Holy Week at St. John’s

By Susan Shinn Turner

The waving of the palms. The dropping of the veil. Flickering candles extinguished into darkness. And finally, the joy of Easter morning.

Holy Week contains the full range of human emotions.

“The Holy Week journey to the cross can be grueling and exhausting,” Pastor Rhodes says, “but the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection is what brings us to church, not just on Easter Sunday but every Sunday of the year. It’s our hope that these services will convey, in a beautiful way, the suffering and ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us.”

“The very nature of what Holy Week and Easter means is found in the drama of worship and rhythm of music,” says Rob Durocher, minister of music. “When we think of what Christ did for us in His life, ministry, death, and resurrection, I often think of the words of the old hymn: ‘What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend?’

“From the Garden of Gethsemane to the victory over death, we journey with Christ  from being the ‘worthy Lamb of God that was slain’ to the risen and victorious Lord to whom ‘all the vault of heav’n resounds.’”

Adds Pastor Rhodes, “Holy Week worship allows us to enter into the mystery of God. It’s absolutely profound.”

“Our prayer is that worshippers experience the fullness of the journey — from the haunting cry, ‘Crucify him!’ to the joy of proclaiming that ‘Christ is risen, he is risen indeed, alleluia!’”

A Year of Preparation. Preparation for this Lenten season actually began last year, on Palm Sunday. The palms used each year are collected afterward, dried and burned for use on Ash Wednesday the following year. Donna Beilfuss prepares the ashes by cleaning out her fireplace, burning the palms there, sifting them, and adding olive oil.

“Mary Ann Hoover taught me to do it about 30 years ago. The first time I did it, I knew it was a very special, awesome thing to be a part of,” Donna says.

A particularly dramatic aspect of Holy Week worship is the way the week unfolds as one service. In traditional worship, Palm Sunday begins in a very festive way, with a large group of processionalists helping to decorate the chancel area, explains Gretchen Witt, a member of the Worship and Arts Ministry Group. In addition to the cross, torches, and banners, youth bring a towel, pitcher, a purple cloth and a crown of thorns — elements that symbolize the Passion story. Likewise, in contemporary worship, the full story of the passion is shared with visual imagery, music, videos, and the pastor’s message.

The Palm Sunday service continues on Maundy Thursday with Holy Communion and the removal of all the décor from the chancel of the sanctuary. The ritual is called the “stripping of the altar,” in memory of Christ’s humiliation, when they “stripped off Jesus’ clothes, put a scarlet robe on him … and made fun of him” (Matthew 27:28-30). The service ends in complete silence.

Mary Epperley, who changes the altar’s paraments during the year, has participated for 20 years. She joins more than a dozen members, each of whom has an assigned task, all of which are done as if they are choreographed.

“It’s so very moving,” says Mary, who is carrying on the tradition from her mother, Ellen Trexler, who died in November 2016.

The service comes to completion when a black veil drops, completely covering the altar and triptych.

The dramatic Good Friday Tenebrae service ends in darkness — tennebrae is a Latin word that means darkness — as the story of Jesus’ death is read and candles are extinguished, one by one.

During the service, Rosemary Kinard often sings “Were You There?” from the balcony. Last year, Rosemary wrote about the experience in a Lenten devotion.

“The climb from basement to balcony is long, and it seems to get longer each year,” she wrote. “But the process serves as a sort of meditation walk for me. As I climb, I review the words of the song in my mind and pray over their significance to me and to all of the worshippers in the sanctuary. By the time I reach the top step, I am rather breathless, but also filled with wonder at the impact of those words.”

Another impactful moment of the service is the stationing of the cross, typically done by a father and son duo. When Carter Woolly was a senior in high school, he and his younger brother, Matt, carried the cross. Carter is now a senior at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

“I remember how special it was,” he says, “especially after having seen so many of my role models doing it. It was awesome to be able to do it with my little brother. The family connection on such a sacred day really hit home for me.”

After the Good Friday service, another group of volunteers begins the work of transforming the worship space from one of starkness to utter beauty.

There’s no doubt that it takes dozens of volunteers to pull off the Holy Week services — that’s in addition to the pastors, choir, musicians, and Order of St. John’s members.

“All of Holy Week gives way to the glory and extravagance of Easter Sunday,” says Randy Overcash, co-chair of the Worship and the Arts Ministry Group. “For me, the work we put in is more than worth it. What an amazing time of year.”