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Caught up in the drama

17 April 2014

Holy Week can be a busy time for the laity as well as the clergy. Caroline Chartres charts a personal pathway through the opportunities to be holy


Re-enactment: each year the Wintershall Passiontakes placein Trafalgar Square

Re-enactment: each year the Wintershall Passiontakes placein Trafalgar Square

HOW do you put the "holy" into Holy Week - the holiest days in the Christian calendar? The extensive smorgasbord of services on offer reinforces the secular view that "This must be your busy time, Vicar" (as if the clergy do nothing between Easter and Christmas, apart from the occasional Sunday service).

Holy Week starts with Palm Sunday and the favourite ecclesiastical audio-visual aid: not just palm branches and palm crosses. but live donkeys.

These are usually imported on the grounds that they engage children's interest - which they do, although the interest tends to be chiefly in whether the donkey will leave a steaming deposit on the church floor, and the Palm Sunday procession is frequently followed by a character (not readily identifiable from the Gospels) bearing a large shovel.

Evidence from the Church Times suggests a decreasing number of advertisements for Holy Week and Easter services, but no fewer services, and certainly no smaller congregations. St Paul's is not the only cathedral to experience a steady increase in worshippers, with the huge attendance at some of the Easter services rivalling Advent, and even Christmas.

Nor is there any shortage of options, from "high" churches offering the more traditional ritual observances to Evangelical Good Friday services that include "commissioned video, various multimedia elements, and opportunity for prayer".

Among our sister Churches, Westminster Cathedral warns prospective penitents that "the queue for confessions will be closed up to 30 minutes before the end of the times listed. . . Please arrive at the Cathedral in good time to avoid disappointment."

By no means all the offerings are liturgical: musical settings of the Passion, Pergolesi's Stabat Mater, come-and-sing Messiahs, and carefully chosen offerings of words and music. . . With so much variety on offer, where do you start?

I TEND to drop in and out earlier in the week, reserving my feeble spiritual energies for the Triduum, the time between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day once known as "the still days". On Maundy Thursday, the memorial of the Last Supper increasingly now includes foot-washing. It is a great idea: the trouble is that we are so - well, Anglican about it.

You can imagine the shock and embarrassment on the face of someone who came to church unbriefed and unknowing, and was suddenly selected as a victim of foot-washing. So it is not the blind leading the blind, but the clean washing the clean: we have to tip people off in advance, so that - like tidying up before the cleaner arrives - they can wash and powder their feet, and adopt clean footwear, in order to take it off in church and have their feet washed again.

It may be only symbolic, but the inauthenticity can make it uncomfortable to watch, as well as to participate. Once, the youngest of our regular gentlemen-of-the-road turned up at our vicarage, proudly and unaccustomedly smart in a shiny new suit, its too-short trousers flapping above his ankles, and grey leather shoes a size too small crippling his feet. As I rummaged for a towel, and knelt to soak his blisters in a washing-up bowl full of cold water, I heard clearly the echo in my head: "Do this in remembrance of me."

How often we fully understand something only with the benefit of hindsight, only belatedly grasp the deeper meaning behind the words. Some churches hold a vigil on Maundy Thursday, the Watch of the Passion, remembering Jesus's watch in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his execution.

A RECENT experience of elective surgery gave me a different sense of what it might mean to go voluntarily into suffering in cold blood: I knew what it was to be bowel-churningly afraid - and that was facing the prospect of potentially life-saving surgery in clinical conditions, anaesthetised, and with all the advantages of post-operative pain relief.

How do you go willingly into an excruciating and humiliating experience that you know will end only with your death? How do you remain loving and only mildly reproachful to your unknowing friends, slumbering beside you as you struggle to prepare yourself for the ordeal ahead?

The Bible recounts the great dramas in words that have inspired great music and great poetry, but our own attempts to emulate them too often sound like something out of Private Eye's Rocky Horror Service Book. Words can shape our worship, but they can also diminish our sense of the sacred.

It is a hard thing to lead a three-hour service on Good Friday, and the best tend to allow plenty of space for meditation; but attending a three-hour service can be a challenge also, when too often it feels like death by words - as the 18th-century parson and wit Sydney Smith memorably put it, being "preached to death by mad curates".

I feel that I should be excited at the prospect of churchgoing at this time rather than daunted by the prospect of a three-hour service. (I know that I will feel guilty if I leave before the end.) Better, perhaps, to turn out earlier in the day for the litany, and spend a free-range three hours walking the dog (which tends to be my best prayer-time, anyway).

PUBLIC re-enactments of the Passion are increasingly popular: the Wintershall Passion fills Trafalgar Square, and there are reportedly 15 or so other performances of the Passion around the UK, plus unnumbered (often ecumenical) Walks of Witness. Like Palm Sunday, Good Friday is an event perhaps best understood and experienced as a member of the crowd of onlookers, caught up in the drama and the spectacle.

By Holy Saturday, the mood has changed as we look forward to Easter Day, although "vigil" is sometimes a euphemism for what actually happens on Easter Eve. One of the difficulties with Easter is that so much depends on when it falls in the calendar (especially whether or not the clocks have gone forward).

Kindling the first light of Easter with half a litre of barbecue fuel is less convincing in broad daylight, just as the Exultet can feel less like an outpouring of praise than a verbose way of delaying the gratification of a glass of Prosecco with our paschal lamb.

To be an early Christian on Easter Eve meant being plunged into the waters of death to be baptised, gasping and spluttering, to new life; it meant watching through the night until the sun's rays finally irradiated the chilly dawn.

Anyone who has taken a night flight eastwards and flown in along the dawn will know that extraordinary moment when the sun pours in over the edge of the world. Struggling to recapture that moment of dazzling, transforming glory is enough to make you long for commissioned video and multimedia elements.

Perhaps it is easier to do darkness. It is hard not to be moved by Tenebrae, the extended meditation on Christ's suffering. The lights are extinguished, but the Christ candle holds out the promise not merely of hope, but of victory.

Easter observances are too easily characterised by guilt: not the guilt that Jesus died to save us from, but the guilt of boredom, of well-intentioned lip service, of failing to be engaged by the commemoration of the greatest drama in the history of the world.

AT ST PAUL'S, the dawn eucharist on Easter Day used to be celebrated on the steps in front of the cathedral. (One year, a shades-wearing reveller leaned out of the darkened windows of a stretch limo to yell "Spawn of Satan" at the assembled worshippers as he sped past.) Now, the service starts inside, around the font, which feels more reminiscent of a stone sepulchre; and we emerge into the light of the new day.

Good Friday is the answer to the perennial question "Where was God in the tsunami/the mudslide/the atrocities in Syria, in South Sudan?" The strength of our Holy Week observances depends on how far and how effectively we carry those experiences into our everyday life.

My father was buried in Holy Week. Two days later, my sister and I went to a Good Friday performance of Bach's St John Passion, and experienced its pain and its hope as never before.

Just as Jesus died on the cross on our behalf, I realise that my most powerful Easter experiences have been when I have let go, and been transported beyond my own experience by others.

While that is almost certainly a comment on my own spiritual shortcomings, perhaps it is also one of the lessons of Good Friday. Or perhaps the drama of that first Easter is simply so astonishing that anything we do to try to emulate it will seem pale by comparison.

Caroline Chartres is a senior commissioning editor at Bloomsbury. Her husband is the Bishop of London.

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