Presbyterians love Lent. I have the data to prove it. With thousands of visitors each year, the webpages for the season of Lent, Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are among the most popular resources on the PC(USA) worship site. Given our history, it is somewhat surprising that contemporary Presbyterians have such passion for the penitential purple of the Lenten season.
This article focuses on the conclusion of Lent at Holy Week. How did the traditions of Holy Week emerge in the early church? How did they first fall out of favor and then resurface among Reformed/Presbyterian churches? And how might they best be put into practice today?
The roots of the Christian year can be traced to the first and second centuries when an annual commemoration of Christ’s dying and rising emerged around the time of the Jewish Passover. Early Christians debated whether this event ought to take place on the day of Passover or on the following Sunday (and liturgical historians continue to argue about which tradition came first). Ultimately, in 325 the Council of Nicaea fixed the date of Easter on a Sunday to be determined by an obscure set of calculations based on the date of the spring equinox and the cycles of the moon. (Eastern and Western churches arrive at different dates due to their use of different calendar systems.)
The earliest annual celebrations of Christ’s resurrection seem to have been preceded by a day of fasting and a night of readings and prayers — the origin of our Easter Vigil. Over the first few centuries of the church’s history, however, this simple day of fasting grew — first to two days, then a whole week. The days leading up to Easter came to be connected with particular events in the Gospels — Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his Passover meal with the disciples and his death on the cross — particularly as pilgrims to the Holy Land sought to walk in Christ’s footsteps. In fact, the best account of Holy Week during this time comes from a Spanish woman (possibly a nun) named Egeria, who took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around the year 385.
Churches throughout the Christian world continued to expand on these traditions in the centuries that followed. Many of the rites and practices that emerged were connected with the reconciliation of penitent persons at the Maundy Thursday service and with preparations to baptize new believers (catechumens) at the Easter Vigil. Thus Lent came to be understood as a time for the exercise of spiritual discipline — especially for those joining or returning to the church) — with Holy Week as the culmination of the season.
Particular practices have grown up around the principal days of Holy Week:
- The Sunday before Easter (Palm/Passion Sunday) offers a synopsis of the week to come and captures the poignant paradox of the gospel. From the exuberant procession with palms the church quickly turns to the events of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, denial, trial and crucifixion.
- The fifth day of Holy Week (Maundy Thursday) celebrates Jesus’ example of humble service and extravagant love with the washing of feet and sharing of communion. “Maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum (commandment); at this service we remember Jesus’ new commandment to love one another as he has loved us.
- The sixth day (Good Friday) proclaims Christ’s death on the cross for the life of the world, calling us to join Jesus’ intercession for the world that God so loves. This service also features the Solemn Reproaches of the Cross — Christ’s anguished lament to the church.
- Traditionally, no services are held on Holy Saturday. But in the evening of the seventh day the Great Vigil of Easter is celebrated, a multifaceted, multisensory event that includes services of light, readings, baptism and Eucharist. Like Christmas Eve, the timing reflects the ancient Jewish and early Christian understanding of the new day beginning at sundown.
Early leaders in the Reformation didn’t necessarily object to the biblically-inspired, Christ-centered celebrations of the liturgical calendar. For instance, the 1566 Second Helvetic Confession states, “if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly” (Book of Confessions, 5.226).
This generation of Reformers did strenuously object, however, to the proliferation of saints’ days that had come to compete with the proclamation of the gospel and the worship of God alone. While they encouraged the spiritual discipline of fasting under certain conditions, they also railed against the vanity and superstition they observed in the Lenten practices of their time (see Calvin’s “Institutes,” 4.12.15–21).
Under the influence of Puritanism, the calendar was purged again. Not even Christmas and Easter remained. An appendix to the 1645 “Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God” taught: “There is no day commanded in Scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s Day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” For two centuries, Presbyterians in North America abided by this counsel, eschewing the celebrations of the Christian year altogether.
Christian educators can be credited, in part, with the recovery of the liturgical calendar. The Sunday school movement of the 19th century began to make reference to Christmas and Easter in educational publications. The ecumenical liturgical movement, emerging at about the same time, had another part to play. Leaders and scholars from a variety of denominations returned to early Christian documents and traditions to seek a common vision for the church’s worship.
Presbyterian service-books from the early 20th century demonstrate the slow and steady rediscovery of the liturgical calendar. The 1906 “Book of Common Worship” provided a small assortment of prayers for the Christian year, including Advent, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter Day. A 1932 revision expanded on that collection, adding resources for Lent, Palm Sunday, Pentecost and All Saints. The 1946 iteration of the “Book of Common Worship” added the “Thursday before Easter” to the materials for Holy Week. It also included a two-year lectionary borrowed from the “Book of Common Order” of the Church of Scotland.
The 1970 “Worshipbook” took another step toward reclaiming the Christian year with an expansive collection of readings and prayers for everything from the 1st Sunday of Advent to the 27th Sunday after Pentecost. Ash Wednesday is mentioned for the first time as the beginning of the season of Lent, and more detailed resources are provided for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The “Worshipbook” was also the first to feature a three-year lectionary, adapted from the Roman Catholic lectionary developed around the time of the Second Vatican Council.
As published service-books reflected renewed appreciation for the liturgical calendar, denominational constitutions also lent their support. The 1961 Directory for Worship of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) provided for the observance of “the season of Lent culminating in Holy Week, wherein the Church, in joy and sorrow, proclaims, remembers, and responds to the atoning death of Christ.” The 1963 Directory for Worship of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) didn’t affirm Lent or Holy Week, but allowed that “it is appropriate that the worship of the Church provide occasion for recalling the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, his death, resurrection, ascension and coming again, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.”
With the 1983 reunion that formed the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) came a new version of the Directory for Worship. In its listing of the days and seasons of the church year, the denomination’s current Book of Order includes these entries: “Lent, a season of spiritual discipline and preparation, beginning with Ash Wednesday, anticipating the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ” and “Holy Week, a time of remembrance and proclamation of the atoning suffering and death of Jesus Christ” (W-3.2002).
The 1993 “Book of Common Worship” took another great stride toward the renewal of the liturgical year in the Reformed tradition, providing fully realized orders of worship for Ash Wednesday, Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. Indeed, with the inclusion of the Great Vigil of Easter, the current “Book of Common Worship” takes us back full circle to the church’s earliest annual celebration of Jesus’ dying and rising. It follows the three-year Revised Common Lectionary developed by the Consultation on Common Texts, an ecumenical body in which Presbyterians played a prominent role.
The past century has brought a remarkable range of new (or rather ancient) possibilities for Presbyterian worship. Some of these gifts have already been widely welcomed and explored; others remain largely untried. How might we continue to renew the church’s worship at Holy Week?
Here are a few practical suggestions related to particular services:
- Live into the paradoxical tension of Palm/Passion Sunday. Instead of choosing between the entry into Jerusalem and the way of the cross, discover how the cathartic journey of this service, when celebrated in its entirety, leads worshippers more deeply into the heart of the gospel.
- Celebrate the fullness of the Three Days (Triduum) of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil. This is intended to be one service in three movements, not a menu of options. Encourage worshippers to take advantage of this transforming event as an annual opportunity for Christian formation, communal fellowship and spiritual growth.
- Give footwashing a chance. This traditional feature of the Maundy Thursday liturgy may seem off-putting, but it can be a powerful experience of Christ’s service and love. The “Companion to the Book of Common Worship” provides excellent practical guidance.
- Use the Solemn Intercessions and Reproaches. The Good Friday liturgy is a school of prayer — challenging the church to reach out in prayer for the whole world as Christ reaches out from the cross. Echoing Jesus’ cry from the cross, the Solemn Reproaches are a moving expression of divine lament and prayer in solidarity with victims of violence and oppression.
- Get on board with the Great Vigil of Easter. Get as many members as possible involved with preparation and leadership for this great event — a chance to immerse themselves in the whole story of salvation, proclaimed in Word and Sacrament. If planning an Easter Vigil on your own seems daunting, consider holding a joint service with another congregation in your presbytery or neighborhood.
- Resist the “Christian Seder.” Again, the “Companion to the Book of Common Worship” has a thoughtful essay on why this practice is historically questionable, theologically problematic, liturgically confusing and potentially offensive to Jewish neighbors.
And a few more general ideas to consider:
- Use more (or better yet, all) of the lectionary readings. At Holy Week in particular we should be steeped in the sacred story of the Old and New Testaments, finding fresh insight for Christian life as these rich and compelling texts illuminate one another.
- Lead from font and table at every opportunity. Christian worship is about meeting Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament. Lift water from the font and confession and pardon, keeping with the history of Lent as a time of reconciliation and preparation for baptism. Celebrate the Lord’s Supper on Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, the Great Vigil and Easter Sunday (even if it’s not the first Sunday of the month).
- Sing with the church in every time and place. The 2013 hymnal “Glory to God” provides a wealth of ancient, classic and contemporary hymns for the services of Holy Week, including many songs from the global church. Let these perspectives broaden the congregation’s horizons.
- Make it intergenerational. Let grown-ups participate in the procession with palms. Ask confirmands and their mentors to wash feet. Invite college students home on spring break to read the passion narratives. Involve children and youth in presenting readings at the Easter Vigil.
- Find ways to connect the services of Holy Week with the church’s witness and mission in the community and world. Start the procession of palms outside the church and parade around the block. Collect items for the food pantry and clothes closet on Maundy Thursday. Pray for particular neighborhoods and nations on Good Friday. Build a big bonfire (complying with local fire regulations, of course) for the beginning of the Easter Vigil — and let the neighbors wonder what on earth you’re doing.
FALL AND RISE
Through 500 years of Reformed worship we have witnessed the fall and rise of Holy Week. The real “fall and rise” of Holy Week, however, is the great mystery of faith the church proclaims in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The point of all of our liturgical traditions — however popular (or not) they may be — is pointing to this holy mystery and drawing others into the height and depth of Christ’s saving, life-giving love.
DAVID GAMBRELL is associate for worship in the PC(USA) Office of Theology and Worship, editor of Call to Worship (pcusa.org/calltoworship) and co-editor (with Kimberly Bracken Long) of a forthcoming revision to the Presbyterian “Book of Common Worship.” He is the author of a recent collection of 50 hymn texts, “Breathing Spirit into Dust.”
- Online resources for the liturgical calendar may be found at pcusa.org/worship; follow the link that says “The Christian year” and browse the menu on that page.
- “The Companion to the Book of Common Worship” (Geneva Press, 2003), edited by Peter C. Bower, is an invaluable resource for those seeking a deeper understanding of the Christian year and other aspects of Presbyterian worship.
- “The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), edited by Paul Bradshaw, is another excellent compendium of wisdom on the church’s worship through the ages.
- See Harold M. Daniels’s book “To God Alone Be Glory” (Geneva Press, 2003) for an account of the recovery of the liturgical calendar in the Reformed tradition, as well as other information on the background and development of the 1993 “Book of Common Worship.”