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Highest, Most Holy

Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24

Romans 6: 3-11

Wednesday in Lent - Week 5

April 6, 2022

Highest, Most Holy



In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let’s review. The four fold liturgy is made up of Gathering, word, meal, and sending. This week, we are going to wrap up our time, not our discussions because there is a lot we still need to discuss and learn, we are going to wrap up our time together talking about C and E. Christmas and Easter.

To be honest, there is not much to say about Christmas. There is no appointed liturgy but if you mess up worship, then you have ruined Christmas. Christmas is one of these weird seasons that is wrapped up in some much tradition of a particular place. Do you use a setting of Holy communion or replace the liturgical music with Christmas carols? When do you do the candle lighting? Beginning, middle, or end? Most places like the end, but honestly that doesn't make much sense liturgically. When do we focus on the light in evening prayer? Yet on Christmas Eve, we do it at the end? And do you end with Silent Night or Joy to the World?

There is a lot of tradition around Christmas and that is a good and holy thing. However, there is danger in that as well. We make it a point to honor past traditions, but Pastor Diane and I have our own gifts and traditions that are important to us. When a congregation is so wed to this nostalgic view of the past, we could do everything exactly like it was in the past and that would still not be good enough. I kind of wish there was a liturgy for Christmas Eve like there is is for Holy Week. Then I could say, "Well, I'm sorry you didn't find worship meaningful, I just did what was in the Lutheran Hymnal.” But there isn't and so, left to our own devices, we Christians have a lot of personal ideas around Christmas that can be both a gateway to encountering the babe of Bethlehem and a stumbling block especially to those who are wed to a past that can never be matched or repeated. We put a lot of attention on Christmas, but Easter is really where it is at for Christians.

Dr. Mark Oldenburg, our liturgy professor as well as the preacher at our wedding, back in 2015 taught a class on the different seasons of the church year. To teach a class on this subject matter, one needs a book, but to be honest, there is not many books out there that really talk about the theology of Holy Week from the perspective of a Lutheran theologian/pastor. So Dr. Oldenburg wrote one, but never published it. My wife, who was the associate director of admissions at LTSG at the time, convinced him to share a copy with me and I have used this book to prepare for Holy Week ever since 2015.

In order to understand Holy Week and why we do the things that we do, we first must understand the season of Pascha as it relates to the Jewish season called Pesach, passover in English. "The Christian Pasch began, as far as we can tell, as the only annual festival specifically for the Christian assembly, when the Jewish-Christians met after the Seder for an all night vigil. With the rest of Israel, they had gathered as families to hear of their liberation from Egypt and their birth as a nation, with all the interplay of light and darkness, fire and water, despair and hope and triumph of that story...All through the night they read and sang and prayed, telling the whole story of Jesus, from annunciation, through birth and baptism, through ministry, through betrayal and suffering and death, through rising and appearing and ascending, to sending the Spirit and promising to come again. They closed the vigil with the great Meal at cockcrow, proclaiming the victorious and life-giving death of Jesus, and awaiting eagerly his final return." The Pesach and the pascha, while very different, are similar in that they are more than just a recreation of past events. Just like the Pesach for the Jewish people reminds them not so much of the angel passing over and smiting the first born of those who did have lamb's blood on the doorpost, but more so of the passing from slavery into freedom, The Pascha is meant to draw us into the word, connect us to the passion and resurrection of Jesus, and show us that we are more than just actors in some divine play; that we are all active participants in the story of God saving the world through the cross of Christ. Lent cannot be separated from the triduum. If you have been fully participating in Lent but skip next week, you risk, what Dr. Oldenburg calls, "fatal distortion." He says, “As long as baptism and reconciliation are intimately connected with the death and resurrection of Christ, Lent must be a time of preparation for the Triduum..."

So, Holy week begins with Palm/Passion Sunday. Now, if you are of a certain era, you probably remember Palm Sunday standing alone and Passion Sunday being held on the fifth Sunday in Lent. I believe that is how the SBH handled it. In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church revised its lectionary which then spurred other church bodies, like the Lutherans to follow suit. By 1978 when the LBW was released, most Lutheran churches had moved away from the one year lectionary cycle and adopted what we are using today. With these revisions came a change in how the passion is read. It went from having its own Sunday to being added in conjunction with Palm Sunday. When I started in ministry, with great naiveté, I was bound and determined to fix this “problem” in the lectionary. I even announced this in one of my high church Lutheran groups that I was a part of back then. Thankfully, some of the more seasoned members stopped me and taught me a valuable lesson in being humble: There are reasons why church leaders moved the reading of the passion narrative from the Sunday before to Palm Sunday.

  1. Holy Week Attendance was declining even back then. They saw the writing on the wall. People would go from hearing Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem to him conquering the grave Missing out on all the real important stuff

  2. Every time we gather, we celebrate Christ crucified. The passion narrative should be proclaimed every week the congregation gathers.

  3. The reading of the passion really sets the tone for the remainder of the week. Our focus is turned from the human expression of conquering to the divine expression of conquering. Jesus wins the war against death not by taking down the mighty empire of Rome with clubs and swords. Rather, he wins the war through his death on the cross.

So, we begin this day outside and march triumphantly into our sanctuary singing one of my favorite hymn: All Glory Laud and honor. One of my favorite verses, which was not included and has been surpassed since the 17th century but since I am the pastor, we do it:

Be thou, O Lord the rider and we the little mule that to God's holy city together we may pass.

So much of Palm/Passion Sunday is the reminder that we are the ones who betrayed Jesus. But remember, we are more than just actors. Being a participant means that we are both Christ betrayers as well as the donkey who carried our Lord as people cheered, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

After Palm Sunday (and know there is much more to say and I just don't have the time to do so) the first day we come to in the Triduum is Maundy Thursday. Remember my rant from a few weeks ago about the ELW's militant view of Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending and that all the worship services, including liturgies that have been said for centuries, had to fit into this mold. The version of Maundy Thursday that the ELW has took out so much and made it like any other worship service. But Maundy Thursday is different and the liturgy should reflect the somber and beauty of the night. It is why I haven't used the ELW for Maundy Thursday for a very long time. Instead, I usually use the liturgy from the LBW.

  • It begins with a hymn, though that can be skipped. However, Lutherans love to sing so why would anyone ever skip that.

  • We then have the sermon. Now if you just went, "What!?!? Sermon at the beginning before the lessons" Yeah, it is weird, but by putting the sermon at the beginning, two things happen.

  • The Maundy Thursday sermon becomes a teaching tool. It prepares you for what you will see over the next two days.

  • By having the sermon at the beginning, we can now focus on the three mandates, mandatumes: Confession, Communion, and Foot Washing.

  • First Confession. Not only is there public/corporate confession, but there individual absolution...

  • Of course their is the eucharist--the famous of all the mandates, but there is a third...

  • Now, I know a lot of Lutherans get freaked out by the foot washing. Let me tell you something, it is no picnic for myself. Yet, I am always convicted every Maundy Thursday as I read appointed gospel, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” Foot washing, when done right, is a powerful thing to witness and experience, but also plain weird. But it is the weird that we typically see God. Most congregations who do foot washing do it either two ways:

  1. Open it up to anybody and everybody (This is what we did in seminary, but instead of the presiding minister doing all the work, we all took turns. You get your feet washed and then you wash the person who came after you)

  2. or you select a group of people to represent the entire congregation. Foot washing symbolizing your promise to care for the needs of others.

  • When you sit up here and have your feet wash, you make a promise before God and all of us that you will vow to serve your neighbor as Christ served his disciples through sacrificial, (agape) love.

  • Following all of this, we sing a hymn, the same one we will sing in just a few moments. It is an old, old hymn dating back to 1200's and is attributed to Thomas Aquinas. This is one of those things that has been done for nearly 1000 years...who am I to break the tradition. It is filled some wonderful reminders of all we have seen and heard as well as a preparation for what awaits us--Christ stripped of his glory and handed over.

  • During the stripping of the Altar, Psalm 22 is either said or chanted. The color of this night, white, is a stark foretaste of Easter that is quickly stripped away and the entire sanctuary is left bare.

  • I know some congregations like the tradition of putting black on the altar, but to me, that takes away from the stark contrast of how we leave the church on Maundy Thursday. When you come back in on Friday, nothing has changed, in fact, it has grown darker.

Now, Good Friday in the the Lutheran tradition really has only two requirements: Read the passion according to John (John is always used for festival days) and pray the bidding prayers. Anything else that we do is adiaphora. The procession of the cross and the sequential adoration of the cross is good right, and salutary, but it is not necessary. The solemn reproaches, which good, right and salutary, are again not necessary. When you come on Good Friday, be sure to read the rubrics about those things. There is a lot of good explanations in there about why we are doing those things in the Good Friday bulletin, but really the focus is on the passion according to St. John and the bidding prayers.

The bidding prayers themselves are made up of two parts:

  1. The assisting minister bids the congregation to pray for a certain thing... "Let us pray for _______." There is a time of silence and during this silence, you should spend that time silently praying for whatever the assisting minister says.

  2. The presiding minister concludes our individual time of prayer with a corporate prayer.

Sometimes we call the Good Friday liturgy Tenebrae, but that is not 100% true. Tenebrae is a service, traditionally done on Spy Wednesday that has 14 different readings. It is like a college prep course. It prepares us for the Triduum. During Tenebrae, a large candelabra like thing called a hearse is used and as you go through each reading, you extinguish a candle. We do something similar on Good Friday with the reading of the gospel of John, but it is not Tenebrae. I think it better to say, "A liturgy based on the prayer service Tenebrae."

At the end of the service, we have something called can great noise, strepitus, where a large white candle, which was carried in at the beginning of the service is brought back out as a reminder that we leave worship not in sorrow but in joy, for we know the end of the story. Christ conquers the grave. It is why the last words we say as a corporate body are: We adore you O Christ and we bless for by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. We leave with our heads held low but our hearts filled with hope because we know in a few short hours, the night we walk out into will lead to a new day.

Which brings us to the final part of the three part worship service. The vigil. The Easter Vigil is the oldest liturgy we have in the church today. The church was doing the Easter Vigil long before we were doing Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. The reason we started doing Maundy Thursday and Good Friday was because of Constantine converted the Roman empire to Christianity. No longer could the church teach the faith as it had for 300 years where new converts were brought into the church during the 40 days leading up Easter and were catechized, taught the faith. Instead, the church developed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as a way to teach the faith to large groups of people as well as remind current Christians of the story that changed the world.

However, the vigil remained because it was still highly effective at not only helping people see how God long foretold how he would save the world, it also gives Christians something to do because we are an impatient people. We like gathering early before a festival. It is why we gather on Christmas Eve. The vigil is when the church gathers around scripture with joyful expectation of what is to come. We start in Genesis and we work our way through 12 other assigned readings as well as 12 responses. Today, if a pastor would do all 12 readings plus the 12 responses, they would be looking for a new job next week. The reason for 24 lessons is because the vigil was suppose to last all night. Now a days, most congregations only do two or three, which is okay. It is better to have people experience the vigil than be turned off. But before we get to the readings, we start with fire, called the new fire. The church starts outside, lights a fire, blesses the paschal candle, lights it and then guides the congregation inside. Now, most of the rubrics say that the readings should be done in a different place as a way to build up excitement. Hence, we will start our vigil in the chapel.

After the readings, we then move in the sanctuary, but before we do that, we gather in the entry way and remember our baptism. It was through baptism that early converts were physically brought into church, we also remember, before we enter the sanctuary that it was through our baptism, that we entered the church as well. The liturgy then moves the congregation back to their pews and the paschal greeting is proclaimed. The sanctuary, which is still bare, is dressed and the altar furnishings, which were removed on Maundy Thursday, are returned to their places. The congregation sings a hymn of praise and then we read the gospel according to John and hear about Mary at the tomb. I love the vigil and if you have never experienced it, you seriously need to come this year. We are not doing 24 readings--only two. It is something everyone should experience.

Honestly though, you need to do all three days. Every year, I am physically moved to tears at the Easter Vigil as I read the gospel. Having actively participated in three days of God's Word, taken an active role in the retelling of the time that God saved the world, I am moved to tears as Jesus calls out to Mary, who at this moment is stuck in a moment of grief. Every year, I/we feel share in that moment of grief with Mary and are brought back to life and are given hope because death has lost its sting forever.

As we approach these three days, I hope you find a way to actively participate, to not just be an actor, but to see yourself as not only the one crying our crucifixion, but are the mules carrying our Lord; you are not only Judas betraying our Lord, but you are Peter too vowing to follow Jesus to the bitter end; that you are not only the priest riling up the crowd before Pilate, but you are also the women who meet Christ on the road; that we are not only the disciples huddled in fear, but we are also Mary standing at the tomb looking for Jesus.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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