Thursday, 5 May 2011

Reflections on Holy Week

Every year churches hold special services and events which move through the stories of Jesus' last week in Jerusalem, His death on the cross and His resurrection. Sometimes, at points, it is really a bit more than one can bear. This year, for example, I went to hear an absolutely wonderful performance of Dupre's Le Chemin de la Crois given by Edmund Aldhouse at Ripon Cathedral on the evening of Good Friday and, had it been only the music, I would have coped. However, Dupre's evocative music was accompanied by the poems of Paul Claudel which inspired the composer. These were beautifully read by Loretta Williams and Simon Hoare - each one evoking a particular station of the cross and the emotions and spiritual and theological ruminations associated. Andrew Aspland had put together a visual display of a number of artists' depictions of the stations of the cross. Between the poetry (too cloying and overwrought for my taste), the art (which was deeply insighful and harrowing) and the music which led me to one of the most profound senses of journeying with Chirst I think I have ever experienced, I and a number of others, came out of the cathedral feeling we had reached a point of almost unbearable pain. That is surely where the cross of Christ leads us.

Among other vividly remembered moments from this year's Holy Week was a wonderful Tuesday evening service at Copt Hewick - a delightful little church at the centre of a tiny village. Just before we began, around twenty people arrived, including some children. Together, in that beautiful, quiet, glory-filled place overlooking the village, we meditated on the almost inexpressible idea that Christ being lifted up on a cross has power to transform our lives today.

Maundy Thursday saw us at Sharow church where the vigil after the service of Holy Communion found a tiny number of us sitting in darkness, thinking and praying and listening to the sounds of the world about us as darkness fell and we knew that, as the disciples had all crept away from Jesus, so we would creep home sooner than we needed to.

Easter Sunday saw the joy of two good sized congregations at Sharow who had clearly come to rejoice! One of the Scottish Roman Catholic bishops had been reported as denouncing secularism. We reflected that we had every cause to celebrate Jesus' resurrection - His intimation that there is life with God beyond death and a future and purpose in this life for those of us who remain when a loved one dies. We really wished the bishop had said, 'Hey everyone, we're rejoicing today and you're really welcome to come and join us if you'd like to!' The first Christians were undoubtedly known for what they were for and not what they were against. They clearly had powerful experiences of a Jesus who had transcended death. Whenever will the church re-learn the lessons that the early church learned - people are passionate about positive expressions of what we experience not about censorious judgements against unexamined and supposed evils? At the dawn service (up at 5.30am, bacon sandwiches at 7.30am!) the children and young people who had slept in church overnight told the story of God's actions in the world through drama and art. They helped us all greet the resurrection morning with a sense of hope and joy. One of my strong images of the whole week is of our priest, Peter Clement, followed by lots of children and parents, at first light, bringing the Easter candle into church and pausing to sing ' The light of Christ, thanks be to God' three times as we processed. John Coulston's singing of the glorious, ancient Easter anthem, the Exultet, was deeply moving in its simplicity and directness.

So why, or perhaps how, does all this matter?  Why do we put ourselves through all this pain; does the joy outweigh it? I suppose the answer to both those questions is 'Sometimes it feels worthwhile and other times it is a struggle which leaves us feeling curiously detatched, unmoved and barren.' I have been doing this for 23 years since I first experienced the liturgies of Holy Week during my student days as a member of the Ichthyan Singers, a Christian choir in Cambridge. We led Holy Week services in parishes, prisons and hospitals around the country. I also remember a profoundly moving Holy Week at Christ Church, Swindon where I was a placement student and we all got up in time to cycle to an ancient chapel in the park where the sun rose and shone through the East window just as the eucharistic prayer was said...and so it goes on down the years. What is the point? Well, I can only say that from the experience of walking through Holy Week, I have drawn images, metaphor, language, insight and, above all, strength to help me in moments of profound crisis and grief. I have found a poetry and wisdom that has enabled me in my nursing, my ministry and my personal life to grieve and to celebrate, to experience and speak of death, fear and desolation and to recognise healing, hope and signs of new joy. Holy Week observance is not for the faint hearted; it is a discipline that Christians enter into simply because they love Christ, but is also a profound means of finding courage to live life with intergity, joy and hope even when circumstances are full of pain and struggle.     

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