Corona and Tenebrae (shadows)

“I love the Tenebrae service so much, I would celebrate it even if no one showed up.” That statement will be put the test tomorrow evening as we prepare for Maundy Thursday. When I made that declaration over the years, I was thinking in terms of potential snowstorms that could keep people away or the busy-ness of schedules that interfered with a mid-week evening service. I was asserting that the beauty and solemnity of recounting Jesus’ final hours would compel me to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper and the desertion of his followers.

But let’s be honest. Maundy Thursday (or Holy Thursday) is never a well-attended worship service. Far different than the standing-room-only experience of Easter, the Tenebrae service (of “service of shadows”) is a somber evening gathering attended by a handful of people. Those who do come are always moved by the power of our sacred texts that describe with moving detail Jesus’ final meal with his disciples. We listen to Jesus’ anguished prayer in the garden. Our hearts are moved by the deep hurt of betrayal that leads to his arrest followed by the callousness of a sham trial.

It is hard to hear the story relentlessly unfold as it brings us closer and closer to Golgotha and crucifixion. The fear, agony, and loss are palpable. Because it is so powerful, I’ve always wanted more people to experience what is the center, the absolute foundation, of our Christian story. We get to hear about God who loves us so much that God will not avoid the absolute hardest parts of being human. Jesus lives through loss, fear, betrayal, sadness, isolation, and excruciating pain. And he does it for us. When those terrifying experiences enter into our lives, we can turn to Jesus knowing that he walked through that dark valley before us. It is a gut-wrenching and yet life-giving story. It is vital that we hear it.

And thus my commitment to proclaim the story even if no one was there to listen.

So this year on Maundy Thursday I will be in the sanctuary alone with my family and our wonderful pianist Nancy. We will recount the story that has been given to Christians to tell. It is a story of loss and hope, agony and assurance.

I hope you will be with me in Spirit and perhaps also on Facebook Live. You are invited to light a candle – electric or wax – and listen to the story. As the story is read, we will extinguish candles to represent the approaching shadows of loss and death.  You’ll be invited to put out your candle. And then finally to light it again as we cling to the hope of the Christ candle shining in the darkness.

In this time of sickness, loss, uncertainty and death, we need to hear the story of Jesus’ undying love.

Pause. Breathe. Pray.

Good Friday is a day for prayer and contemplation. Our sanctuary remains open and everyone is invited to stop by to immerse themselves in some moments of silence, rest, prayer, and reflection. It is an opportunity to literally seek sanctuary from the relentless press of schedule, emails, worries, and obligations.

            As you enter the silence, it is clear that this is a reliable place to slow down, breathe deeply, and be aware of God’s presence. Although it can be a thrill to celebrate worship in a packed church on Easter morning, there is something special about being – simply being – in the quiet, simple beauty.

            Most sanctuaries are designed to make mere mortals feel small. Although we are a simple country church and not a grand cathedral, the soaring ceiling and openness of the sanctuary remind us of the majesty and power of our Creator. We bring our hopes, fears, and fervent prayers to One who is greater – bigger – than we are. There is comfort in that.

           On Good Friday in our sanctuary, there will be “prayer stations” which invite participants to spend time in prayer. Since there are many ways to pray and encounter God, each station offers a different way to engage in reflection. Participants can choose to light candles to ask God to shine light in particularly dark circumstances. They might choose to write a confession on dissolving paper and place it in the water of the baptismal font as they remember that God washes away the sins of the world. They can reflect on events of Holy Week by reading Scripture or lift up prayers for their life’s journey by using a finger labyrinth. Each station invites us to offer prayers for ourselves and others as we remember God’s love for the world.

            Prayer and quiet offer a respite. Whether you visit the East Woodstock sanctuary, another church of your choosing, or discover God in another way altogether, it is life-giving to be reminded of who and whose we are. We can then re-enter the world with a renewed spirit and a reminder of God’s promise to be with us always. Revived by God’s love, we can share Good News of hope and new life.

We’d rather be singing

Palm Sunday is filled with music. This Sunday we can look forward to the children singing (so cute!) and our bell choir (beautifully ringing from our balcony). For the 86th time in our history, the men’s chorus will sing “The Palms.” This tradition, started by Vernon Wetherell in 1933, celebrates Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and is a highlight of this special day.

To top it all off, we will also be celebrating a baptism (congratulations, Mila!).  It promises to be a joyous, uplifting service.

            But. Here’s the thing about Palm Sunday. It’s tricky. Just when you think it’s safe to relax in the joy and praise – Hosanna! – It takes a turn. The service shifts. The music fades away. The lights are dimmed. The flowers and the altar cloths are removed. In the bleak silence we hear the story of Jesus’ arrest, pain, doubt, agony, temptation, and loss.

Palm Sunday invites us to enter Holy Week, the days that will – eventually – lead us to Easter.

            When the going gets tough, we’d rather be singing. Who wouldn’t prefer one more verse of “Glory, Laud, and Honor” rather than thinking about life’s hardships – betrayal, fear, tears, and suffering.

What’s wrong with Christians? Are we masochists? Gluttons for punishment?  Why do we have to consider those elements of human life that we would rather avoid? Why do we listen to the litany of suffering that Jesus endured?

We’d rather be singing.

We listen because it’s part of our Christian story. Even more than that, it is part of our human story. Every life contains twists and turns. Everyone will encounter moments of despair. Every life confronts painful loss and sadness.

Palm Sunday reminds us that we are not alone on that journey. Jesus went before us. He knows the path, he has experienced this a lifetime of heartbreak. When we lift up urgent prayers for ourselves and others, we are speaking to One who knows. Palm Sunday provides profound Good News; even when we are on an unwanted journey or our life has taken an unexpected turn, we have good company along the way.

So this Sunday, if you are filled with joy, go ahead and sing songs of praise. Lift up your voice to celebrate the “one who comes in the name of the Lord.”  Hosanna! Celebrate old traditions and welcome new forms of worship and praise.

If, however, you are not able to muster a song and you can find no reason to be thankful, remember Palm Sunday is for you, as well. Joy and sadness are often intertwined in our complicated human lives. In the quieter moments of Palm Sunday, listen for words of comfort, courage, and hope. Wherever we are on life’s journey – filled with cheer or bent over in grief – God provides the music to guide our paths.

Easter Sunday

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed.

Alleluia!

This changes everything.

Jesus breaks through the unbreakable bond and gives hope to each one of us.

Today is about new life and new beginnings, shared quietly and personally early in the morning.

Other resurrections had been more public:

  • A little girl lay on her deathbed, mourned by her devastated parents and their entire village. When Jesus took her by the hand and she stood up, joyous shouting and loud exhalations filled the tiny room. Word traveled fast. Social media had nothing on the speed with which this good news was shared.
  • Lazarus had been buried in his tomb for days before Jesus arrived. He was greeted by the scolding criticism of Lazarus’ sister Martha. Her anger at Jesus’ slow response to their critical need radiates in her speech, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She and Mary were immersed in grieving rituals, surrounded by family and friends. Their deep sorrow turned to astonished joy when Jesus called Lazarus out of his burial cave. The entire village rejoiced.

But Easter is different.

It’s quiet, early in the morning. There are only a few women who come to mourn at the grave. The Easter  miracle is revealed in a personal way.

  • The angels question the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
  • Jesus speaks directly to one of them, “Mary.” And tells her to go to the disciples and tell them what she had seen.

The Good News of Easter didn’t take the countryside by storm. It wasn’t announced to a crowd. It was a gradual awakening to what God had done. It was passed along from one person to the next.

Easter promises hope for each one of us, individually.  We can share and celebrate it together. But we are invited to discover every day just what “new life” and “resurrection” mean in our own lives.

Christ is risen.

Christ is risen indeed.

Alleluia!

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Holy Week – Saturday

What happened on Saturday in Holy Week?  Nothing.

Sometimes life is like that. There can be days or months when our lives seem to be at standstill and God remains silent.

Long-anticipated plans didn’t come through.

Hoped-for dreams fizzle and die.

Sometimes, there is nothing – just silence, loneliness, disappointment.

Nothing happens on Saturday.

Jesus’ followers are left with their sorrow, their questions, and their grief.

Perhaps Jesus’ enemies had noisy celebrations, thinking they had finally vanquished this bothersome prophet, but that isn’t recorded in the Gospels.

It was a day filled with sadness and emptiness, where joy and vibrant hopeful life once stood. It was a day when people might have been surprised that they still needed to do ordinary things like fetch water, prepare meals, and watch the children.  When it feels like our world has ended, it seems unfair that mundane tasks must still be completed. We want to wallow in the darkness and simply allow the emptiness to consume us.

Nothing happens on Saturday.

It must have been hard to imagine going on.

It must have been impossible to consider ever feeling joy again.

The world as they knew it – as they wanted it, as they had dreamed it – had ended.

Now one endless day after another stretched out before them like an endless parade of nothingness.

Holy Saturday is for those times in our lives when we don’t know how we will carry on.

God is in that place, but God can seem very far away – closed off from us like the heavy rock that is rolled in front of the tomb.

On Holy Saturday we simply wait and watch and  hope for a better time.

Holy Week – Friday

Who wants to think about death? Many schools and even some public buildings are closed today, but Good Friday services are never crowded. Clearly not everyone is considering this day off as an opportunity for prayer and worship.

Over the years I’ve heard many reasons for not attending Good Friday services.

  • “It’s too sad.”
  • “I already know the story.”
  • “I don’t like to think about it.”
  • “It’s kind of morbid.”
  • “It just makes me cry.”

And it’s true – Good Friday is filled with human experiences any healthy person would prefer to avoid.  There’s pain, torture, cruelty, sadness, loneliness, abandonment, doubt, and fear.

Good Friday recognizes that pain – physical, spiritual and emotional – is a part of human life.  This is universally true – every person you meet, regardless of culture, race, or economic status – has experienced pain and loss. Remembering that fact might allow us to bridge the gap between ourselves and our fellow life-journeyers. Maybe it could increase our compassion for one another.

Good Friday reminds us that sorrow is part of life.

Good Friday looks honestly at those times when evil seems to prevail.

God Friday confronts us with times when God seems absent.

As Christians, we know this is not the end of the story. We don’t have to stay in sadness. We are not required to dwell permanently on thoughts of death.

But neither should we ignore it. As tempting as it is to simply skip over the hard part of our story in our rush toward Easter morning, it is good to pause on this reflective day.

  • Perhaps we will think about someone who is sad and reach out to them
  • Maybe we will reflect on our own sadness and be willing to accept help or support
  • We can mourn a loss, knowing that our tears are precious in God’s sight
  • We can rely on God’s promise to be with us, even in the valley of death
  • We might lament or take time to consider what makes us afraid or lonely. We can lift up our prayers.

Jesus suffered. He cried out to God in his pain.

Good Friday gives us permission to pray brutally honest prayers.

Finally, Jesus entrusted himself, body and soul, to the One who created him. As he died, he said, “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” After a bruising end to his life, Jesus was safe in God’s care.

That can give us, even on this sad day, hope that lives on and will never die.

Good Friday

 

Holy Week – Thursday

How many “lasts” have you experienced?

The last day of school.

The last time you saw a loved one.

The last chemo treatment.

The “last” does not have to be sad, but it is usually memorable. It is an event that remains ingrained in our hearts and minds.

Jesus came to the table, knowing this would be his final meal; it was literally his last supper. But it was meant to remembered forever.

It is touching that Jesus made this profound moment so accessible. It tells me that Jesus wanted to ensure that this particular gathering could be enjoyed by people across the globe.  He took a basic need – eating – and elevated it so participants could receive a heavenly glimpse of fellowship, love, and support. Jesus chose the simplest elements – wine and bread – and transformed them into a powerful moment of blessing.

There is a universal appeal to breaking bread – whether it’s cornbread or rice cakes, whole grain or gluten-free – together. When we eat and share together, we are offering one another sustenance that comes from God.

Blessing and breaking bread was the last communal act Jesus shared with his disciples. It was also the first way Jesus revealed himself to traveling disciples following his resurrection. “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (Luke 24:28). Jesus entered into their despair and turned it around when he nourished their bodies and fed their spirits.

It’s easy to make this more complicated than it needs to be. We could engage in dry church-y arguments about “transubstantiation” and the real or symbolic presence of Jesus in the elements.

But that would miss the point. Jesus wanted to give himself to his followers. At its simplest, this last supper depicts Jesus sharing himself with all who came after him.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” he tells us.

We can remember and give thanks.

And then we can pass that blessing along.

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Holy Week: Wednesday

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”  Matthew 23: 37-38

It is such a poignant scene –  Jesus is standing on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem and weeping.  He laments people’s hard-heartedness and their unwillingness to be touched or changed by God’s love.  He has traveled the countryside sharing glimpses of God’s transforming love, yet so much of the world seems untouched and remains uncaring.

As he prepares for his crucifixion, I imagine Jesus being filled with “if only’s…”

If only

  • The people would listen
  • They would recognize the gifts God was offering
  • They would accept God’s forgiveness and then share it
  • They could view one another with God’s eyes
  • They could celebrate unity instead of division, distrust, and prejudice
  • They didn’t love power more than compassion
  • Their fear wasn’t greater than their trust

The flawed disciples show us reflections of ourselves:

  • People who jockey for position and want to be put above others
  • People who are afraid to defend what is right
  • People who, when left on their own, hesitate to speak their faith or live their convictions
  • People who are afraid of those who are “other” than themselves
  • People who are quick to judge
  • People who betray
  • People who deny
  • People who run away

Jesus is lamenting what is true about us – that we sin and fall short of the glory of God. Jesus mourns our failure to accept God’s love, healing and new life, but that will not stop his determination to continue to offer God’s gifts. He will go to death – he will go to hell and back – so these undeserving, oblivious people – people like us – can receive God’s unending love.

Holy Week: Tuesday

“Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was whom Jesus had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; Martha served…”  John 12

What a relief to finally reach the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus! After an emotional day in Jerusalem, filled with ecstatic crowds followed by the confrontation at the temple, their home must have felt like an oasis in the midst of this tumultuous week. Jesus briefly found a safe haven, a home filled with an uncomplicated, loving welcome and a meal that would nourish both body and spirit.

And there was Mary – loving, compassionate Mary – who “took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12). Jesus recognized this loving gesture for what it was – a way of offering support, surrounding him with prayers and love, and blessing him with a sweet memory of compassion. For someone about to face unrelenting cruelty and unimaginable pain, it was a precious gift.

Relaxing at his friends’ house, Jesus did not have to give or provide anything. He didn’t preach or teach. For a sweet, short time, he simply received the love and devotion of one who cared.

Mary could not prevent the approaching agony.  She was unable to shield Jesus from the pending pain and loss. She could not take his place. But she could offer comfort and an unmistakable sign of devotion.  Jesus would carry this memory with him.

If it were in our power, all of us would protect our loved ones from pain and suffering. If it were up to us, we would ensure that family and friends would be shielded from life’s bruising power. We would stare down the forces of sickness, injustice and cruelty that destroy lives.

Yet we cannot always take away another’s pain. We cannot always shoulder others’ burdens and we are unable to shield even our precious loved ones from the agony that life can deliver.

  • But we can care.
  • We can pray.
  • We can stand by their side.
  • We can offer a compassionate heart and a listening ear.
  • We can remind them they are not alone.
  • We can love.

 

In a world that delivers mockery, discouragement, betrayal, and brutality, Mary shows us how to offer comfort. We may not be able to change someone’s situation, but we can bless them with loving kindness.

Mary’s courage and compassion teach us how to live the Gospel of love.anointing oil Mary

 

 

 

Holy Week: Monday

“Jesus entered the temple of God and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple and he over the tables of the moneychangers…”  Matthew 21

What a contrast to the joyous Palm Sunday parade where everyone was waving their palm branches and singing their praises to Jesus! One moment that is festive celebration with triumph, hope, and rejoicing.

And then Jesus enters the temple, throws over tables and shouts at the money changers.  “You have made this a den of robbers.”

Ouch.  Way to ruin a mood.

Sometimes people try to use this passage to determine what fundraising activities should or shouldn’t be run by the church.  Raffles – yea or nay? Bingo? What about bake sales on Sunday? Can one set up tables of wares in the sanctuary or is that crossing the line?

But this story is about more than how good-hearted folks try to earn money for their struggling congregations.

This is about focus.  It’s about paying attention and how we spend our time. The money-lenders and salespeople were in “the temple of God” and were completely unaware. They were so focused on the business at hand that they were oblivious to the Spirit of God moving in and through that holy place.

Jesus puts a stop to that.  It makes me think of a parent who finds their child endlessly playing computer games inside on a beautiful day.  The parent may unplug the computer or stash the laptop in the closet and say, “Go outside!”  Why?  Because you are missing a blessing. And you are causing other people to miss that blessing as well.

The story invites us to consider – what is pulling us away from God? What is distracting us? What is consuming our attention without feeding our soul? What would Jesus toss out of our life if we would allow him access?

During Holy Week, we remember Jesus’ journey to the Cross.  God is about to act in magnificent ways.  Jesus doesn’t want people to miss that. What can we put aside so we will be more aware of God’s blessings and God’s calling in our lives today?

Here is a lovely prayer about this Scripture by Rev. Maren Tirabassi.