So this is the beginning of Holy Week. Let me put this right at the start. The theme for this week for me is ‘ambivalence’. But before you get too critical saying ‘What, a priest ambivalent about Holy Week!!??’ let me explain.
The first sense I have of Holy Week is one of passion and desire. I am thinking of Andrew Marvell’s poem ‘To His Coy Mistress’ where, toward the end he says to her “Let us roll all our strength and all Our sweetness up into one ball …” That is how I feel about Holy Week. It is the absolute, without doubt the best thing that I or the Church can offer. It is the one time of the year when the idea of ‘no holding back’ is the touchstone.
I remember Christmas thirty years ago. The complaint of my priest about our Midnight Eucharist was that of the 250 people who would come, many of them would be alcohol affected. I should be so lucky! Now, at Christmas we accommodate ourselves, necessarily, to our increasing age and the falling away of religious observance. We no longer have ‘Midnight Mass’ but 8.00 pm Mass.
But not at Easter!!! Somewhere there has to be a time in the Church’s life when we say ‘This takes priority. This is our main thing. This is what it is all about. This is the thing around which all of the rest of life is organised. This is where we do not compromise. This is why the Watch of the passion will not stop at midnight or 10.00 pm or some other time other than at 9.00 am on Good Friday. This is why there is one time of the year when open weeping is more the norm in Church than the exception. This is why the Easter Vigil will be at 11.00 pm and not at 8.00 pm.
Then there is the preparation. I love it. Each day has some different decoration. Each day has a completely different ‘look and feel’ because of the worship that we offer, and the way that the decoration reflects this. This takes a lot of time and preparation. But it is in this physical work, like a sacrament, that the freedom given to me as a priest to spend time in the sanctuary, is made concrete. In Holy Week not much other work is done except thinking about and preparing for Easter Church. What a joy.
At every other time of year, we are thinking about who we have, how we can encourage them to come, how we can change to make it easier for them and so on. This is necessary then because in trying to be a ‘missionary congregation’ we are trying to engage with a great group of people who are not yet as committed as we might like. We are serving them. ‘But not at Easter’ I say. How are we ever going to get a sense of the depths of God, if all we ever do is play in the liturgical shallows. How can we convey a sense of what it means to be ‘plunged into Christ’ (Baptized) if all we ever do is paddle on the shores of the baptismal waters. How can we get that sense ourselves if all we ever do is juggle worship life around the gaps in an already full calendar. What does it matter how tired we will be after Easter, when we will have come near to God in the best way we know how during it?
This opportunity to ‘plunge into Christ’ at Easter is not ‘salvation by works’ but the chance to express some of the love and sweetness at the depth at which it is experienced. Like the woman who spent a whole years wages on a bottle of perfume for Jesus’ feet, for me Holy Week is my bottle of perfume. I am going to pour it out no matter who comes, or not. This is not a time for ‘mix and match’ or ‘pick your favourite service’ but of plunging into the whole of the story, so that the whole of the story can wash through you and me, once more.’
But the other side of this desire is the awareness of just how far away from a genuine true and pure love of God I am. I come to holy week aware of the fractures in my relationships that rise up and accuse me. I come being aware of my own internal fractures that make me overly defensive, that make me ‘weep over my own shortcomings with loathing’, I am aware that despite all the prayer and pleading I can offer, some of these fractures just don’t go away, so I come to holy week feeling like a fraud. As Bonhoeffer asks in his poem ‘Who am I’ ‘Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?’
So the ‘best thing’ has to be offered in the knowledge that I am not, and may not be ‘my best’ during Easter. I remember one Maundy Thursday being horribly depressed, but going to the Chrism Eucharist any way. I said to the bishop ‘It is one thing to ‘remember’ Christ’s crucifixion. It is another thing to have a bit of it during Easter!’ That is the other side of Easter life that goes toward making Holy Week an ambivalent time for me.
And the other side of the joy of preparation is the anxiety about the rosters! How lovely it is to hear people say ‘Yes, I’ll be more than happy to come to a practice. Yes, I’ll do that.’ It takes a lot of juggling, and putting on. How anxious I get when I’m not sure who is going to be there!
The other thing about my ambivalence is that in the ‘juggling of rosters’ and the awareness I have of my own fractured self, that this anxiety and fractured-ness will come out in my being less than patient, less than kind and loving, so that the thing I want to show forth most, is the way I am the least!. That makes the anticipation of holy week a bit scary for me.
When I was parish priest in Bulleen, Melbourne, I think back to what I might regard as my ‘best thing’. The people said ‘Before, we used to say ‘I’m going away for Easter, sorry, I won’t be there. After ten years as priest people will say ‘What!!? You’re going away for Easter? You must be crazy!!’
The knowledge of this vessel into which all our love and sweetness can be rolled up and poured is due to the whole Church’s keeping of it’s knowledge alive and in particular to the Anglican version of it that I learned. The dedication in putting it on I ‘caught’ from my ‘fathers’ in the faith beginning in 1979 at East Malvern, and later in Geelong.
This Easter all that I am will be offered to God ‘just as I am without one plea.’