As we prepared for Lent, I asked our regular worshippers at Wilton to think about how we usually mark Holy Week and Easter and to think afresh about the Biblical events and experiences that we are trying to capture in our services, to see if might be able to do so more effectively.
Thanks to the 40+ who took the time to write down their thoughts for me: alongside the things I’d more or less expected there were some fresh insights that I wouldn’t have thought of. Inevitably, it’s going to be quite a challenge finding a sensible course between some very different view-points! What emerged, however, were some broad themes and ideas that I hope will help steer us towards something more “do-able” for some and more profound for all of us.
It seems to me that there are five main strands within the answers you have given: Devotions, Fellowship, Walking together, Children, and Music and meditation.
Firstly then, devotions: A number of you would like to see Stations of the Cross and “Experience Easter” as clergy-led groups activities. And, by contrast, a number of people mentioned the creation of a Prayer Labyrinth and other opportunities for private devotions. The notion of Contemplative Prayer – of simply “being still in the presence of the Lord” – also has an appeal to some of you, if we can find the right time.
Secondly – Fellowship – and in particular eating together. Some kind of shared meal on Maundy Thursday was suggested by a surprising number of you. It was further suggested that this might include some of the elements of the usual service, such as the washing of feet to recreate Jesus’ actions, and could possibly end with a simple Eucharist. The appeal of walking together appeared in various guises: to those of you who made the Midnight Pilgrimage last year, I have to say that 3 of you really enjoyed that experience and wish to repeat it – whereas for the rest of the group, once was enough – AND, in some case, MORE than enough! The desire to do something like it is clearly expressed, however, and somewhere within the Easter season we might a more rewarding route and time to do this..
And for those who can’t walk far – there’s the indoor pilgrimage of Experience Easter. Other powerful comments related to both the Palm Sunday procession and also to the Good Friday Procession of Witness – and meeting together with the Baptist congregation at both. There’s clearly a strong sense among many of us that, in stepping out into the public eye – witnessing to our faith and risking whatever reaction we provoke – we in some way identify ourselves with both the loyalty of those who stood by Jesus to the bitter end and also the inadequacy of those who fled. Lots of things kicking around there – and plenty of food for thought.
On to children – and how we make some sense of it all for them. We DO already in fact attempt to relate the Easter story not only the 130 something children at our school but also the Beavers and Cubs. But what about families coming together? Although Palm Sunday last year was rather more “inclusive” than previously – with its focus on joyful expectation, rather than the gloom of the long Passion Gospel – there was really nothing else geared towards parents and children together, until Easter Sunday morning. Room for improvement there I think.
Music and meditation are intertwined – not least because the one service that drew almost universal appreciation was the “Last Hour” on Good Friday afternoon. Here it was the combination of good music, sung by the choir, of Scripture and the opportunity to reflect and to feel close to God that really helped a number of you: I have heard loud and clear that the previous format – with the veneration of the cross – was not what many of you wanted to see: and in any case, the Cathedral can do that so much better! So why compete when we can offer something different?
All those elements need to find their way into what we do this Eastertide – and I’m already working towards what I hope will be a better shape for our services and devotions this year. Of course I – and you – will be relying on other people to make it all work – choir/servers/readers/ringers/clergy/sidespersons and I need to have a number of conversations before I can gauge quite what will be possible. A definitive overview of services and events will be published mid-March. I deliberately called this survey “Journey towards Easter” – so that we could see it as a preparation for Easter, not just a reciting of personal preferences. And of course that journey has begun.
Lent, we heard on Ash Wednesday, is a season of self -denial and self-discovery, as we recall Jesus’ time in the wilderness. And, as we engage with that process of preparation, it’s worth taking a moment to think back to this gospel from the First Sunday in Lent – and Jesus’ baptism. As he comes up out of the water, we read, “the Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness.” That’s a strong phrase – to be driven out. And the original Greek verb εκβαλλει is even less delicate – suggesting him being thrown out, or hurled into the wilderness. We’re more used to thinking of the Spirit as “the comforter” – one who sustains us in our weakness – not one who drives us into the hard places. So perhaps there’s an important point being made – that sometimes, in order to understand ourselves – and in order to understand God’s will for us – we DO need to be taken away from what we know – certainly from what we know we like or think we depend on.
As we journey towards Easter then, perhaps we could make good use of the time to ask ourselves what we really do know – about the events of Easter and how they inform our faith. How well do we understand what it is we are trying to re-create and experience in our church services? How well do we really know the gospel accounts – and how much do we only half-know from hymns or Sunday school stories of long ago? Could we all make time to look again at the gospels this Lent – to re-read the four different accounts of the events leading up to Easter? And perhaps to make a note of where the different gospel writers agree or disagree with each other – then to see if we can understand what they were getting at. We might also begin to get a better picture of the human beings who marked those final days and weeks with Jesus – and so begin to understand what they can teach us about him and about ourselves.
And if we can find time to do that – to read, think and pray our way through the four Gospel accounts – then I hope and pray that, whatever schedule of services we end up with, we will enter Holy week with a deeper understanding, with greater expectations and with a greater sense of journeying together – and that the joy of Easter will then shine in and through us all.