I can hardly imagine – we are already at the beginning of Holy Week! I’ve heard from many of you that Lent has seemed very different this year. Because Lent started so early, it was difficult for churches to prepare well for their Lenten programming. (The last time Easter was on March 23 was 1940, and the next time will be 2160. We’ll all be well resurrected by then!) With most of our Ash Wednesday services snowed out in West Michigan, we didn’t get off to a good start. That was followed by two more weather Sundays, which meant low attendance for worship and study classes, with consequent financial ramifications. It’s been a challenge to experience the richness of Lent because of these distractions.
Regardless of what has come before, we are in Holy Week, the most sacred time of the year. United Methodist churches the world over observe Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Some even have an Easter vigil on Saturday night. The opportunity to travel with Jesus from his entrance into Jerusalem, to the Upper Room, to cross at Golgotha, and to the empty tomb, is offered to our congregations through creative, experiential worship.
How is it, then, that so few people engage the entire journey, opting instead to settle for Palm Sunday and Easter (or just Easter)? Why do only a small number of church members attend either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services? I have some theories:
- The fairly recent change in the lectionary to put Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday together (instead of keeping Passion Sunday two weeks before Easter) has the potential to dilute two important aspects of Holy Week. Even though the change was made to ensure that Sunday-only churchgoers get a dose of the suffering of Jesus, it also gives people an excuse for not participating in the entire Holy Week scenario. (Don’t make it too easy on your folks!)
- There is a general lack of spiritual formation in our churches. If the truth be told, most of our church members are not familiar with the passion story, so they’re not even sure what Maundy Thursday and Good Friday are all about. However, one third of the content of the gospels is related to Holy Week, and one half of the gospels takes place after Jesus “set his face” toward Jerusalem. (Make Disciple Bible Study, Companions in Christ, Christian Believer and other Bible studies a staple in your education program.)
- Many of our churches are centered more around “doing” than “being.” Attending worship four times in one week seems like a waste of valuable time that could be spent helping someone else. By emphasizing Lenten worship as the primary way we experience and respond to God’s presence and call in our lives, we slow down, become more introspective and look deep into our hearts. (How about banning all meetings during Lent except for study groups and worship?)
- We are not doing a good enough job teaching the theology of the cross. Jesus came to earth not to be a teacher or a moral example but to be our Savior. The human condition is that we are separated from God by our sin and cannot save ourselves. Knowing that God’s plan of salvation existed before eternity and using an image from the Hebrew sacrificial system, Jesus bore our sins and allowed himself to be crucified on a cross so that we could be saved from the law of sin and death. Unfortunately, our human tendency is to sanitize Holy Week by avoiding the blood, gore and “foolishness” of the cross. (How can you engage your children, youth and adults in theological discussion about the meaning of Jesus’ death?)
- We need to preach that the grace and salvation offered through the cross seek our response of repentance and faith so that we can be set free from all that holds us back from fullness of life. (What opportunities can you provide for people to ask the question, “How does my life need to change in order to live the resurrection life?)
- We fail to communicate to our congregations the cosmic proportions of the reconciliation of the cross, which has enormous implications for social and environmental justice. Jesus is the Savior of the world as well as personal Savior. Because salvation is corporate and structural as well as personal, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus involves a reordering of our world to bring peace and wholeness. (How can you make help your congregation make the Wesleyan connection between personal and social holiness?)
- We must continually remind others that the essence of God is the power of vulnerable love. If God was willing to offer up God’s only son for you and me, then how might God call us to offer countercultural, foolish, vulnerable love to our world? How might the face of our planet change if Christians around the world joined hands to seek peace, turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and care for the very least of God’s children? (Are you willing to model that vulnerable love yourself?)
I pray that, in the midst of your preparation for worship this week, God will open doors for your own spiritual growth as well. I pray that you will take advantage of the many resources available to tell the old, old story in compelling ways. I pray that we can all work together to create an inviting climate where Holy Week becomes the center of our spiritual formation in the church. Most of all, I pray that the risen Christ will show up on Easter morning in each of our churches through the preaching, music, prayers, community, and the invitation to share with all who would hear, “I have seen the Lord!”