Feature: The significance of Holy Week

holyweek3_optGrowing attention given to the dark days leading to Easter

Some Baptists have never heard of Maundy Thursday — while others have discovered in more recent years the significance of this observance of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples as well as other Holy Week services.

“When I first became a minister, Holy week consisted of kids waving palms on Palm Sunday, and then Easter Sunday…,” said Tim Hobbs, now pastor of Community Baptist Church in Henderson, Ky. “It was as if nothing else happened to Jesus during that last week of his life.”

Pastor Lee Canipe of First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, N.C., however, has never been a part of a congregation that did not give rapt attention to the unfolding of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest and crucifixion leading up to Easter.

“Maybe because of the kind of churches I served early in my ministry, Holy Week has always been a given,” he said. “In other words, I’ve never served a church that didn’t at least observe Maundy Thursday.”

EMPTY TOMB

Easter Sunday has always been the high point for worshipping congregations of all shapes and sizes. Resurrection is that grand celebration that brings eternal hope — but often with little or no attention to the significant events in Jesus’ life that put him on a cross.

Barry Howard, pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla., said he grew up in a rural area and had no concept of Holy Week until entering college. But Easter received prime treatment.

“For many years my home church, a Pentecost-style Missionary Baptist Church, held an Easter sunrise service, literally at sunrise,” he recalled. “We would arrive between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m. and wait for the sun to come up to begin singing.”

Following the music, the pastor would preach an enthusiastic “empty tomb” sermon, he said.

“Then we would go home for breakfast and return to church for Sunday school at 9:45 and Easter worship at 11,” he said. “The usual Easter sermon began in the upper room, and the narrative reached a crescendo with the Resurrection.”

Jim Thomason, pastor of First Baptist Church of Anderson, S.C., recalled no emphasis on Holy Week when growing up in a Baptist church, nor while serving congregations as a music minister during his college and seminary years.

“I made sure the music I selected for the services reflected the seasons of the church year, but there were no special services other than on Easter Sunday, complete with sunrise services.”

DARKNESS TO LIGHT

btapril14cover_optThat changed for Thomason, he said, upon assuming the pastorate of Rosalind Hills Baptist Church in Roanoke, Va., where a Maundy Thursday Communion service was held each year during Holy Week.

“That soon became one of the most meaningful services of the year for me,” said Thomason, “and I continue to hear this from the people I serve now at First Baptist Church of Anderson, S.C.”

He also leads a Tenebrae service that begins with the ancient words, Tennabrae Factae Sunt — “all is darkness.” A growing number of Baptist churches have added this service to Holy Week, often on Good Friday though sometimes on Maundy Thursday, to recall the darkness of Christ’s death on the cross.

Thomason said the Holy Week services prepare the congregation to more fully embrace and celebrate the victory of Easter.

“Everything moves from darkness to light, from somber to celebratory,” he said. “The contrast is powerful.”

SEASONS OF FAITH

Advent is often the first season of the Church Year to be introduced within Baptist congregations that previously focused on Christmas and Easter only. But if the season of Advent paves the way for Christmas, then wouldn’t the Lenten journey be good preparation for Holy Week and Easter?

“Yes,” said pastor Keith Herron of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City. “Once a church values Advent and Holy Week, the other seasons of the Church Year begin to make sense and can be valued by Baptists.”

Since the seasons follow the life of Christ, he said, an emphasis on occasions such as Holy Week naturally focuses attention on following Christ more faithfully.

“I think the church values its Christian heritage over the centuries as it reflects on the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry,” Herron said. “When one ‘follows the footsteps of Jesus’ as the old hymn suggests, we experience more deeply and see these seasons as sacred stories that illuminate our own lives.”

WILDERNESS TRAINING

The 40-day season of Lent leads to Holy Week and then Easter — following Christ’s life from the wilderness to Resurrection.

Lee Canipe sees value in Christians sharing that continuous journey to more fully experience the significance of Christ’s salvific work.

“During Lent we put a cross out on the lawn in front of the church, with a purple cloth draped over the arms,” he said. “On Good Friday we replace the purple cloth with a black one, to symbolize Jesus’ death.”

That same cross gets him up early on Easter morning.

“On Easter I’ll set my alarm for early — like 5:30 or so — and walk up to the church in the dark with the white cloth,” he said. “Before anyone is out on the street, before the sun has started to rise, even before the rooster down the street crows, I’ll take off the black cloth and replace it with the white one announcing the resurrection.”

“That moment every Easter Sunday morning is one of my very favorite things I get to do as a pastor,” he added. “I feel like I’m the first person in Murfreesboro who gets to find out that Christ is risen.”

LEARNING CURVES

“Pretty much across the board, I have found that whenever I want to introduce a new element to worship — or an entirely new service like Maundy Thursday or Ash Wednesday — the best place to start is with Scripture,” said Canipe. “Not only do I think it’s theologically responsible — I mean, if there’s no warrant for something in the Bible, then I’m not sure we need to be doing it in worship — but it also helps to reassure skeptics who worry we’re going off the Baptist rails.”

“Even the most suspicious Baptist will find it hard to argue with God’s Word (though many do try),” he added. “Plus, when we can tie worship practice to Scripture, it gives people another example of how the Bible is not just an old book of rules … but the means by which a holy, living God is working to shape us into his image.”

Stephen Cook, now pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, was serving on a church staff years ago in which the congregation put strong emphases on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, but not on the days in between.

“We were in a long pastoral interim and the staff decided that we would be creative during that time and take advantage of the opportunity to introduce some new elements to our worship life,” he recalled. “We wanted to make sure that people didn’t leave from the Palm Sunday parade and come to the Easter celebration without going through a graveyard.”

Midday worship with Communion was held each day of Holy Week.

“In other places I have been fortunate to participate in ecumenical daily services among a group of churches,” he said.

His congregation in Memphis pays particular attention to Palm Sunday and the Passion elements of the day, he said. And they host a Maundy Thursday service and a noontime Good Friday observance with readings, prayers and musical reflections for the day.

GOOD COMMUNICATION

Tommy McDearis, pastor of Blacksburg Baptist Church in Virginia, recalled introducing a Maundy Thursday service in 1981 at historic Cane Creek Baptist Church near Hillsborough, N.C., a pastorate he assumed as a seminarian.

“I explained it by discussing Jesus’ mandate that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and then I walked the church through the first Lord’s Supper by talking about the Seder meal,” he said. “I was shocked at how well it was received. In fact, the next year I had people ask if we were going to celebrate ‘that special Lord’s Supper service.’”

Seasoned pastoral leaders warn that introducing unfamiliar worship practices and terminology should be done with care. Otherwise, confusion and even feelings of exclusion might result.

Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, said that after leading an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in a church he served as pastor, a member tearfully told him how much she was going to miss Bible study.

“When I explained that we would have Bible study the next Wednesday she was suddenly fine,” he said. “She did not mind us doing the new thing, but did not want to lose the old thing.”

Good communication goes a long way in the acceptance of change, he added.

“When we introduce new, old ways to worship, we need to do so pastorally and with good explanations,” said Younger. “No one needs to feel excluded as we explore the possibilities together.”

TRIAL AND ERROR

Introducing some worship elements may not come easy for the congregation — or the minister.

Jim Somerville, now pastor of First Baptist Church of Richmond, Va., recalled preparing for an Ash Wednesday service for the first time. Most churches either burn palms from the previous year or buy ashes from a church resources provider.

Somerville said he thought burning newspaper would be just fine for his student pastorate in New Castle, Ky.

“The ash I ended up with was flaky, not powdery …,” he recalled. “I dipped my thumb into that, and made a flaky sign of the cross on my reluctant parishioners’ foreheads, telling them, ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’”

“One of them ended up with a ghostly notice on his forehead that green beans were selling for 39 cents a can at our local grocery store,” said Somerville. “How’s that for a reminder of mortality?”

Stephen Cook’s early attempt at leading an Ash Wednesday service for youth at Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem years ago drew much attention.

“I hatched this brilliant plan that the youth would write their confessions on index cards, and then we would burn the confessions for ashes,” he recalled.

The cards were placed in a bucket and set on fire — a larger fire than Cook expected.

“Then I managed to kick the bucket over,” he said. “I instinctively, but not very brightly, picked the bucket up by the handle.”

That’s when his well-starched shirt caught fire. Smoke filled the room. The youth and children’s wing was vacated and choir members, who smelled the smoke, arrived with fire extinguishers.

Years later, he said, those present would quote a seventh-grade girl who exclaimed: “O Jesus. Stephen, you’re on fire!”

The next year he invited a Benedictine monk to come explain Ash Wednesday to the youth.

PERSONAL TOUCH

Often the desire to introduce a new worship experience comes from the spiritual impact such a service has made on the minister’s own life.

As a divinity school student, Lee Canipe visited his fiancée in Savannah, Ga. It was Holy Week and, since she was working, he attended a noon service on Good Friday.

“The service was simple — no singing, a very brief homily, a few prayers, readings from the biblical account of the crucifixion and burial,” he recalled. “The story itself, though, is so powerful that you really don’t need to add anything to it.”

But outside the church he experienced something very different.

“I left the service with a heavy, heavy heart — and stepped out into a glorious, Savannah spring afternoon, with people bustling around on their lunch hour, laughing, enjoying the sunshine,” he said. “I remember thinking: How can they be so happy when Jesus has just died? Don’t they know what’s happened? Don’t they care?”

“The contrast was just so sharp,” he added. “And then it struck me that, for just about everyone else in Jerusalem on the day that Jesus died, it was just another business-as-usual Friday. Only the people who loved Jesus really cared — or even noticed — that something bad had happened. It was one of those a-ha moments for me that wouldn’t have been possible without that Good Friday worship.”

UNEXPECTED LESSONS

Sometimes the significance of Holy Week comes in response to what happens rather than what anyone has planned.

Barry Howard of Pensacola was serving as pastor of First Baptist Church Williams in Jacksonville, Ala., when a Palm Sunday tornado hit the area in 1994. Goshen United Methodist Church was the hardest hit of five nearby churches struck during morning worship.

“The tornado lifted the roof and then released it,” he said. “As the ceiling came crashing down on the congregation, many were injured and 20 lives were lost — including six children.”

In the aftermath, many were questioning how God could have allowed such a tragedy to be inflicted on a worshipping congregation, recalled Howard.

“One of the wiser things I heard went something like this: ‘It’s like Holy Week. You move from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the tragic injustice of it all. But then comes Easter. We couldn’t face this week, if we didn’t believe that our Easter is coming.’”

While that experience is seared in his mind, what leads to Easter always deserves attention, he said.

“I think we need to sense the pain of the betrayal, the agony of the cross, and the despair of the tomb, before we can truly feel the joy of the Resurrection.”

Four years ago, at Blacksburg Baptist Church, pastor Tommy McDearis led a Good Friday service that emphasized the Lord’s Supper as being Jesus’ ultimate vote of confidence in his disciples.

Following Communion by intinction, each person coming forward was given a stone to drop at the cross to symbolize the sin that Jesus had already forgiven. A young man, who was new to the faith, took Communion and then dropped the stone — but returned to the darkened sanctuary.

“He circled back around to the back of the long line,” McDearis recalled. “When he got back to the table, he picked up three more stones and he went back to the cross and dropped them.”

After the service, the pastor asked him why.

“He said, ‘I’ve had four really, really bad choices that have haunted me since college that I never thought were forgivable. Tonight I realized for the first time that God forgave me the day of the cross, and he had believed in me since the cross, and my responsibility was to accept that fact and then to leave the guilt behind. So I decided it was time to lay all four of those burdens down so I could leave here a free man.’”

SIGNIFICANCE SHARED

Bob Browning, pastor of First Baptist Church of Frankfort, Ky., said his own spiritual life has been enhanced by the Lenten journey and Holy Week observances that were not part of his early years.

“I do not remember seeing a crown of thorns or a towel and pitcher of water on a Communion table. There was never a cross in our sanctuary draped in black to symbolize the death of Christ or one adorned in white to commemorate his resurrection. There were no banners depicting the Stations of the Cross, and no mention of the Via Dolorosa. If the local ministerial association sponsored ecumenical Holy Week luncheons, I was completely unaware of them.”

All of those are a part of Holy Week for Browning now, he said, and have been for more than 20 years.

“I cannot imagine the celebration of Easter without the six-week period of preparation we refer to as Lent, culminating in Holy Week,” he said. “The absence of this opportunity to reflect upon Christ’s journey toward Jerusalem and make sacrifices to identify with Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross would reduce Easter to nothing more than a celebration of spring.”

Browning and his ministerial colleagues at Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga., where he previously served, would use the church newsletter and other communications to explain new ways of worshipping.

Greg DeLoach, pastor of First Baptist Church of Augusta, Ga., said Holy Week affords the time to focus on the call to deny self, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Last year he gave each congregant a wooden cross from Bethlehem to start the Lenten journey. Then each day he posted a different image of the cross on his blog. At the end of the season, the images where compiled into a booklet.

“In order to get to the joy of an empty tomb,” he said, “the cross must be engaged.”

Mike Smith, pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City in Knoxville, Tenn., said that paying attention to Holy Week connects Christians, through their imaginations, to the scriptural story.

“We become mentally and emotionally engaged, so that we feel the flow and ebb of the week,” he said. “By the time we get to Easter, we’re more than ready for and convinced of our need for the good news of the Resurrection.”

Browning added that the observance of Holy Week gives him a clearer image of Jesus’ dedication, courage, compassion and strength.

“It also pulls back the curtain and lets me see what evil is capable of doing when it is exposed and challenged,” he said. “On the other hand, it reminds me that God will have the final word in our lives, not evil, and that word will be good.”

“Evil, even in its rawest and most violent form, cannot overcome the power of love and the faithfulness of a merciful and righteous God,” he added. “The empty tomb reveals this… Easter encourages me to follow in his footsteps in the pursuit of justice and peace, knowing God will always be at my side, and my efforts will not be in vain.”

HUNGER AND THIRST

Les Hollon, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas, said he approached Holy Week observances with a “cautious openness.”

“Cautious because some Baptists feared taking on a Catholic practice,” he explained. “Openness because people hungered for something more than a typical bookend approach to the hosannas of Palm Sunday and the hallelujahs of Easter.”

Once explained biblically, most people were open to a seven-day Holy Week.

During a seminary pastorate he introduced Maundy Thursday as a “re-experience of the Last Supper.” He explained that Maundy is a Latin term (mandatum) for the New Commandment that Jesus taught in John 13:34-35.

“The initial experience was well received by most worshipers,” he said. “They were glad to have a set-apart time to reflect on Christ’s love and what it means to love others as he has loved them.”

Such observances can meet spiritual needs, he said.

“We thirst for meaning and to know our place in the larger scheme of life,” said Hollon. “So a pathway to Easter, which is how I explain Lent, was and is worth the effort.”

His congregation has written devotionals for a “Preparing for Easter” booklet that is distributed for the Lenten season. And Hollon said an intentional sacrifice (fasting) can heighten a person’s awareness of God.

“That ‘sacrifice’ may be to talk less, not eat a particular food, spend less time watching television or on the computer,” he said. “And then to use that time and money in a spiritual practice, such as praying, reading the Bible, serving the poor, singing hymns, journaling, reaching out to people with whom we have not been connected.”

By traveling through Lent and experiencing Holy Week, he said, “we find that God has been shaping us along the way.”

Hollon recalled a couple, headed for divorce, coming to him for counseling.

“I challenged them not to make a decision until after Easter and to invest their efforts between now and then in the experiment of seeing if God could resurrect their marriage,” he recalled. “They used Ash Wednesday as a time to confess their sins and to receive forgiveness. They started new practices in their marriage as part of Lent. They worked hard at counseling, where their hurts were identified and their anger addressed. Self-defeating habits in their marriage needed to end, be buried, and put behind them so a new and wiser love could be born.”

“During the response time on Easter Sunday, they came forward as a couple to celebrate how God had changed them from the inside out,” said Hollon. “Their marriage was resurrected.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

Daniel Glaze, pastor of First Baptist Church of Ahoskie, N.C., said that Holy Week is an exhausting time for ministers — which can have significance as well.

“I feel physically and emotionally drained as I journey through Holy Week,” he said. “While I am in no way attempting to compare my physical weariness with the agony Jesus endured, my own tiredness echoes the movement of the week.”

Since Christians know how the story ends, it’s tempting to jump ahead to resurrection, he said, “without understanding how we got there.” But the wait is worth it.

“One Good Friday service, after all the candles were extinguished, the congregation sat in silence for a few moments in the sanctuary to meditate upon what was just experienced.” Glaze recalled. “One young boy, intrigued by the night’s drama, whispered loud enough for all to hear, ‘What comes next?’”

“He, like most of us, I suppose, was expectantly hopeful for what God would do next.” BT

Story and photos by John Pierce

 

John Pierce

About John Pierce

John D. Pierce has been executive editor of Baptists Today since 2000. Previously he served as managing editor of The Christian Index and as a Baptist campus minister at Georgia Tech, Southern Polytechnic and Kennesaw State. A native of Ringgold, Ga., he is a graduate of Berry College (B.A.), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div.), and Columbia Theological Seminary (D.Min.). He speaks frequently in churches, consults with congregations concerning communications and holds interim pastorates. He and his family are members of Highland Hills Baptist Church in Macon.

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