During Holy Week in the Episcopal Church and other liturgical churches, the church becomes theater. The set is built where the story of Jesus’ last days on Earth is not just read but reenacted. We take our lead from our Jewish heritage where the stories of our faith, like Passover, are not seen as ancient history but rather God’s story continuing to be lived as we live out our relationship with God. As the rabbis will tell, “When the Israelites went through the Red Sea on their way to freedom from slavery in Egypt, our feet get wet!" The beautiful story of God is always up and running as we say, “As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever."
So each year at Holy Week the set is constructed, the cast members rehearse, and the director, God’s spirit, joins us for the telling of one of the greatest dramas the world has ever known.
ACT ONE is named Palm Sunday. Playing Sunday, it is Jesus’ procession into Jerusalem for the last time. You may notice parades outside churches with people waving palm branches and singing. As we embody this procession ourselves, we, too, are caught up in this drama. God walks with us into difficult places, does not hide from truth telling, even to the point of death. Jesus’ procession came from the east into Jerusalem; it is said in direct opposition to the king’s procession that always came in from the west where the royal palace stood on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. As we parade into church we ask ourselves, which procession is ours? Is it the powerful empire parade or God’s procession for justice and peace for all citizens of the earth?
ACT TWO is shown on Maundy Thursday. This is the retelling of Jesus’ last meal with his friends before he is arrested and sentenced to death. It is the night Jesus tells them that whenever they sit down for a meal in memory of Jesus, he will be present. This is reenacted every Sunday at St. Mary’s. We remember Jesus’ promise to us, and we share a meal together and feel his presence among us.
ACT THREE is Good Friday, April 2, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. This act is offered in two showings: one on Palm Sunday, which is also called Passion Sunday, and one on Good Friday. When read on Sunday it is heard somewhat out of sequence but it is offered for those who can only attend church on Sunday so they don’t miss this crucial piece of the plot. Without Act Three, Easter Sunday loses much of its meaning.
Act Three warrants the warning: “viewer discretion advised." It is not an easy story to hear. To watch and see anyone suffer a brutal death is difficult, but there is more going on here. As we take in the scene we are in part indicted as we consider our place in the suffering and death of God and God’s gift of love to us. In the swirl of emotion brought about by violence and brutality inflicted on an innocent, there is also the wonder of the love that willingly bore the nails of this cross. God faces suffering and evil and does not turn away. Life is full of suffering. In this play we find out that where God desires to be is in the very middle of it all. At this crossroad, God meets us in our suffering, knows us in our suffering, comforts us in our suffering, not as a bystander but in the leading role.
On Holy Saturday, April 3, the theater goes dark. It is the Sabbath. There is no work. Some say you shouldn’t even pray on the Sabbath as it is God’s day off, too. But Holy Saturday is an important part of the production. It is time for stillness and preparation for what is the climax of the story. Maybe it can be seen as the intermission: a break in the action so we can catch our breath and come back for the final words.
THE FINAL ACT is Easter Day, April 4. It’s the closing act and the opening act! God is always acting in our lives. It begins at St. Mary’s at 5:30 a.m. when it is still dark. We enter our church theater with only candles to light our way. It is the tomb where we left Jesus dead at the end of Act Three.
But in God’s life, death is not the final scene. God’s story is the great reversal, the greening power of God unbounded by scorched earth or drought.
What is revealed is the things that were cast down are being raised up, things that had grown old are made new.
No tickets are needed. There is a seat saved for you. If you get there and like the theater, there is a way to hook you up with season tickets! The drama of God transforming the stage we live on is continuous, and you have already been cast in a prominent role.
Hope to see you there!
THE REV. ELIZABETH I. RECHTER is rector St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Beach.