Sunday, April 01, 2007

Welcome to Holy Week

So it’s Palm Sunday. Does anyone else consider April 1 an unnervingly appropriate date for this? “Welcome to Jerusalem, Jesus! We love you! You’re our hero! Ooops -- just kidding! We have to kill you now, okay?”

My parish has a gorgeous set of Holy Week services: Maundy Thursday foot-washing and agape meal, a three-hour Good Friday service from noon to three, and a stunningly beautiful Great Vigil on Saturday night (at which I’ll be preaching this year). These services get fairly dismal attendance, but we diehards always wind up not caring, because the liturgies are so moving that it doesn’t matter how many other people are there.

After the intensity and intimacy of Holy Week, Easter Sunday morning’s always a shock, with hordes of strangers we never see -- or see only at Christmas -- crowding the sanctuary. I’ve come to actively dislike this service, which makes me feel as if my living room has been turned into Grand Central Station, and so I’ve decided that this year, I won’t go.

(Here’s a joke:

(Three churches are overrun with squirrels. The Baptists put out poison, but the squirrels avoid it and keep infesting the church. The Methodists put out traps, but the squirrels avoid them and keep infesting the church. But the Episcopalians have a brilliant idea: they baptize the squirrels, who then come back to church only on Christmas and Easter.

(Gary and I now call Easter Sunday “squirrel Sunday.”)

The Great Vigil is the first Easter service: that’s my Easter. On Sunday morning, I’ll go to the gym and then go to dinner at our friend Katharine’s house. She’s the friend we go to Maui with; although she doesn’t go to my church, she’ll be singing at the Vigil -- she’s a world-class soprano who often gets asked to perform at area churches -- so she’ll have shared Easter with me.

Meanwhile, Palm Sunday’s supposed to be a celebration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But, probably because it’s so hard to get people to come to Holy Week services, most churches, including ours, have fallen into the habit of moving straight from the Procession of Palms into the Passion. Otherwise, Sunday-only parishioners will have gone from the triumphal entry straight to Easter, with none of the dark stuff in the middle. And without the darkness, you can’t appreciate the light.

For a few years now, my parish has been emphasizing the celebratory nature of Palm Sunday and not doing the Passion, telling people that to get the full effect of Easter, they have to come to Holy Week services. This hasn’t worked very well, so I suspect that after this year, we’ll go back to the emotional-whiplash model (celebration! crucifixion!) that everybody else uses. That way, people who come both Sundays will at least have had the Passion narrative, although the Christmas-and-Easter squirrels will have gone straight from incarnation to resurrection, with none of that messy stuff in the middle. Quite the trick, that.

And if Holy Week gets scant attendance at church, the rest of the world is even less aware of it. For many people, of course, this week is Spring Break, which makes it easier to celebrate both Holy Week and Passover, but most people seem to view it purely as vacation. For several years, I regularly gave a paper at the Popular Culture Association Conference, but it’s always scheduled during Holy Week/Passover, because so many academics have the week off. This is more than a little awkward for observant Christians and Jews. I once met a Jewish academic at the conference who brought her entire family along so they could honor the holiday. Needless to say, that gets expensive.

When I started attending PCA, I hadn’t begun going to church yet. But once I had, the conflict between the two became increasingly painful, culminating with the year the conference was in Philadelphia, where my parents and sister live. I love my family, but they consider my conversion baffling (at best), which can create tension. I told them that I wanted to try to get local Holy Week services, but this led only to hilarity -- “She wants to go to church to get her feet washed! She can’t do that here! Ha ha!” -- and to inconvenience. Service times kept getting in the way of other things my family wanted to do, and they considered the Holy Week project so bizarre and ridiculous that I just didn’t go. I gave my conference paper, on science fiction as conversion narrative, on Good Friday . . . and at that point, the cognitive dissonance became so great that I decided that I wasn’t going to PCA anymore. I wanted to be able to spend Holy Week with my faith community.

Conflicts still pop up, though. Several years ago, one of our grad students, who was a Lutheran pastor, fumed to me that a going-away party for someone in the department had been scheduled for Good Friday. “Don’t they know that some people will be in church then?” Evidently the department administration at the time didn’t know that, and the event stayed where it was. This year, my department chair scheduled a faculty meeting for 1:00 on Good Friday; when I e-mailed her to explain that I wouldn’t be there because it was a religious holiday for me -- and maybe for other people too -- she very obligingly changed the date of the meeting to the following Friday (which is, of course, Friday the 13th). I hadn’t expected that -- I’d thought I’d have to give someone my proxy -- and I was extremely grateful.

Meanwhile, a friend from back East will be in town this week, and we’d arranged to have dinner with him on Wednesday and go to a concert with him on Thursday; even I’d forgotten that it was Holy Week! Last night, with a jolt, I remembered, and told Gary that I wouldn’t be able to go to the Thursday concert, because I had to go to church. He accepted that, but I don’t think he was happy.

For me, Holy Week is the culmination of the liturgical year, the point around which everything revolves. It’s the heart of my faith. But I’m living in a culture where Holy Week seems to be viewed as optional and unnecessary, a vestige of religious fanaticism which should, like the appendix, be excised if it creates difficulty. I can’t blame non-churchgoers for feeling this way: after all, many people who do go to church -- even non-squirrels who faithfully attend most Sundays -- seem to agree with them.

Do observant Jews go through this, too?


  1. Last year I was able to attend every service during Holy week. This year I have two night classes; one is on Maundy Thursday. I don't feel good about cutting classes so I'll have to miss that one. It's my favorite because of how dramatic the change in the sanctuary is. Thankfully, Good Friday is a holiday.

    Peace, Hope, & Joy!

  2. One of the adamantine strengths of Christianity, as I see it, is that it is the most intensely personal relationship you have. After all, God knows you even better than your beloved. How you choose to celebrate that relationship is entirely down to you. I pray your devotions bring you greater peace and understanding.

  3. Short answer to your question about observant Jews--yes, all the time! And not just on holidays, you know, every week if you observe the Sabbath.

    By the way, in the Jewish variant on the squirrels joke (which the way I heard it was a cockroach joke, draw your own cultural conclusions) the pests are all made bar and bat mitzvah, and they NEVER come back!

    Have a wonderful Holy Week.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everybody!

    Lee, I'm sorry you have to miss Maundy Thursday, but I'm glad you don't have to miss Good Friday!

    Martyn: Thanks for the prayer!

    Claire: Thank you, and I hope you and Pete and Nathan have a wonderful Passover!

  5. I go to church every day not just holy week . My husband is one of those fair weather Christians who shows up when it is convient for him to be there

  6. I know that this is way off the main point, but thanks for the joke!

  7. You're welcome, Martin! It's one of my favorites!


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