Liturgy as Narrative and Ritual: Holy Week

Candles at the Church of the Holy Sepluchre
Candles at the Church of the Holy Sepluchre

It’s just about Holy [Shit] Week. I use the expletive only because it’s a big, long, chaotic, beautiful, and messy week. Holy Week tells a big, big story.

In my little community, we have found that the traditional order of the week is heavy, clunky, and hard to hold together. Traditionally, there’s Palm/Passion Sunday, Maundy Thursday that ends with the stripping of the altar and the reading of Psalm 22 or 88 (which echo more Good Friday), Good Friday, and Easter Vigil (or, for us, Easter Sunday).

I understand the reason behind such narrative and ritual blurring. Many people simply do not come to worship on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. It’s true. It’s also true that you miss a huge part of the picture if you go from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. There is no Easter without Good Friday. And yet, we find it is worth the gamble to let each day carry its own narrative, its own ritual, its own piece of the Holy Week pie. The nuance of Palm with Passion or Maundy with the Stripping is often lost or onerous.

We can run into the waves of Holy Week at a full sprint, until our legs are swept away or the water gets too heavy and we fall in head (or face) first. It’s meant to be abrupt. Death is abrupt. But then, there is a floating, an embrace as God’s grace splashes over us on Easter.

So we begin with a sprint. For Palm Sunday, we like to have a big parade. There’s a certain hubris in Palm Sunday, a hope that hasn’t been broken or resurrected, scars and all. This year we are excited to welcome Tangled Blue to lead the saints as they go marching in and we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (or coal, or both, or whatever).

For Maundy Thursday, we start to slow down as we use the narrative of the evening to lead us in the Rite of First Communion. We will wash the feet of our creative and curious 5th graders and welcome them to the Table for the Meal. We conclude our worship with the Post-Communion Blessing, noting that worship continues the next night. It’s a joyful night, though there is a sense of foreboding, a dread that lingers in the air.

On Good Friday we come to a full stop. Death seems to do that. The cross seems to do that. We save Psalm 22 and the Stripping of the Altar for Good Friday. Instead of extinguishing candles between readings from John’s Gospel, we strip the altar, piece by piece while we sing hymns (see below). We include young voices for the solemn reproaches and we end at the cross. It’s one of the best parts of our liturgical year. This year I’m really interested in how it will be to sing Beautiful Savior as a lament as we read of the crucifixion of Jesus.

In all of this we are not trying to recreate the days surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are not re-sacrificing Jesus. We are simply trying to witness the events, make sense of them somehow, and trust the one beyond our understanding.  Here’s hoping for a blessed, messy, and beautiful Holy Week.


John 18:1-11

The candles are extinguished and removed

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane,
The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus


Go to Dark Gethsemane,
ELW 347, verses 1-2

John 18:12-27

The altar book and altar cross are removed

Jesus Before the High Priest

Peter Denies Jesus


Ah, Holy Jesus, ELW 349, verses 1-2

John 18:28-40

The sacraments from Thursday are removed

Jesus Before Pilate

Jesus Sentenced to Death


Ah, Holy Jesus, ELW 349, verses 3-4

John 19:1-16a

The altar cloths and paraments are removed

Jesus is Flogged


O Sacred Head Now Wounded, 

ELW 351, verses  1-2 

John 19:8-16a

The altar is clothed in black

Jesus is Handed Over to be Crucified


O Sacred Head Now Wounded, 

ELW 351, verses  3-4

John 19:16b-30 (standing)

The cross is shrouded

The Crucifixion of Jesus


Beautiful Savior, ELW 838, verses 1 and 4

John 19:31-42

The Paschal Candle is removed, extinguished 

The Burial of Jesus


Were You There, ELW 353



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