Thursday, August 25, 2011

Liturgical Musings

A common misconception about the liturgical year is that it's dull. Observing the same rituals year after year is dull. Following a set pattern is dull. Prioritizing the liturgical kalendar above the Hallmark calendar is dull. But in my experience, the kalendar is far from boring; in fact I find new depth and meaning every year that I observe it. A wonderful example of how rich and powerful yearly rituals can be is the observance of Holy Week.

Lent is a time for contemplation. For repentance. For finding out where we are and where we need to be. It isn't a time for celebration; if anything, it is our time to mourn and be sober. As Lent progresses, we see glimpses of hope, but we also plunge deeper into despair. The Gospel texts highlight the occurrences leading up to Christs' crucifixion. We know something is coming, but we have to wait for it. Time passes slowly.

Holy Week leads up to the final climax in the story as we follow Christ. First we are surprised by an unexpected sense of triumph as Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey and the people wave their palm branches and shout "Hosanna." We think that perhaps this foreshadowing means that our sorrow is over, that this man is here to relieve our suffering. Our excitement is beginning to build as we anticipate what's going to happen next.

Then, on Maundy Thursday we go to the Passover Seder where Jesus shocks his disciples by interrupting the traditional Passover liturgy to insert the troubling words, "this is my body," and "this is my blood." What is Jesus doing? What is he leading up to? We place ourselves in the moment, into the shoes of the disciples gathered around the table. We are waiting for Jesus to explain, but he doesn't. It feels like an anti-climax; this wasn't what we were anticipating. Instead of explaining, Jesus goes away to pray. Before we know it, the story goes terribly wrong as soldiers come in the dark and take Jesus away. The man that we depended on is now helpless. And so are we. The triumph of Sunday is forgotten while we wait and watch for what is going to happen next.

Good Friday brings the climax of despair. We've given up all hope. Jesus, our Savior, is dying on a tree and the disciples are numb with shock. They gather enough wits to quickly return to their dark quarters where they wait. What are they waiting for? Isn't that the end of the story? They sit in the dark, remembering all that has occurred. Something is going to happen, but no one knows what.

Holy Saturday is silent. We're still waiting. Jesus is dead in the tomb. We're almost ready to give up hope, yet there's that lingering whisper that it isn't over yet. We have a little more patience left, so we wait.

And then ... comes Sunday morning. With it comes joy and celebration that we have never known before. Was it worth the wait? There's no doubt about that. More about Easter later.

Holy Week is one of the most dramatic observances of the liturgical year. Is it dull? Far from it. It is an emotional roller coaster of expectation, excitement, confusion, betrayal, agony, mourning, despair, waiting, hopelessness ... and finally, sublime joy. When we place ourselves into the story, when we live the liturgy, we realize how meaningful it truly is.

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