Monday, April 12, 2010

Holy Week: Mac or Windows? 

It's now the end of the week after Easter Sunday, and the topic of discussion among clergy, musicians, and liturgy geeks has been “have you recovered from Holy Week?” This is followed quickly by "how was your Holy Week?” and “how can we do it better next year?”

Almost everything in that previous paragraph is a symptom of a problem. Catholic liturgical theology and heortology (theology of time) insists that Easter is the beginning of a time of life in heaven on earth. But if that is the case, why is it that the only thing I want after the Easter morning Eucharist is a long nap?

There seems to be a constant desire to fiddle with Holy Week. From seders and agape meals, to funerals for Jesus on Good Friday (and that's not just an American protestant phenomenon; Greek Orthodox innovators in the middle 19th century created the kouvouklion procession and the burial of the corpus), to Tre Ore preaching, to moving Maundy Thursday to Tuesday—or even out of Holy Week—there seems to be no end to the possible improvements.

In a previous life, I managed software quality process. One common slogan was “you can't repair quality into a product. You can only build it in.” Another principle is that a program can tolerate only a limited number of “improvements” before it needed to be re-engineered from the ground up.

I think that is where we find ourselves with Holy Week and Easter. To continue with our engineering analogy, two (or more) products have been munged together without paying attention to user-centered design (Holy Week as Windows Vista?) And as a result, you have a bloated product that sometimes works incredibly well, but most of the time is cumbersome and comes with more features than you can use.

We can crack this kind of engineering problem by going back to the original design documents. Unfortunately, in liturgy, we don't have those docs, so we'll have to look at what we do have: performance reports about earlier vesions of the liturgy. And what do we see with this sort of comparative historical study?

There are two different streams in the celebration of Easter. And they don't match up.

One of these is about drama and re-enacting the past, and the other is about present appropriation of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Because commerce always wins out over truth (whether in engineering or church), and there's money in tourism, re-enacting won out. Fortunately, enough of the power of hope remained to make it all worthwhile (sometimes). Unfortunately, it often is way more work and much less real than we hoped for.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to tease out two of the earliest versions of Holy Week and Easter—the one in fourth-century Jerusalem, and its contemporary in North Africa. Then I'll look at how they got combined, and why, when we had a chance to fix Holy Week in the last century, we didn't. And then—I hope before Pentecost—we should get into a discussion about what to do about Holy Week.


  1. Finally, a blog I'll actually read (unlike my own blog).

  2. I'm very pleased to have found your blog. I hope you will continue writing it.

    Warren R. Johnson
    (one of your predecessors at All Saints')