Next week is Passion Week. Growing up Southern Baptist, we didn’t observe Passion Week. We went directly from Palm Sunday to Easter. So as a kid, one Sunday I was hearing a sermon about the great crowd welcoming Jesus as king and the next week I was hearing about his resurrection from the dead. This left me wondering, “Did something bad happen during the week that they forgot to mention?”
But more common was the Easter-combo sermon. On the most joyous day in Christendom, we would be treated to sermons describing the excruciating horrors of a crucifixion and the suffering of our Lord, with a little “But, yay, He arose,” tacked on at the end. If you don’t observe Passion Week, it’s hard to get the whole story told in one sermon.
Christmas has a great build up. We start thinking about the birth of Christ weeks in advance, with all sorts of rituals that keep us in mind of the real meaning of the holiday—as well as the festive fluff we all enjoy. For Easter, maybe a week or so beforehand you think about buying a new outfit or planning the Easter Sunday meal. And maybe you dye eggs the night before. But in general in churches like mine, the celebration of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the events around which all of history revolves, gets a day.
The liturgical churches have a great advantage here. They start preparing a good six weeks beforehand with Ash Wednesday. Then follows 40 days (not counting Sundays) of reflecting and repentance during Lent, where the suffering of Jesus is called to mind every time you have to turn down a favorite food or activity because “you gave it up for Lent.” And finally this season of preparation culminates in Passion Week.
Some churches observe “Maundy Thursday” called so for the “mandatum” or command of Jesus that we love each other. And as Jesus demonstrated that love by washing the feet of his disciples, so some churches observe the day with foot-washing services.
And then comes Good Friday. Instead of cramming the narration of the death of Jesus in with a celebration of his resurrection, liturgical churches take time to concentrate on that awful day of death with a service called “Tenebrae” meaning “darkness.” This service of darkness allows us to take time to fully reflect on each terrible step he took toward the cross and our complicity in this horror.
I have been attending a Tenebrae service at a local Lutheran church for many years. In this service we can sing those mournful songs about our sins and Christ’s shed blood—songs that really have no place on such a joyous day as Easter. But all my life in church I have been forced to sing about grief and blood and shame on Easter Sunday, because, well, when else can we sing those crucifixion songs if not on this one “passion Sunday.”
But in the service of darkness, those songs of sorrow are entirely appropriate:
Alas! and did my Savior bleed and did my sovereign die? Would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?
See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
O sacred head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down, now scornfully surrounded with thorns, your only crown.
And in this service, the passages in the Bible that describe the trial, the torture, and finally the crucifixion of Jesus are read. After each passage is read, a candle is extinguished till the room slowly becomes darker and darker and finally the “Christ candle” is removed. Then the Bible is slammed shut—it is finished! As the sound dies away in the darkness, a single candle is returned to the room as a sign of the promise of Easter. And all depart in silence. It is somber, dark, and convicting service.
Yes, something bad really did happen between the events of the triumphal entry and the empty tomb and we should take the time to think about what that was. Please, no more Passion Sundays on Easter.
As Richard John Neuhaus advises in his wonderful book Death On A Friday Afternoon: Meditations On The Last Words Of Jesus From The Cross
Do not rush to the conquest. Stay a while with this day. Let your heart be broken by the unspeakably bad of this Friday we call good…Stay awhile in the eclipse of the light, stay awhile with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.