Friday, April 22, 2011

Thoughts on Holy Week.

For those of you unaware, my background is Protestant. We do Holy Week a little differently from the Catholics. I think actually a lot of Protestant churches play down Holy Thursday and Good Friday. I think it's because there is some...turning away, maybe? From the violence of the image of Christ on the Cross. (Most Protestant churches, for example, have an empty cross - symbolizing the Resurrection - rather than a crucifix in the sanctuary).

But I think, if you're a practicing Christian, it's important to be reminded.

I talked last time about feeling kind of worn and weepy this week. I noticed that last night at the Holy Thursday service. It is as if this week of the year, the insulation of intellectualism or whatever it is I put between my rawer emotions and the world is thinner than normal, that I can be swept up by things and feel them in a way I might not feel them at other times.

Some years my church has done a Good Friday service. One year in particular, I remember the pastor reading a physiologist's account. I don't remember the man's name, but someone who was a doctor- and trained in human physiology - read all he could about the practice of crucifixion and he wrote up what he hypothesized would be going on in a person's body - the pain, the difficulty breathing, and so on. (For example: breaking Jesus' legs was actually a concession, so He would die faster, no longer being able to "push up" to try to get breaths). It was...the best word I can think of is "harrowing." Very, very difficult to hear. But again, important.

We've also sometimes done Holy Thursday evening services...I think it was in one of these that I totally lost my composure, a few years back, during a prayer I was saying. And I'm still baffled and amazed by that; it really was as if something from outside me grabbed a hold of me and said "LOOK. Look at the suffering Christ underwent" and I could not bear it at that moment.

Last night, the service was a little different - but very meaningful and moving. The head of the Elders and the minister sort of acted out the Last Supper. (The head elder played the role of Christ; the minister was Peter. The rest of us in the congregation were to represent the other disciples...including Judas.)

One thing they did - instead of the usual communion wafer we use - they used matzo. Which was surprising but appropriate, as it's the modern descendant of the unleavened bread that would have been used at the Passover meal. So there was a very tangible reminder of our link to Judaism, to the history of what we do.

"Jesus" spoke a traditional-sounding blessing and prayer, lit the candles. He also symbolically washed "Peter's" feet, and they went through the discussion of what that meant.

We all read the 114th Psalm, which, I don't know if it's traditionally read at the Passover table (how little I know, really, about the practices of Judaism), but it referred to the escape from Epypt, so it could be.

And then "Jesus" blessed the bread and the cup. And he spoke of his body being broken for us. And that he would be betrayed. And "Peter," ever-impulsive Peter, asked him, "Who will betray you?" And "Jesus" did not respond directly to that, but held a piece of bread out to the (unseen) Judas and said "Go quickly and do what you must do."

But - and here's the thing that grabbed me about it - when he held the bread out, he held it out toward the congregation. It was a subtle thing but I do think it was intentional - a reminder to us that at times we have all played the role of Judas and betrayed Christ, just as at times we have all played the role Peter would play later that night and deny Christ. It was a reminder that we are all in part responsible for putting Christ on that cross, and it was pretty breathtaking.

And then, we all slowly came forward, and were given a piece of the matzo, and a cup was held out for us to dip it in the wine (normally we do not do communion by intinction, so this was also different) and then we silently returned to our pews.

It was interesting: after the benediction and the minister and elder walking down the center aisle, everyone just sat there. Sat in silence, as if under a spell, for several minutes. (Normally, at the end of a Sunday service, there is a lot of shuffling and getting ready to go - parents getting ready to collect their small children from the nursery, people quietly wishing one another a good week, plans being made to go out to this or that restaurant for lunch. But this time, we all just sat for a while...and then someone broke the spell, and got up, and walked out, and the rest of us all walked out - much more quietly than after a normal Sunday service, which seemed right to me.)

I was very tired when I got home. Emotionally tired, I think. Even though the focus of this service was very much on the idea of the Last Supper, and why we do it, and why it's important, and less on what would happen AFTER the supper ended, I still found myself tearing up at a couple points during the service - again, I think that "insulation layer" I put between my feelings and the world is thinner right now.

I also got to thinking about the events of that night...and of the next day. And I realized something I never really thought of before...Jesus and his followers got no sleep at all (well, other than the few who fell asleep in the garden, briefly) during that time. Now, maybe people during that time were tougher, but I can imagine it adding an extra nightmare quality over the events of Christ's arrest...and the crowds out below where Pilate stood, in the flickering torchlight...and how it might have seemed unbelievable, nightmare-like, to some of the Disciples. (No wonder some of them fled).

You don't hear much about the intervening Saturday. For one thing, it would have been the Sabbath, and the observant Jews would not have been out and about, but I also imagine Jesus' followers, each in their own lodgings, reflecting in horror over what happened and wondering what they would do next...and whether THEY were next in line for arrest.


Kate P said...

Interesting observation about Judas, Ricki. I also read something about him for Holy Thursday--reminding us that he was a good person who chose to do wrong, and then he confessed to the wrong people, in a way-- meaning to the elders who had given him the money, when he tried to give it back. These days, there are a lot of people who feel compelled to confess to all the wrong people. It was kind of an unusual thing to say about Judas, but it really caught my attention.

Happy Easter, Ricki!

Dave R. said...

Very good analysis, Ricki. In human history, there have been a few more horrible ways to die than crucifixion, but not very many. Most Christian art has tended to make it look way too antiseptic.

Wishing you a joyous and reflective Easter. That sounds kind of oxymoronic, but it can happen. In fact, the reflective leads to the joyous.