Moravian Passion Week

Next week is Holy Week. I was teaching on the topic of Holy Week at a local Moravian Church. I probably should have written my thoughts down beforehand, but I could not have predicted what I actually said as we discussed why Moravians worship the way we do during Holy Week. Here is a summary.

We Moravians do not have the stations of the cross, like Catholics do. We do not have a passion play like the medievals did. We do not preach on the seven last words the way many Baptists do. We do something unique, which many biblical scholars say is wrong to do.

We gather every evening of Holy Week to read out loud from a harmony of the gospels, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and ending with the burial. Some things do get lost in such a harmony of the gospels, some of the differences and nuances get obscured, and we do not claim that the harmony is Scripture. There is no sermon at most of these services during Holy Week. Just readings, and lots of congregational singing. A single hymn verse is sung in response to each pericope. Sometimes there is simply silence.

What happens during this week is that we hear many of the teachings of Jesus in context, rather than spread out randomly through the lectionary. We spend a great deal of time sitting at the feet of Jesus like Mary listening to the teachings and controversies. We are there at the cleansing of the temple and have time to contemplate how Jesus would enter our sanctuaries. We read the last supper account from the synoptics as well as John and contemplate the significance of Jesus’ last instructions to the twelve, whom he loved. We are there when Jesus shares his bread with the betrayer, and we are there when he washes the feet of Peter who denies him. We see the anguish and grief, and we do not turn our gaze away at the end. We stand with the women and watch as a member of the Sanhedrin asks for the body.

We share in Holy Communion and we also share in the Agape meal. Many people find the passion week observances boring and a burden. Sometimes I find them boring and a burden. Many congregations have given them up, but when I was in Princeton without a community of faith, I found myself reading the manual to myself in my apartment.

The words and hymns are the same year after year, but the experience is different. Some years I hear the woes to the scribes and hypocrites directed at me. Some years I am Peter whose heart breaks at the crowing of the cock. Some years I am the beloved laying my head on Jesus’ breast. Some years I am Malchus in the garden caught up in things I do not understand and being healed of the violence I’ve participated in. Some years I am Pilate asking cynically about truth. Some years I am one who mocks, and some years I am Magdalene lost in grief.

So many sermons unspoken year after year, so much room for the Spirit to speak through an ancient story. So much to ponder from Palm Sunday to Great Sabbath. And then, we wait in the gloaming, before dawn to hear the words “the Lord is risen.” We gather in the cemetery to remember those who have died while we face the rising sun. We confess our faith in the midst of grief, and sing with joy in the midst of pain. We repeat words about redemption and reconciliation and we recommit ourselves to the service of the risen Lord.

And then we eat.

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