The Three Days (or, to Catholics, the Triduum — uh, hello, Latin’s dead?) always gets to me. Not that the design of the services helps a whole lot. Good intentions, I’m sure, but it’s more important to get the feeling of gloom and darkness on Good Friday than to read a bulletin. Have just enough light to get to a seat, perhaps with an usher’s help. It’s something to experience, so you can explain it afterward, if you wish, but pre-explanations dull the impact. I realize most traditions read the whole ending up to Jesus’ death on Maundy Thursday, but shouldn’t the service focus on Thursday’s events, the last supper and the betrayal? The Good Friday, Easter Vigil, and Easter services have their own special emphases, even when seen as continuations of each other. Use the stream of continuity to take people through the days — a mental pilgrimage traveling through the Gospel story. You can’t get that experience by overtly tipping the hand (that’s where symbolism and allusion can help).
Only once has an Easter Vigil given me the sense of anticipation or waiting for God to act. That once was where it happened in the early morning before sunrise. (Sparsely-attended, of course; just three church women, 6 theology students, an Episcopal vicar, a Vineyard minister, and me.) It led right into the praise music hour that led up to the somewhat-high Episcopal Easter sunrise service at 7 am. It made me think of the Marys who went to the tomb, the loss they were feeling, the surprise they had when they got there, the joy at the incredible news. In a way, I entered into what they went through, by way of the flow of the worship services. Unfortunately, it also left me totally spoiled.
The congregation I’m a member of has a fairly good time of it on Easter. The place is full of balloons and butterfly cut-outs and vigorously-loud organ music. My worst Easter experience was about 12 or so years ago, when I was visiting a church in New Jersey I had heard good things about some 8 years earlier. (I was on my way back to Long Island from Maryland, and chose a church to go to along the way.) Unfortunately, 8 years can be a long time when there’s a lot of change going on. The newly-hired pastor was doing his first Easter service there (he’d served nearby for 5 years, arrived a month or so ago). Have you ever been to a service where noone gets it? The music was noise with no flow, no harmonies, and a relentless tone of “look at me, I’m saying God loves me”. The lectors talked almost like robots from the old sci-fi movies. The assistant looked and acted like she had snorted a whole bag of coke, with the ghastliest painted-on grin — I giggle thinking about it. The pastor had obviously used the sermon before, I suspect so he could feel more comfortable in his new surroundings. He should’ve burned it. He spoke as much of TV shows as Jesus. And he was having great trouble reading his sermon — meanings can change greatly by mistaking one letter. Two of the mistakes were rather racy – freudian slips, perhaps? The acolyte stumbled twice — once over the robe, once from playing around with the crucifix. There was even a sharp but indirect reference to the firing of the previous minister. (Even the sharpest of visitors should never be able to detect that during a worship service). Of course, I was totally ignored on the way in and out, since I am a stranger.
Yes, Holy Week has its lessons.