I must admit that I have been seriously thinking about writing letters to our local school boards. Not about the kinds of things people usually write to school boards about, but about the way in which they schedule Spring vacation. Here, where I live, it seems to be a long-standing practice to schedule Spring vacation to coincide with Holy Week.
Last year, my first Easter in Menlo Park, I assumed that the coincidence was simply because Easter happened to fall in March. Then, when the calendar for this Spring was published, low and behold Spring vacation had moved a month later, to again coincide with Holy Week. It is interesting to me that when I live in Tennessee — the buckle of the Bible belt — Spring vacation always happened at the same time in March, which meant that sometimes it matched Holy Week but often it did not. Yet here in Northern California, where “church” is generally discussed in hushed tones if at all, our local schools are still making their calendars with an eye on Easter!
Part of my irritation with this is admittedly personal: as long as this practice persists, my family and I will never get a real Spring vacation, unless we make the decision to take our kids out of school for a week after Easter. Less selfishly, however, is the unfortunate effect this has on my fellow followers of Jesus who also have kids in school. They are forced to choose between staying home and observing the Holy Week services or going away and most likely missing them (though, they could find churches near their vacation sites….). Most of the time, in people’s calculations, Holy Week loses.
And that is too bad. Because the Holy Week cycle of services — Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil on Saturday and then Easter Sunday — have an ancient design that is meant to lead us through a deeply meaningful and transformative encounter with God in Christ. Each of these days, and the services that go with them, help us encounter the mystery of Christ in different ways.
Palm Sunday, particularly the Liturgy of the Palms that opens the service in The Episcopal Church and many others, leads us into the joy that the first followers of Jesus experienced when they believed he was going to enter Jerusalem to begin a earthly revolution. That joy quickly turns to disappointment and then anger when Jesus’ actions don’t match those expectations, and the cheering crowds are transformed into jeering mobs calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Maundy Thursday moves us from the crowds to the intimate circle of Jesus’ followers, sharing with him in the Last Supper as he tries to get them to understand that one of their number will betray him, leading to his arrest and execution. He tries to prepare them for this betrayal, and to leave them with a sense of hope that this betrayal and his death will not be the final word. But the service of that evening ends with the stripping of all adornment from the sanctuary and in darkness.
Good Friday can really be thought of as the memorial service for Jesus. It brings us face to face with his death and with the way in which that death was brought about. As well as bringing us face to face with the continuing injustices of the world that, in many ways, crucify the oppressed.
Then, the Great Vigil of Easter moves us from darkness into light with the baptism of new followers and the proclamation of Easter – a light and celebration that is extended into the morning light of Easter Day.
Each of these services is about more than the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Most importantly, they are about the life, death and resurrection of us. Palm Sunday should bring us face to face with those times in our own lives when we have gone from cheering to jeering, allowing ourselves to be overcome by anger and its destructive affects on ourselves and others. Maundy Thursday brings us face to face with the ways we have betrayed ourselves and others, and with the ways in which we ourselves have been betrayed. It puts us in touch with our brokenness, our yearning for wholeness. It is a place where healing can begin.
Good Friday, of course, puts us in touch with our own losses and invites us to consider how we have been a part of injustice. It brings us face to face with the hollowness and emptiness we sometimes experience. But Good Friday moves into Holy Saturday and, ultimately, to the Great Vigil. That service reminds us that God has always been present in all of these moments, even when we cannot see that presence. And all of this time, God has been offering us God’s grace to lead us back into wholeness, into new life. The promise of that new life for us is renewed as we witness the baptisms of others, and we celebrate it joyously on Easter morning.
So the Holy Week services are really designed as spiritual therapy. As we meditate on the key events in Jesus’ life so long ago, so we are put in touch with the fact that these events also represent the pattern of our own lives. The services help us to experience this pattern with greater intensity, and to recognize God’s presence within the pattern. These services call us to deep spiritual work, and all of it culminates in joy, hope and new life.
So, for now, anyway, here in Menlo Park, the school calendars won’t cooperate with us parents. A sign, perhaps, of the way in which our secular lives can sometimes become barriers to our spiritual lives. The school calendar also calls for us to make a choice, however; to decide where our priorities are to be found.
Wherever you find yourselves this Holy Week, I hope you won’t let the sacred days pass by unnoticed. Seek out a Maundy Thursday and Good Friday service, consider attending an Easter Vigil, and, yes, there’s still Easter Day. Is it a lot of church going? Well, yes. But it is the most meaningful church going of your life.
May you find the blessings waiting for you this year in Holy Week and Easter.