentioned the relationships that need time and care and haven’t got as much of it as they might have …
So, I was weary, and the thought of leading the community eight times in as many days – something to which a leader gives so much of herself – felt heavy a week ago.
Then, on Sunday, we began.
Palm Sunday alone involved the coordination of many people and elements, as the two music teams from our contemporary and traditional worshipping practices came together to lead our singing, the children helped lead the call to worship, story, and prayers for the world, and for those prayers we had all been invited to trace, decorate, cut out and bring our own hands as prayers for the world. Of course, I left the CD with the song on it we were using for those prayers as home, so I had to go back to get it (thankfully I’m six minutes away, driving within speed limits), and when I returned, I retreated to the vestry and let myself cry for a moment. Weary. Overwhelmed.
And then we began.
We waved Palm branches, and I’ll never forget the delight on the face of one not used to being up front, not used to taking part, who shyly accepted my invitation to take a branch and wave it during the song!
The poetry, the praying, then the telling of the story. Vibrant, slightly chaotic, energetic. The congregation entered into the telling of the story with expression and enthusiasm right from the start – to my great delight! The children led us, their Pastor led us. The prayers with the hands and children hanging them, adults bringing more and more of them, more than I had anticipated, my heart bursting at their acceptance of this invitation to pray in a different way.
The songs that turned our mood from celebration to anticipated sorrow, as Holy Week moves on. And the people were poised after the singing in that moment of transition with an energy that I felt and embraced in the emotion I put into the commissioning and blessing. A poignancy almost tangibly sparking the air: a presence with Spirit and each other. And something began to shift for me, within.
Monday’s small gathering and the story and poetry, the silence, and the music – the music – and the images. It worked on me. Usually I hold back somewhat when I am leading worship, so as not to let my self, my work of worship, my emotions, get in the way of leading others in that moment. But Holy Week does something to me. I have to be prepared with the services so much further in advance than usual, with them following upon each other day after day. It seems that this allows me to come to the act of worship itself I have completed the work of preparation far enough ahead to create space for me to return to the liturgy more open. Or is it that with gatherings following each other day after day I have no choice but to be present in each moment, which opens me to the invitation myself more than usual? Or is it the shape of these gatherings themselves, more stillness, silence, more space in which to sit with the people and Spirit, to let go of the reigns for a moment and be?
The rhythm of the week no doubt has its impact. We pause, we slow right down to pay attention to each scene, each moment selected from the story of Jesus’ steady path to the cross. We enter some scenes more than once, slowing down further with each return, lingering, lengthening, deepening.
Advent is another season of slowing down in order to wait attentively on a familiar story as it is told with deliberation again. The various gatherings in the week or weeks leading up to Christmas differ from the gatherings of Holy Week, I think. Christmas offers diverse points of entry, from Carol singing to children’s pageants, family friendly times and shapes to worship, poignant contemplative midnight vigils. Christmas Eve vigils most resemble what we do through Holy Week, in the lingering in the dark so as to see and to feel the light we know Jesus to be, Holy One incarnate among us.
Holy Week is less about diverse opportunities, and more about the slow, deliberate, single steps we take, one at a time, through this poignant, sorrowful story of Jesus’ death. We enter the dark not once, but repeatedly, deeper each day, till the day the story tells us darkness invaded the daytime and God in Jesus hung on a cross.
As we take these steps deeper into the story, into the sorrow, we are transformed. I have been transformed.
By the time I finish composing this post, in the midst of Holy Saturday’s lingering darkness, after Tenebrae extinguishing of light on Thursday and Friday’s Sacred honouring of the death, I am again reasonably weary. My muscles ache with the old familiar fatigue. Moving is painful and heavy and hard, today. One more afternoon of preparations, one more morning of gathering, holding the people, inviting us into the profound and confronting story of resurrection, feels again heavy and hard.
But this week, my community has turned up and accepted the invitations I have offered to tell the story with me and renewed my spirit in. Our musicians have chosen and played emotive, expressive music to lift my spirit. The stories themselves, poetry, stillness, and silence, have worked on me, myself, bringing my spirit into communion with the Divine.
Even with our lockdown experiences, thinking we would get better at slowing our pace moving forward, we really haven’t, have we? Slowing down, pausing, being still – these are all still radically counter to the pull of our culture’s pace, its drive towards activity, productivity, outcomes.
So it feels deliciously alternative, something like resistance, to stop this week. To take a story one scene at a time. To enter the dark, and in Holy
Week, unlike on Christmas Eve, we enter the dark not so as to see the light. Not yet. In Holy Week, we enter the darkness of power’s fear, of empire’s violence, to see them for what they are, to see how we are caught up with these forces, and to see again God in Jesus resisting with peace and love.
So we resist the fear that drives us to endless busyness. We resist the violence of oppressive abuse of power. We resist the pulls of this world towards death. We resist with the love of the God who comes among us with peace, calm, courageous presence in this world’s darkness. We resist, by actively sitting still.
It is profound. It is why I will always offer daily worship in this holiest of weeks. Why I invite my community into the dark. For it is from here that we can, when we have understood the dark, better appreciate the light.