Holy Week: Telling Our Shared Story
In a 2021 conversation, Richard Lischer and Will Willimon reflected on observing Holy Week during the pandemic. Though the shadow of the pandemic has receded more this Holy Week, their observations still ring true. Lischer observes, “During Holy Week, church is a family telling its stories.” Beginning with Palm Sunday and walking through the events of Jesus’s Passion—through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday—Holy Week confronts us with the central story of our faith, shaping us as we tell it. “Faced with a story so demanding,” Willimon responds, “the church has got to stop what it’s doing and listen, allowing this story to have its say…Most preachers are careful not to tell the same story twice; this one we repeat every year. The Passion re-creates us as a people of the cross.”
This is a story the whole church shares, regardless of an individual congregation’s denomination or practice. Because of this, Holy Week provides congregations an opportunity to be intentional and creative about their storytelling and opens doors for congregations to partner with other churches. In recent interviews with the MRC, Dr. Tim Ross, pastor at Hopwood Christian Church in Johnson City, TN, and Dr. Steve Page, pastor at Central Holston Christian Church in Bristol, TN, shared how their congregations have approached Holy Week. They have creatively told and re-told the story of Holy Week, also experiencing it as an invitation to fellowship, worship with, and learn from other congregations.
“During Holy Week, church is a family telling its stories.”
Both Hopwood and Central Holston engage in diverse practices of storytelling, inviting the congregation to participate in the sacred story with all their senses. “Holy Week for us in the Hopwood congregation is a little different each year,” Ross shares. But both Hopwood and Central Holston follow a basic format of a Palm Sunday and a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. Ross describes the Palm Sunday service at Hopwood: “We have our congregation start the service outside for scripture and all march in with our palms waving, depositing the palms at the front of the church. The service pivots from Palms to Passion, and we often hear a dramatic reading of the events of Good Friday, setting up the themes of the week.”
Later in the week, both congregations hold a Maundy Thursday service. Maundy, derived from the Latin word we translate as “commandment,” refers to Jesus’s command to love one another. This command was exemplified by Jesus washing his disciples’ feet before his death (John 13). The Maundy Thursday service is a time to commemorate Jesus’s final moments before the crucifixion. Often, Hopwood will hold a foot washing service, in which members of the congregation wash one another’s feet, following the example of Jesus. This service, Ross states, “makes reconciliation visible.” Both Central Holston and Hopwood have also followed the traditional Tenebrae service (from the Latin meaning “darkness”) on either Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. Page describes this service: “Several texts, which trace the steps of Jesus from his celebration of Passover with his disciples to his crucifixion, are read from a selected Gospel. As each “scene” unfolds, pre-lit candles placed on the communion table are subsequently snuffed out. The service concludes with the account of Jesus’ death and the extinguishing of a ‘Christ Candle,’ followed by moment of silence and dismissal.” In the extinguishing of the candles, members of the congregation experience the darkness of Jesus’s suffering and death. “The service, occurring so close to Easter Sunday,” Page shares, “helps to emphasize the stark contrast between Jesus’ death on Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday; a contrast indicative of our own lives, having put our faith in Christ.”
In addition to a Tenebrae service, Hopwood has also held a Stations of the Cross service on Good Friday. In this service, participants move “on a meditative journey following the steps of Christ” on his way to the cross. Starting with the Last Supper and ending with Jesus’s burial, fourteen stations follow Jesus’s final moments through artwork, prayer, scripture reading, and song. Participants stop at each station to read the scripture corresponding to that station, meditate on the artwork related to it, and pray. While many churches hold their Stations of the Cross services inside the sanctuary, Hopwood has utilized the land around the church to create a walking meditation. This service was especially significant during Covid, when Hopwood was not meeting indoors.
“The service, occurring so close to Easter Sunday, helps to emphasize the stark contrast between Jesus’ death on Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday; a contrast indicative of our own lives, having put our faith in Christ.”
Another way both Hopwood and Central Holston have creatively told the story of the events of Holy Week is by hearing it from diverse voices. For example, Ross shares that devotions for Holy Week services are often prepared by members of the congregation. This has taken the form of published Lenten devotionals as well as meditations shared at a Good Friday service. One year, seven members of the congregation provided meditations on the “seven last words of Christ.” Similarly, Page shared that this year, members of the congregation were more involved in leadership of their Ash Wednesday service, leading prayers and reading scripture. He plans to incorporate more voices from the congregation into their Maundy Thursday service this year as well.
Both Ross and Page encourage congregations to use Holy Week services as a time to hear from new voices. “Include groups that don’t usually get to lead,” Ross recommends. Artwork for Hopwood’s Stations of the Cross service often comes from artists in the congregation, including children and young adults. Musicians, writers, and actors are also encouraged to use their gifts for these services. One year, Ross shared, the Easter sunrise service was written and led entirely by the women of the church. Page echoes this sentiment: “Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services present a (mostly) rare opportunity for church leaders to involve members of the congregation, and from every age group. The value of others (outside of staff) participating in hands-on ways cannot be overstated. Find ways for others (other than the ‘professionals’) to be involved.”
Not only is Holy Week an opportunity to hear from new voices within the congregation; it is also a time to hear from voices outside the congregation. Part of Hopwood’s Holy Week practice has been to partner with other congregations to tell the story all Christians share, regardless of denomination. This has taken many forms for Hopwood: sharing a Holy Saturday Easter vigil with the Episcopal church in town, joining with other congregations for a Stations of the Cross march through downtown Johnson City. One of the most meaningful partnerships has been with a local alliance of African American churches. Hopwood has joined them for their Holy Week services for almost twenty years. In these services, participants have dramatically enacted the Passion, sang, prayed, and washed one another’s feet. Ross shares, “our washing each other’s feet provides powerful witness to the barrier-breaking goodness of the gospel.” These shared services have also been a place of learning and growth for the Hopwood congregation. As Ross notes, “I also find our African American friends skilled in knowing how to grieve, how to bear up under injustice, and how to celebrate the Savior’s death and resurrection.” Partnering with other churches for Holy Week can be a vital reminder of our shared “family story,” especially significant in our divisive culture.
“Our washing each other’s feet provides powerful witness to the barrier-breaking goodness of the gospel.”
“We believe the events of Easter Sunday can mean more when Jesus’ journey to the cross during Holy Week is fresh on our minds,” remarks Page. However, both Page and Ross acknowledge the difficulties of introducing Holy Week services to those who are less familiar with them. Page confesses, “Some church parishioners may be ‘put off’ by or uninterested in ‘formal’ worship services most often practiced by a handful of ‘high brow’ denominational congregations. Therefore,” he advises, “stress the ‘uniqueness’ of Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday services. Present the services as opportunities for spiritual reflection, spiritual decisions, and the renewal of faith commitments.” Ross recommends replacing traditional titles for these services with plainer ones if that helps your congregation.
The advice both give for introducing Holy Week services: start small. Ross suggests beginning with one service and moving from there, while Page stresses the importance of keeping services simple and short. As congregants come to appreciate these services as sites for spiritual growth and formation, ministers can build from that beginning to incorporate more elements or services. Setting aside this week as a holy time for reflection and gathering, remarks Page, “helps prepare us for the gift of victory over death accomplished by Jesus on Easter Sunday.” By the end of this hard, holy Week, we can more fully rejoice with the angels, “He is risen! Easter has come!”
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