Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Week 2012

For the next four days, we're taking a break from our incessant barking about the negative changes at OBU over the past 18 months and the many regressions in Baptist life over the past 30 years in general.  It's not that we need a break (regular readers noticed that we took Spring Break off).  It's not even that it is especially impolitic to be critical of religious leaders during Holy Week.  It's just that these days are so significant.  I'd rather write about their meaning and their mystery.

Various events in the past 2 years have ignited our passion for saving OBU from fundamentalist encroachment.  But it's easy to forget that our little movement is just a tiny subset of a vast community that stretches around the world, back across centuries of history, and encompasses not just we who are living but also the Saints Triumphant, that multitude which no one can number (Rev. 7:9).  The people menacing Baptist life are just a small subset of fundamentalists from a diverse but relatively new stream in American Protestantism.  We use categories like "evangelical" today out of convenience, though it obscures massive doctrinal and historical differences and there is tremendous diversity in the evangelical tradition.  The "mainline"/established/institutional strand of American Protestantism, from which the fundamentalists decisively broke an already weak tie to the SBC, represents traditions going back to different Reformations in Europe.  Then, even putting the Orthodox traditions aside (with their own theological distinctives, mystical elements, and geographic strongholds), we have Roman Catholicism, as large as all of Protestantism combined and 1,500 years more ancient.  And even though this is "our" Holy Week, I can't help but think of the wider human family -- Christians' older cousins (Jews) and younger cousins (Muslims) in the Abrahamic/monotheistic tradition.  All this says nothing of the post-Western "next Christendom" about which Philip Jenkins and others write.

Anyway, the thought of all the people around the world past, present, and future for whom this week was, is, and will always be the holiest of the year makes me feel uneasy about doing Save OBU business as usual.  In my lifetime, I've been all over the spectrum in terms of religious belief and devotion.  Holy Week has been a non-event.  Holy Week has been all-consuming.  And it has been everything in between.

As a child and a youth, I remember only occasionally going to services on days other than Sunday.  My United Methodist congregation was not especially liturgical (one pastor aptly described our liturgical style as "high Baptist,") but modest efforts were made to mark the seasons of the church year.  We had a dear church member who made beautiful banners for the various holy seasons.  They changed the paraments in the sanctuary to correspond with the season: red for Pentecost, green for the long season after Pentecost, blue for Advent, purple for Lent.  Palm Sunday included a children's procession of palm branches.  Even though palms are native to Florida, they were so perfectly and identically sized that I later realized they were probably ordered from the Cokesbury catalog (a less overtly ideological United Methodist version of LifeWay).  This was definitely the only Sunday we ever had anything even approximating a "procession."  If I had to guess, the "processional hymn" (such as it was) was probably "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" and not the more Anglican "All Glory, Laud, and Honor."  I don't remember Good Friday services at all, probably because kids were either in school or on vacation.  But I do remember the occasional Maundy Thursday service (and of course Ash Wednesday).  We never had an Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday.  In fact, I'm certain I was in graduate school before I heard of such a thing and even now, I can't say I've ever attended one.  I do, however, remember that sometimes my dad would take me and my brother to the church the day before Easter and we'd pick up litter in order to make sure that the grounds looked their best for Easter, when a lot of visitors would drop in.  I never told my dad this, but I always thought that was a really nice thing to do and was a true sign of integrity and humility, since no one ever asked him to do it and he never announced his good deed.  He was (is) a prominent community member and has been a faithful lay leader in the congregation, but he was not above picking up gum wrappers and cigarette butts to make sure the church glistened on its holiest day.  Our youth group always led a sunrise service for the community at a lakefront park.  Easter was a day to wear new, pastel-colored clothing (from Penney's though, not from Nordstrom's, just to be clear).  My church had a tradition where a moss-covered cross was placed in the courtyard and each congregant would bring a flower bud to place in the cross.  Most years, we took a family picture in front of that cross.

In college, I felt like Holy Week was a total non-event.  Though I would later discover that my childhood congregation's observance of Holy Week was somewhat less than many mainline churches, it seemed to me that in Southern Baptist life (or at least what I knew of it at OBU), Holy Week wasn't that holy or special.  As I write this, I'm enjoying Holy Thursday off from my Catholic (Jesuit) university, where I'm a Ph.D. student in political science.  I'm pretty sure we always had class on Holy Thursday and Good Friday at OBU.  In seminary at Boston University School of Theology (I did the two-year Master of Theological Studies rather than the M.Div.), I encountered "high church" for the first time in the stunning neo-Gothic Marsh Chapel.  This dynamic was evident year-round, but was on grand display during Holy Week.  I grew to love the liturgy, symbolism, and music -- especially sacred choral music and the rich tradition of Anglican hymnody.

When I went into parish ministry, Holy Week became the busiest week of my year.  Like most young ministers, I determined to remake the church in my own image.  By that point, my personal journey had taken me away from many classical/orthodox doctrines.  But I loved the music, the symbols, and the liturgy of the liberal Protestant tradition.  Since being religious, for me, had more to do with stories and symbols than assent to specific doctrines, I wanted to introduce a more liturgical Christianity to the congregation I served.  I wanted it to mean as much to them as it meant to me.  Needless to say, this effort never went very far and I don't think it was very effective.  In the end, being religious but not spiritual was a bad recipe for an aspiring minister -- I was a paid religious functionary who knew little of God, grace, or true piety.  Though my breakup with the church was a lot more dramatic and sudden than it needed to be, it was a pretty complete separation.  I don't miss the theology or even the community as much as you might expect of someone for whom the church so thoroughly shaped his social, intellectual, and vocational identity.  But I sure do miss the music, liturgy, narrative, and mystery.  Even after I fizzled out of church, it took a few years before Easter Sundays would come and go without me darkening the doors.

Being unchurched or post-churched has been eye-opening.  For some reason, Holy Week has become a time to reassess my own journey as I remember Jesus' journey to the cross.  Like a lot of people my age, I have church people from my "former life" who pity me or resent that I dropped out.  And I have new friends and colleagues who are shocked when they find out that religion was once such a defining force in my life.  Becoming involved with Save OBU has given me an interesting, new perspective on a lot of issues I thought I had left behind.  From age 18 to 26, as I reconciled the faith of my childhood with basic facts of science, history, and other disciplines, I searched desperately for some version of Christianity I could believe honestly and with integrity.  When I finally allowed myself a break from that struggle, I ultimately realized that it just wasn't as important to me as I once thought it was.  But you do find out that with or without you, institutions/churches/denominations are forever caught in power struggles and ideological battles.  When you quit, your "side" comes a little closer to losing.  I think this is basically what happened with the strand of Protestantism with which I identified most closely.  So many of us left church that our "side" ended up losing.  So to those of you who are still "in the trenches," take heart.  A lot is at stake.  Some of us just aren't cut out for it, though.  We have to be true to our own selves.

I'm not sure why I feel compelled to say all this.  I guess I just feel like I've met a lot of new friends through Save OBU and I want to share something of myself with them.  Especially to our student supporters, young alumni, seminarians, and people considering church vocations -- I've been where you are.  My journey has been quite different than I expected (and I've been through a lot of therapy), but I just want to say: Be who you are.  Embrace your struggles with faith.  Endure the dark nights of the soul.  Don't be afraid to question and doubt.  Your faith is yours alone, and not for others to judge.  It may survive; it may not.  But you will survive.  Above all, you need to be able to live with yourself, whether religion is an aid, a hindrance, or a surprising mix of both.

I've worked assiduously to steer clear of political and theological controversies for the sake of a unified movement.  Clearly I lack the bona fides to lead this movement indefinitely.  But because I've been all over the spectrum, I have close friends in all the various camps: fundamentalists who prize obedience and orthodoxy above all else; thoughtful yet believing evangelicals who genuinely and seriously grapple with the hard issues of faith; relatively more enlightened intellectuals who still feel a deep sense of spiritual longing; post-orthodox Christians who insist on a faith they can believe honestly and that can withstand the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny; hangers-on who are church people by tradition but feel deep down that this really isn't their thing; the unchurched (or post-churched) who stay away because they can't abide the authoritarianism, partisan politics, or squelched freedoms; people who are agnostic about doctrines but cherish the community; and atheists who span the spectrum of sympathy for or hostility toward the entire enterprise.

Enough about me and my journey.  This week,  I want to do a few things:
  • Show a side of the Christian music/worship/liturgical tradition that some Baptists may not know much about but may nonetheless find enjoyable and meaningful.
  • Suggest that there are other ways of understanding Jesus' death and resurrection.  If we see it as more than just a cosmic bargain and a divine magic trick, we might actually magnify its meaning rather than diminish it.
  • Argue that increasing our reverence for and observance of Holy Week will stimulate not only piety and devotion but also theological reflection among clergy and laity even as it embodies ecumenism and Christian unity.
  • Share little parts of my own story with people who might be struggling with cognitive dissonance and who wonder if there is a place for them in American Protestantism.

Can Baptists Be Liturgical?
As I mentioned above, I was surprised to come to OBU and discover that Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday were not very high in the Baptist pantheon of holy days (though I noticed that OBU had a Holy Week Chapel yesterday).  The holy season of Lent was a non-event.  A lot of people even gave off a "just another Sunday" vibe about Easter.  I don't know all the reasons behind this difference.  A lot of it may be rooted in the important differences in history, liturgy, and even church architecture between heirs of the "radical Reformation" vs. the "magisterial Reformation."  On the radical side, we have Calvinists and Anabaptists whose heirs typically worship in plainer, sparser settings, whereas on the magisterial side we have Lutherans and Anglicans (and later Methodists) whose worship spaces are typically more ornate and laden with symbols and art.

I certainly don't want to express a value judgment about "low church" vs. "high church," because I've seen firsthand that both have their advantages and limitations.  But I do think that observing Lent and celebrating Easter as the highest holy day offers churches a chance to increase their congregants' faith and devotion as well as their cultural influence in their communities.  It's strange to me that in an overwhelmingly Christian culture, Americans know the holy days and seasons in Judaism and Islam but think Christmas is the highest holy day in Christianity.  Christmas is the holiest season in consumer culture.  Churches should embrace Lent and Easter, if for no other reason than to show the world that we don't rank our holy days based on the whims of consumer trends and the demands of corporations with 4th quarter financial targets to meet.  The number of American Protestants who seriously observe Lent is small.  I think evangelicals and Baptists should consider joining in Lenten devotions.  I'm not just talking about "giving up" chocolate or soda or reading the next, though that may be part of it.  I'm talking about a serious commitment to prayer and self-denial.  The benefits to Christians are obvious, and I think it sends the kind of counter-cultural message the church would like proclaim.

As things stand, the only thing a lot of Protestants know about Lent is that you can get a good deal on Filet-o-Fishes at McDonald's (a lot of Catholics don't eat meat during Lent, especially on Fridays). This year, Major League Baseball's Opening Day coincides with Holy Thursday and Good Friday.  I just think it's interesting that our whole society grinds to a halt for Christmas because the markets demand it.  Yet Lent and Easter come and go with no notice but an uptick in candy sales.  What difference would it make, spiritually and culturally, if tens of millions more American Christians properly observed and celebrated their holiest season and day?

Holy Thursday
We Protestants can be dismissive of what we perceive to be extra-biblical elements in Catholic traditions. But in this case, it's all right there in John chapter 13.  A lot of Protestants observe Holy Thursday.  It's often known as "Maundy Thursday."  Somehow, "Maundy" came into English from the Latin mandatum novum ("new commandment" -- John 13:34).  Though I have never seen it done, a lot of churches observe a rite of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday.  I think the most common observance for Maundy Thursday is the Lord's Supper, since the holiday commemorates Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples.  I have also seen Tenebrae services.  Tenebrae (Latin for "shadows") is a service in a dimly-lit space that features scriptural readins.  After each reading, a candle is extinguished, until worshippers leave in darkness, representing Jesus' agonizing, lonely night in Gethsemane.  

Another rite that is typically performed at the end of Holy Thursday services is the stripping of the altar/church.  Often accompanied by a reading of the 22nd Psalm, all decorative items (crosses, Bibles, etc.) and the purple Lenten paraments are removed in preparation for Good Friday services, in which congregants enter a bare sanctuary.

With all that activity, I'm not sure how seriously preachers or worshippers grapple with the many difficult texts in John 13-17.  But that's another problem for another day, I suppose.  There are so many beautiful and comforting texts to focus on: "A new commandment I give unto you; that ye love one another" (13:34a).  "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give as the world gives.  Let not your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid" (14:27).  Too many to mention.

Here is a Lenten hymn entitled "Ah, Holy Jesus" performed by the organ and choir of the Washington National Cathedral.  I posted the lyrics below.  The tune name is HERZLIEBSTER JESU.

Ah, holy Jesus, how hast Thou offended,
That man to judge Thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by Thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon Thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone Thee.
’Twas I, Lord, Jesus, I it was denied Thee!
I crucified Thee.

Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered;
The slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered;
For man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth,
God intercedeth.

For me, kind Jesus, was Thy Incarnation,
Thy mortal sorrow, and Thy life’s oblation;
Thy death of anguish and Thy bitter passion,
For my salvation.

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay Thee,
I do adore Thee, and will ever pray Thee,
Think on Thy pity and Thy love unswerving,
Not my deserving.

If, by chance, you participate in one of these observances, let us know in the comments or email!

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