Holy Week and Easter are drawing nigh, the exact dates which are determined, as always, in relationship to the full moon date following March 21st. There are many ancient Christian customs connected with this Holy Week that help us understand and participate in it with deeper meaning and benefit.
For starters, most of the world uses a version of the Latin Word Pascha (Greek—Paskha, French—Pâques, German—Paisken, Russian—Paskha, Spanish—Pascua). All these are derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, the Passover, because the basic meaning of the feast is that the Day of Resurrection is the Christian Passover, and much of its tradition is meaningless, unless we keep this thought in mind. Passover is the anniversary of the great event when God delivered Israel from slavery and bondage in Egypt. Easter is the anniversary of the day when God delivered all humanity from slavery and bondage to sin and death. God demanded that the Jews sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on their door posts and the angel of death would passover those households delivering them from His judgment on the Egyptians. Likewise, Jesus Christ’s blood on the cross and in the sacrament delivers us from judgement for sin and eternal death, giving us hope in our resurrection with Christ to eternal life.
How did we get the word Easter? Easter was a pagan Anglo-Saxon Goddess of the sunrise and the spring. The word East also is named for her. In the northern hemisphere, the spring comes close to the time of Jewish Passover and all European Christians regarded the East — facing towards the Holy Land and Jerusalem — as a sacred direction since the sun arises and the Son (of God) arose there. The festival color for Easter is white, and the Latin word for white, alba, is also the word for sunrise. In the Frankish tongue, the word for sunrise is Ostern, so that is another way we inherited the Easter instead of Pascha for this greatest day of the year.
The purpose of our worship from Passion (Palm) Sunday through Easter Day is not just to learn about the events that have saved us from eternal damnation, but rather to reenact those events in symbolic ways so that they become present realities to us and in our lives. Religion is not a spectator sport, we are all players on the field. The old spiritual asks the question “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and after a good liturgical Holy Week, we should be able to answer “Yes I was!”
That is why Palm Sunday is now known as Passion Sunday, because it is a kind of “preview” of the whole week ahead, with its main focus on all of us reading the Passion Gospel together (Matthew, Mark or Luke) taking the parts of Jesus, the Priests, Peter, Pilate and the crowd. We all are guilty of Jesus’ death as we cry out together “crucify him!” The rubrics request that we gather outside of the church and have a procession to the church door which represents the gate of Jerusalem reenacting Jesus entrance accompanied by children and others bearing palm branches.
On Maundy Thursday, in many churches, they hold a Passover dinner with all the traditional Jewish foods and ceremonies before (or after) the reenactment of the last supper, complete with Jesus’ washing of his disciples feet. This year, I will ask to wash the hands of volunteers, which in our culture has the same meaning as washing feet (think of the hotel restroom attendant offering you a towel.) We hear Jesus’ new Maundy (commandment) “Love one another as I have loved you!”
We share the offering of his life in the consecrated bread and wine and we go with him, symbolically, into the Garden of Gethsemane where his betrayal and arrest are reenacted by stripping the altar and sanctuary of all beautiful and dedicated things. In many churches, people volunteer an hour at a time to hold prayerful vigil before the remaining blessed sacrament reenacting the disciples who were asked by their God “could you not watch with me one brief hour?”
On Good Friday, we reenact the journey of Jesus from his scourging to the cross both at noon, in an Episcopal version of “the way (stations) of the cross”, and later at 7 PM as we read St. John’s Passion Gospel and then venerate a rough wooden cross, similar to that on which Jesus died. We feel loss and sadness; we do not know that there will be any resurrection. We leave in silence and sadness and fear, just as “all his disciples forsook him and fled!”
(Part 2 will appear in our Easter Messenger)
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Tom Bauer