Sunday, April 12, 2009

Dark Friday and Easter Sunday in contemporary and liturgical settings

Since our church doesn't do anything for Lent or really anything leading up to Easter Sunday, I really hadn't thought that much about preparing my heart or meditating on anything this Holy Week. The moment that first brought my attention back to the power of this celebration was on Wednesday, as I met with my group of Jr. High girls.

Ironically, we were on a totally different topic - Abraham's bargaining with God for the salvation of Sodom. As is typical with Jr. High girls, you never know where their questions will take you, and I generally go with the flow because they're much more likely to absorb the answers to questions that THEY ask rather then the answers that I feed them that they aren't already thinking about.

So - when they started asking how the nation of Israel believed and were saved before Jesus was there to believe in, I ran with it. Most of them don't have that much biblical knowledge, so I have the privilege of explaining some basics. It was one of those rare moments when I felt like the girls were fully engaged. All eyes were on me, cell phones were untouched, there was no whispering or nudging or snickering. They were intent. We talked about the burden of guilt and sin and the implementation of a sacrificial system, and the yearly sacrifice of a perfect lamb by the high priest so that unstained blood would cover the guilt of theNation.

I told them how THAT is what made it so powerful that when Jesus went to John the Baptist to be baptized, John saw him coming and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world."

THAT is what Easter, Good Friday, Passover, and Holy Week are all about. The darkness and sin and sorrow of the world, placed on the shoulder of the only man that could ever bear it. . "By His stripes, I am healed". Death conquered.

Crown him the Lord of love;
behold his hands and side,
those wounds, yet visible above,
in beauty glorified.
All hail, Redeemer, hail!
For thou hast died for me;
thy praise and glory shall not fail
throughout eternity.

What a contrast it was this week to spend Dark Friday at a Lutheran Service of Darkness and then to spend Easter morning at our contemporary church.

Our church is very contemporary, casual, and non-traditional. And large. I am sort of uncomfortable with a number of those things, but we chose the church because as a church it was very clear that they loved and worshiped God. We saw people in real community, truly knowing and loving each other, and we saw lives being changed. It is a dynamic, alive church, and that was ultimately more important to us then than our discomfort with the big stage and huge congregation.

But still, sometimes I long and ache for the traditions that we pass over, and that is why I went hunting for a liturgical service on Dark Friday (our church never mentioned Dark Friday or Lent or Palm Sunday at all!!). It was a beautiful, beautiful service at a nearby Lutheran church, called theTenebrae service. It begins with the lighting of seven candles in a dark sanctuary, and then they go through seven stages of focusing on the last phrases that Jesus spoke. At each stage a scripture is read, a song is sung, and then a candle is blown out. In the end the congregation is left in darkness, and that is how we filed out - meditating on the darkness of the of the crucifixion.

The music was gorgeous - a choir and soloists were behind us and we couldn't see them, but I have never heard a choir that was so beautiful and clear. It was old, chanted music, some of it in Latin. I loved singing some hymns, and even when we were just listening it was good. It provoked meditation.

The irony of it, though, is that while we were basking in the solemnity of the ceremony, everyone around us seemed to be sitting but not actually listening or engaging. We were the only people that I saw that were actually looking up the passages that were being read. It just seemed like no one actually cared, and I was just incredulous about that.

That contrasted with our Sunday morning service. I have to be honest and say that at points I just gritted my teeth and tried not to be too critical. It's EASTER! There is a rich tradition to draw from of hymns, readings, scripture to read, etc. But, while the liturgy and message may have felt a little shallow at points, we were surrounded by people that were effusive with joy at the resurrection of Christ, and our Pastor (in contrast to the seemingly apathetic pastor on Dark Friday) spoke passionately about how crucial the resurrection of our Lord is for our entire faith, or hope, and all of history.

Is there a balance to be found between the empty tradition and the shallow passion? Absolutely. I think both of the services we attended were somewhere in between - both catching some good things and some negative things, and that'sok . The service, after all, is not FOR the people. It is by the people to our Lord, worshipping and remembering. So, since we are imperfect people, our worship will always be incomplete.

I do miss our church in Chicago, though. The reason I got engaged with that church is really how intent they were on truly understanding the meaning of the text, the ceremony, the celebration. Sometimes they did things that were way different, sometimes they did things that were ancient and historical. Always with the intent of really, truly getting the power of the gospel. They were often very tactile, which is often very powerful.

For instance, my friend Phil put up photos from this Good Friday and Easter service on his flikr account. They show a cross up front on Good Friday, and the community going to the front, taking communion, and then (from what I can see in the photos?) writing their names on the cross with dark soot. The Easter morning photos show the cross in the center of the stage covered in soot, and then through the service, being painted white. I love the active engagement of the congregation with the symbolism of the occasion.


Kaycee said...

You write so well about topics that are on my mind. I was just thinking yesterday how I want to get involved with a church that shows some passion.

I have a flair for the dramatic and get annoyed when I'm excited about something and other people are complacent.

I think that people born and raised into religions with significant, ancient rituals are so fortunate. It always surprises me when they don't seem to care or take it seriously.

Kacie said...

So true. I think that's why the Baptist and non-denom evangelical churches grew so much in the last century. There had been a general decline in passion in the high-church and liturgical denominations, and the passion of these congregational churches drew in throngs of people with their emotion and charisma. The dedication and passion is GOOD, but now we are seeing the effects of the loss of tradition.

Rae said...

It kills me to see people sitting in church but not really there. I didn't encounter this during the Tenebrae service I attended (it was amazingly under-attended but those who were there seemed to care) but it was true of many at the Good Friday stations of the cross. As many ignored the instructions to share prayer books God used the general air of self-centeredness to convict me of my tendency to miss the whole point of the Christian life to which I am called.

I want to be part of a movement toward loving God passionately in a profound way. It is wonderful to read the thoughts of someone in a church suffering from the other side of the liturgy/love divide.