A Wonderfully Irrelevant Holy Week
by Jon Camp
appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest.
It’s the Great Vigil of Easter, and I’m standing with other worshippers near the back of the Nave, my gaze fixed on the baptismal font, where several souls have just received baptism. We sing a baptismal hymn and watch the newly baptized process down the aisle, from the modest light of the Narthex toward the increasingly dark front of the Nave, where only their candles remain visible. Further in the darkness, beyond the dim silhouettes of worshippers, is the vague outline of the altar, where on Maundy Thursday the priests had stripped the altar of everything while we sat in silence. The music to this point has been subdued, simple, ancient, as chanting has taken the place of singing. More silence.
Suddenly, the Nave is awash in light, and the voice proclaims, “Christ the Lord is risen!” The organ comes to life, the altar is arrayed in color. Once again, I am caught off guard, caught up in transcendent Resurrection reality, “rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the Kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). We respond, “Christ the Lord is risen INDEED!”
If I could sum up my experience of Holy Week liturgy in one word, it would be irrelevant. I mean that as a compliment. What happens at these gatherings exists wholly outside other experiences I have; there’s just no connection, no relevance to anything else, nor any attempt to be relevant. Wave palm branches in procession? Wash someone’s feet? Walk the Stations of the Cross? These are not cool, trendy, relevant things to do. But no other communal experience ushers me physically, emotionally, and spiritually into those moments we read about in the Gospel passion narratives.
Nothing against relevant church services! We obviously need to worship in a way that is intelligible and that speaks meaningfully to our culturally-shaped sensibilities. There can be great comfort worshipping in a style that connects to our lived experiences. The diverse, global expressions of worship reveal to us the divine tapestry God is knitting together. But if the goal is always the most relevant worship all the time, then we might become a little too comfortable, and fashion a self-serving faith limited to our earthly concerns. That is always the temptation.
But Holy Week liturgy jars me out of that comfortable relevance, and instead presents a crisis for all I consider to be relevant. I can’t make the liturgy fit neatly into what is going on with Ukraine or with inflation, with my job or with my family. Rather, the liturgy challenges me to reassess all of that in light of the death, burial, and resurrection. It is as though, through the liturgy, Christ himself reaches down and grabs me by the shoulders and looks me straight in the eye, and says, “I have some things to show you. Can I have your attention?”