Some Customs at Grace Church for Holy Week and Easter
Fr. Don Matthews+
Stations of the Cross: The custom of walking “The Way of the Cross” or the “Way of Sorrows,” observing the progression of Christ’s crucifixion, from His condemnation to death by Pilate to the laying of His Holy Body in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea. Included in this service are many traditional and ancient prayers, petitions and biddings. Stations will be offered Monday and Tuesday of Holy Week at 7:00 p.m.; 11:00 a.m. Good Friday; and at 7:00 p.m. Good Friday before the final Mass of the Presanctified.
Tenebrae: For centuries, this term has been applied to the ancient monastic night (Matins) and early morning (Lauds) services of the last three days of Holy Week. Tenebrae is the Latin word for “darkness” or “shadows.” The most powerful feature of this service is the gradual extinguishing of candles and other lights in the church, until only a single light, considered to be the Light of Christ, remains. Toward the end of the service, this candle is hidden, typifying the apparent victory of the forces of evil and death. At the very end, a loud noise is made, symbolizing the earthquake at the time of the Resurrection (Matthew 28:2); the hidden candle is restored to its place, and by its light, all depart in silence. This is a stunning service, full of emotion as one enters into the depth of the tradition of the church. Tenebrae is a service which has been done at Grace Church since 1896, and is not to be missed.
Mandatum (Great Command) and Pedilavium (Washing of Feet): In the day of our Lord, it was the custom of the host to wash the feet of his guests upon their arrival at his house. This was a symbol of hospitality and welcome; it is also a symbol of humility and servanthood. Following the ancient custom in Christendom, the ordained leadership of the church follows this same pattern and, specifically at Grace Church, the parish priest washes the feet of those who desire it: a symbolic gesture of his servanthood. This is the “mandate” of Christ, that “I (Jesus) have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
Institution of the Lord’s Supper (that is, what is called “Mass” in this parish): This, too, is part of the “mandate” of Christ to His disciples, to “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). This is where we mark the “last supper” our Lord had with His disciples and where He commanded us to “remember” His sacrifice through the institution of the Holy Eucharist.
Procession of the Sacrament and the Stripping of the Altar: When all have received communion on Maundy Thursday, the remaining consecrated bread and wine are taken to an “Altar of Repose,” a place where we may “watch and pray” with our Lord. The high (main) altar is then stripped of all its appointments, as the presence of our Lord is no longer there (i.e., the consecrated bread, wine, and Christ candle). The bare altar—a visible symbol of the tomb in which the Holy Body of Christ was laid—is then slowly and carefully washed by the young people in preparation to receive our Crucified Lord. This is one of my favorite moments in all of Holy Week.
Vigil of Prayer with the Reserved Sacrament: In the great custom of the church, following the Eucharist of Maundy Thursday, the consecrated bread and wine, as well as the holy oils to anoint the sick and baptize, are taken to a separate place/altar. Here the elements sit in repose (“rest”), that all persons may enter into a unique and valuable opportunity to dwell in the Presence of our Lord in His Most Blessed Sacrament. This moving experience of prayer and preparation presents an opportunity to focus on what separates us from God and our neighbors as we prepare for the somber events of Good Friday. The bread and the wine are then received on Good Friday, the only day in the church year when the Holy Communion is not celebrated.
The Good Friday Liturgy: This liturgy traditionally begins at noon with the Passion Narrative of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, followed by a sermon and continuing with the Solemn Collects (i.e., prayers) of the church. Following ancient tradition, the use of musical instruments is strictly forbidden (except for the voice) at Grace Church; black hangings, paraments, and vestments are also traditionally used in this parish.
The Nails of the Cross with the Mass of the Presanctified: In a relatively modern custom, a box of nails will be at the back of the Church for the Communion service. Participants are invited to take a nail for every sin or stumbling block that exists between them, God, and their neighbor. When members come forward to receive communion, they are invited to leave these nails on the altar rail, placing their trust in the grace and mercy of God. Communion this day is taken from the bread and wine that was presanctified (“already consecrated”) at the Mass on Maundy Thursday and that has been the focus of prayer and devotion at the Altar of Repose.
The Great Vigil of Easter: This is the culmination of Holy Week: the passage of our Lord Jesus Christ from death to life. The service begins with the lighting of the “New Fire” from which the Paschal Candle, the “Light of Christ,” is lit. From there, a moving cycle of lessons and Psalms recount the salvation story—from the creation to the breaking open of the tomb, from darkness to light. At the Great Proclamation of Easter—“Alleluia! Christ is Risen!”—the grandeur and finery are again brought into the church, as the sanctuary lamp, the candles and the lamps suspended from the rood beam are all lit, and the organ and brass play a fanfare. The first Mass of Resurrection is then celebrated. A festive celebration and reception follow this Mass.
Easter Day: And here is the completion of our journey with Jesus Christ: the Day of the Resurrection, the eternal promise of God that all things will be made new in and through Him. The Easter experience is a newness that is radically different from our human understanding—a newness that belongs to God and remakes all of creation. Come celebrate this newness of God through Christ with us this Easter Day!
Photos by Libby Hedrick