Holy Week

It was bound to be hard, right?  A year out, a priest without altar.  No liturgies to prepare, no stresses at all, past the self-inflicted choice of a week of prayer-book eucharists to attend (chosen not for language, but for timing).  I’ve sensed it coming for weeks, as my body kept trying to gear up for the great week, and I had to slow it down saying ‘no, not this time…’

I knew it would be hard — but I didn’t know what, or how.
Until, that is, they began reading the passion.

The story will always catch us if we let it.  And that was part of what happened.  But this time the shock and pain came at realising that I could take no part in it — that I would not be reading it aloud for the first time since I was ordained deacon.

Reading the passion aloud in worship is an odd and difficult thing.  It is physically demanding.  It is emotionally demanding.  And — for me at least — it is one of the formative acts of ordained life.

It’s not the sort of thing I anticipated as an ordinand, of course.  I cannot remember a single conversation in which it was mentioned as an essential part of priesthood.  So it was a surprise to realise how crucial it is, how much it forms you.

That first year as a deacon, I was given it to read four times:  as the narrator on Palm Sunday, at the Roman Catholic ecumenical service (a hugely generous gift), at the Gospel of the Watch, and in the Good Friday liturgy.  I’ve read it at least twice every year since.  It gets harder each time, as it seeps deeper and deeper into my bones, and draws down every last drop of energy.

The narrator stumbled at one point yesterday.  I heard the odd ‘tut’.  But that was precisely the moment my heart leapt for him, because I could feel that it was the moment the reading had taken over.  He began in control, a priest and liturgist, tending pace and timing.  But at some point he just gave in.  The story took over, and he was subsumed. Who can say what someone else is experiencing, really, but this is how it seemed.  And I remembered the doing of it — the strain of yielding, and yet retaining enough poise and presence to go on, to proclaim, to speak and breathe and stand still.  It is harder than one might think.  And the absence of it tore through me.

I know this is not uniquely a preist’s task.  I remember powerful readings done without priests at all.  I don’t think it matters who reads it, or who reads which role, so long as it is read well.  But I do think it matters for the priest — to be able to read this, to have to read it, over and over again.

The physical act of reading the passion changes us.  It cannot be ignored, it cannot be tossed off or resented, and heaven help the priest who fails to realise this.  We are given this great task and privilege — to stand at the intersection of anguish and love, degradation and glory — and to find our identity there.

I will miss reading it this week.  Desperately.

And I pray for all those who are charged with the task of it: that they will live well through the doing of it — allowing themselves to be drained, and loved, and changed.

16 thoughts on “Holy Week

  1. I should not smile, even slightly, but I cannot but remember one reading we shared. I sympathise, I really do. I know how powerful it is to read the Bible aloud in public. I know how hard it is to be shut out from a ministry to which one feels called (for me, preaching) – how t is, as Jeremiah said ‘a fire shut up in the bones’. For what it is worth, I too miss it – due to the nature of my last church it was hugely unlikely I would not read aloud some parts of that story and I miss it.

    But truly, the missing of it … there is a balance. All gift of fulfilled vocation is as bad for one, I think, as all missing of vocation.

  2. That reading was very much on my mind too, Rosemary. And it nearly crept in among the typos (as I ran off to the morning eucharist, before proof-reading). In the end, though, I knew that those for whom it would mean most would remember without my mentioning it. Truly, a remarkable day, worthy of a whole book on the nature, joys and perils of collaborative ministry.

  3. Yes, by the mercy of God still reading. – and when the shadows sometimes come too close, I remind myself that reading Jesus I once shocked.

    It still seems to me that one of your greatest gifts is the ability for collaboration. If I, life-long laity, had to pick one from your many gifts, as remarkable, unusual, it would be just that.

  4. Ironic, isn’t it?

    The trick with collaboration is both parties have to be willing.

    (and you are a particular joy to work with since you match talent for talent, skill for skill, sulk for sulk, while bringing wildly divergent insights and views.)

  5. If there is a trick, it is knowing others are human, and when not to take things personally, and just to trust. One of my mantras is ‘Mutual forgiveness of each vice,opens the door to Paradise.’

  6. Missing you Kimberly. No Passion reading this Palm Sunday and I so feel the lack of it. Mostly I’m loving the enlivenment of what’s happening in HT, but I need gravitas at this time and you gave it that. You’re in my prayers.

  7. Thanks, Di. I was telling someone over the weekend about how we would do the Good Friday prayers together, and how perfect your timing was. I did go quite solemn for Holy Week, didn’t I?

    No Passion Reading? What were you up to instead? I’ll bet there were lots of waving palms.

    HT will always live in my memory for having the most elegant vigil fire (and the most helpful garden clearers the week after)

  8. I was narrator yesterday. It was done as a narration interspersed by singing verses of “were you there”. My concern was my grin – not the best look for this. So I wore a dark hoodie, flipped up the hood at the end of the collect and sat on the pulpit steps, at right angles to the congregation. I am told my body language portrayed loss and despair – I know I tried at times in the narration to put in bitterness, loss and anger.
    I have never been asked to do this and I can understand now the loss you must feel this year. Practicing it in a car park reduced me to tears. Holy week is an emotional journey for Priests and congregation – it is the Passion.

  9. We were in Rothesay for a joint service. Not sure why no Passion. Haven’t had the opportunity to ask yet, but I shall! Did ‘experience Easter’ workshops in the grammar school which was great, so maybe that’ll have to do.

  10. We used to have the Passion in Rothesay read aloud with parts allocated throughout the congregation – and there are some wonderful readers in Rothesay.

  11. It’s odd not to be doing anything much here, too… I am the officiant for daily office this week (by chance), will celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow (and did today) at home, and will be at the cathedral altar as a concelebrant in other services, I assume. But nothing to read, nothing to plan – I don’t even know the service schedule yet. I keep thinking, “This will never happen again, so relax and enjoy having the time to pray through things” – but somehow it seems less like Holy Week this way. Makes no sense, but there it is. (Some of it is also the lack of familiar music, I’ve discovered.)

    I love what you said here, and I am grateful. I haven’t been able to put my experiece of this into coherent thought, much less into writing.

  12. Sarah, I’m sorry it is so uncertain. I was looking at the Palm Sunday photo of you and the other clergy and wondered whether you were dubbed ‘colleague’ or ‘guest’. Are there cultural issues at play there too?

    I’m sorry you are a bit on the edge of things — it must be hard so soon after ordination. I know you will find creative ways through it though. Can you slip your camera under your cassock for those hidden moments that you see so well?

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