“Liturgical celebration is a re-entrance of the Church into the event, and this means not merely its ‘idea,’ but its living and concrete reality.”
—Fr. Alexander Schmemann
You and I bring our life experiences with us when we gather with other Christ followers for worship. Everything that has happened to us on our pilgrimage in this world accompanies us, in fact, wherever we go.
Our past is part of what makes us unique persons. What we have endured and felt and accomplished informs our conversations and often helps determines our actions in the present moment. This is what it means to be human.
The loss of my father to the conflict in Vietnam when I was four, the six years in Chicago I spent riding trains every weekday for four hours, my Southern Pentecostal roots, ministering to dozens of persons in the hour of their death, two decades along the ocean in Southern California, and more than 20 years now raising seven children with a brunette from Oakland are all part of what makes me tick and these moments never leave me; they live on in and through me.
Whenever two or more Christians gather, there is a Person who is also present with us. In his ongoing humanity, he bears the wounds he suffered, the cross he carried, a memory of the temptations he conquered, the touch of his mother's hand on his face, a last meal with the ones he called friends, the sawdust and grime that covered his body after a day of labor with Joseph, turning Cana's water into wine, his baptism by John in the Jordan, talking to Moses and Elijah on Tabor, raising Lazarus from decay near Bethany. Wherever the resurrected Jesus goes these experiences live on in him and through him.
Jesus also brings with him to our worship the victory won by divine humility and self-sacrifice over the powers of sin, death, and the devil. He carries in his bosom the love of the Father that casts out all fear and overcomes the world. By the Spirit, he brings his incarnate life, miracles, parables, transfiguration, torture, abandonment, death, descent, resurrection, and ascension to all places where two or more congregate in his Name.
Jesus is simply all of the saving events of his sinless life among us, the sum of all his teachings, and because they are part of who he is as God and who he yet remains as man, by the Spirit we share in these temporal experiences that are also eternal realities. We may even RELIVE these moments as though we were there with him: most poignantly on the occasions when the church calendar marks the most significant moments of his history with us as the Nazarene.
On Christmas Eve, as we attend to the presence of the resurrected Christ in our midst, we are once again with shepherds, kneeling at the hard wood of the manger, as he who made the heavens is laid in a feed trough. When Transfiguration comes around each new year, we ascend the mount with the disciples to glimpse the glory of the Father shining from the face of Jesus and, with Moses and Elijah, we hear the majestic voice from heaven: “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.”
As we re-enter the week Christians call Holy, we are there with Christ on the heady road into Jerusalem, in the Temple as he predicts its (his) doom and third day triumph, we recline at the meal he shares with his disciples and he serves us by cleansing our dusty feet, we join with those who condemn him before Pilate, weep with Mary and the women at the hard wood of the cross, hope against hope that he can somehow fulfill his mission without leaving us for what appears to be good, we wait for one last miracle.
Even the loneliness and darkness of Holy Week are illumined by a bright knowledge that he plunges down to the depths of death with us and fills all things with himself, so that now there is quite literally no place where he is not. If we make our bed in hell, he is there — he is there WHEREVER we gather in his Name.
Instead of a transient miracle, we experience the permanent restoration of Resurrection, in which we become participants on Easter Sunday just as though we were there in the garden with the astonished Magdalen. When we turn toward his voice, we exclaim in recognition with her, "Rabonni!"
Are you ready not simply to remember, or call to mind, but to now ENTER by the Spirit of God the events that brought us so great a redemption? Because the Risen Christ is truly with us in our worship, he brings these saving experiences with him. The Holy One who inhabits our praises, is the sinless, wondrous God-Man.
I urge you in love to take part in as many of the services of Holy Week as you are able, that your joy at Easter might be complete and that you might, once again, participate in the Lord's active, sacrificial charity toward us at the Last Supper, on the Cross, and beyond.
When these days come around each year, they are ever-new for us, not because the events themselves change but because WE do. Each new year, as we come to Holy Week—as we encounter the unchanging reality of this sacred time and others—we are different people than we were the last time. As we grow deeper in the imitation of Jesus Christ, we see and hear things we missed before, as we do when we read a passage of Scripture read a dozen times before yet somehow read it anew as if for the first time.
Do not abandon Jesus at any point of his journey but stay close, as John and the women did. You will then be his blessed witnesses, his genuine followers. For, as Father Alexander reminds us, we do not experience an Idea during Holy Week but a "living, concrete reality," Jesus Christ himself ever with us to the end of the world.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Mich.
Photo: Crucifixion image,