Thursday, April 17, 2014
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Three sacred days

By the Rev. Mark Evans

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[April 17, 2014]  Have you ever thought about the influence that styles of worship have on belief?

All of us have preferences about how worship should be structured or "what seems to work for us." For some, a lively praise band gets their blood moving, while others lose themselves listening to a beautiful organ recital. Sometimes, we want to sit quietly and just receive what is offered, while other times we want to be active participants in worship. Some are energized by new and novel approaches to worship, and others prefer time-honored styles.

But beyond our personal preferences, worship has a part to play in helping us discern who God is and in shaping our relationship with Him. We humans have the tendency to think in either/or terms — something is either this or that — but we also know that God is both/and. We believe that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God; we believe that there are three persons in the Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — but we also believe that God is unified and that the three persons are one. We believe that God is immanent, that is, actively working in our world, and that He is also transcendent, above and beyond all that we can imagine. We want worship to help us know who God is, yet often our worship is only able to bring attention to one side of these attributes, and we miss the both/and.

In Easter, this is especially problematic. We have good/evil, light/dark, life/death, captivity/freedom, worship/denial and a host of other dichotomies that really are not ends of a spectrum as much as they are elements of God's whole cloth of salvation for His children.

How do we experience the full breadth of that whole cloth in worship without overemphasizing the depths of Good Friday or the heights of Easter morning? Well, I am admittedly biased, but I believe the Episcopal Church has honed its worship over the centuries to capture the both/and of the Easter season.

The Triduum Sacrum (Three Sacred Days) consists of historic liturgies that focus worshippers' attention on the final three days of Jesus earthly life and are considered by many to be the high holy days for Christians. It has been said that throughout the rest of the year, a Christian's duty is to go out from worship to make Christ known in the world. The time of the Triduum calls Christians to retreat from the world for three days of continuous worship, from which the faithful depart to take care of worldly matters only to return to take up the work of worship again the next day. Once begun on Maundy Thursday, the liturgies continue in succession without a benediction to close until the Easter victory is celebrated. Thus the Passion and Resurrection are observed as a whole, with each part and each liturgy dependent upon the next. The central events of Christianity are commemorated during the Triduum. In this sense, the Triduum is one worship service spread over three days.

The Triduum begins with Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter, with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist and the washing of feet. The service remembers Jesus' breaking of bread and blessing of wine with his disciples in the upper room the night before his crucifixion. There, he knelt before each of them and in an act of humble service, washed their feet — a custom in his day that the least among them washed the feet of others — and charged them, in this act, to serve others. The word "Maundy" comes from a Latin word meaning "command" and references the Gospel story appointed for the day. Jesus said, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another."

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As Maundy Thursday worship draws to a close, the altar area is stripped of its appointments and left barren to symbolize the tomb that awaits the body of the crucified Jesus on Good Friday. Worshippers leave in silence, without blessing or dismissal, to return on Good Friday to continue in worship.

As Jesus went into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray, so will we go to the Altar of Repose, our holy garden (set up in the chapel), to stay in the presence for just one hour in an attitude of prayer. The congregation has the opportunity to sign up as part of teams of two for hourlong watches throughout the night, 8 p.m. Thursday until noon Friday, in the chapel.

The emphasis of the Good Friday liturgy is the cross … the cross on which our Savior died. The Passion Gospel is read, which retells the scriptural story of Jesus' betrayal, trial and crucifixion. Ancient prayers are said which are known as the Solemn Collects. The Holy Communion is not celebrated on this day, nor again until after the Great Vigil of Easter late on Holy Saturday. However, Communion is received from the Sacrament reserved for that purpose on Maundy Thursday. All the blessed Sacrament is consumed on Good Friday. Christ has died and the symbols of His presence, the bread and the wine, are gone from our midst.

Holy Saturday marks a day of mourning for the church, but not mourning without hope for we know that resurrection comes from the grave.

In the evening of Holy Saturday, the faithful gather for the Great Vigil of Easter. In a darkened church, fire is kindled, symbolic of the light of the risen Christ coming into the world. A large candle is lighted from that fire and carried in procession to the altar as people's candles are lighted from it and the light of Christ spreads among the gathered worshippers as it has spread around the world. An ancient hymn, the "Exultet" (Rejoice), is sung, Scriptures are read, and psalms and prayers are sung as the people keep vigil, awaiting the proclamation of the resurrection. Catechumens — those who've been preparing for Holy Baptism during Lent — are baptized and welcomed into the household of God, the church, and suddenly all that has transpired over the three sacred days comes to fruition. "Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!" the people shout. Bells ring, people sing, and the altar, resplendent in its Easter dιcor, lilies and vesture, is revealed.

The faithful have gathered for three days to break bread, bless the cup, wash feet, remember the cross, mourn the death of their Lord and Master, and finally to rejoice that as was promised, "He is not dead, but has risen," and so we, too, know the promise and the hope that eternal life is, indeed, ours in Christ Jesus. Alleluia. Alleluia.

[By the Rev. MARK EVANS]

Note: Portions of the above from Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, Dallas, Texas, and St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Fla.

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