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