Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Ceremonies of Passiontide Described

Here is a foretaste of part of the Passiontide edition of the print journal. Subscribe here for just $15 or $25 for two years (US).

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Unlike Advent’s simple preparation for Christmas, the preparation for Easter in Lent is not only longer but also intensifies through three distinct seasons: Pre-Lent, Lent, and Passiontide.

Passiontide begins on Judica, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. The first four weeks of Lent were meant to focus on catechesis and personal preparation. Passiontide moves to direct consideration of our Lord’s last hours and suffering. In addition to Lenten ceremonies such as the removal of Alleluias and the Greater Gloria, Judica is marked by the veiling of crosses and statues, closing of triptychs, and the removal of the Gloria Patri.

The veiling of crosses, in particular, seems to confuse some parishioners and pastors. This is  part of what makes it so useful: it is jarring. The ancient thought is that we do not deserve to look upon the crosses because we are not worthy of the sacrifice that Jesus has made for us there. The cross is our greatest and most cherished symbol. To partially remove it then, even if only for a short time, heightens how much we need it. This jarring ceremony also helps us to better appreciate it when it returns.

The crosses, however, are not taken away completely. They are not removed from the sanctuary. That would be inappropriate in any season, for apart from what our Lord has done for us on the cross we have no way to enter into God’s presence and not be destroyed. The crosses then are only covered. It is best to use gauzy black material, that which is actually used for veils, rather than solid woven cloth. The gauzy material allows the outlines of the crosses to still be visible, while taking away some of the details and dulling the shininess of brass, gold, and silver parts. This material also calls to mind mourning, and it symbolizes that our grief prevents us from seeing clearly until the Good Friday liturgy and, of course, Easter. Faith, after all, always views the cross in the light of the empty tomb.

The veiling also reminds us of our Lord’s actions in response to the violence of the people as recorded in the Judica Gospel (St. John 8:42-59). There we read: “They picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself” (v. 59 ESV). It is ideal if the crosses and statues in the sanctuary are veiled during the service, after the reading of the Gospel, and not before. While it may not to be possible for every cross in the church to be veiled during the service, having acolytes ready to veil those that can be during the Creed will help make the connection to the Gospel.

The idea of removing the Gloria Patri for Passiontide is much the same. The triune name that has been given to us at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel is the fullest revelation of God’s name and His most personal name. It outranks the Tetragrammaton given to Moses from the burning bush and all other names. To take away the Gloria Patri for two weeks is a bit jarring, but again it helps us remember that the use of God’s triune name is a privilege not to be taken for granted.

It is not clear in the ancient rubrics if this should be applied to the Nunc Dimittis or only to the Introit, since the Nunc Dimittis hasn’t always been a part of the Divine Service. It is particularly awkward not to sing it at the end of the Nunc Dimittis, much more so than at the Introit. Thus it is my opinion that it should be dropped there also for this very reason. Jarring, in this case, is helpful. Again, its short-term removal serves to draw attention to it and highlight our privilege for the other fifty weeks of the year.

Holy Week is not always counted as a separate division within Passiontide, but it might be, since nearly every day has its own ceremonies, but the ceremonies of Passiontide, in any case, continue. The rite for Palm Sunday as restored in Lutheran Worship and Lutheran Service Book is vastly preferred over The Lutheran Hymnal. The blessing of the palms and the reading of the triumphant entry as recorded in St. Matthew 21 take place in the narthex. This will also be surprising to some members who grew up with TLH and are used to nothing different on Palm Sunday. But the restored rite in our newer hymnals is the best practice, because it marks the unique character of Palm Sunday and restores the Passion. To process into the nave with the palms after the reading of the Gospel sets the people themselves as moving toward the cross.

At the normal place for the Gospel, immediately following the Tract, St. Matthew 21 is not read. Instead, the Passion from St. Matthew 26:1—27:66 is read. This could be chanted, or a choral Passion could be used, but that is difficult to pull off on a Sunday morning service that has already been extended by the extra ceremonies with the palms, and it is also significantly longer than a typical Gospel Reading. I recommend therefore that the Passion be read, not chanted, and that the Passion ceremonies be observed. This means that there should not be a Gospel procession at the Passion and that the congregation remains seated. They will not expect this because they are used to standing at the Tract during Lent and will most likely have to be motioned to sit down. The Salutation, the normal introduction, and the Response to the Gospel are all omitted. It is meant to be bare, stark. The most important ceremony is that the congregation joins in the reading of the Passion by reading all of the quotations in the text that aren’t our Lord’s words, that is, the things that St. Peter, Pilate, the centurion, and others said. This works well if the Passion is printed in the bulletin and the people’s parts are printed in bold print along with a simple instruction. If there is more than one pastor available, the celebrant should read the words that are the direct quotes of our Lord, and the other pastor should serve as the narrator. This mode of reading is useful not simply for keeping the congregants’ attention during the long reading; it actually forces the words of the people gathered around the crucifixion into their mouths. It helps the hearers realize their part in the story. They are both faithful and unfaithful, and the words that Jesus speaks from the cross are then spoken directly to them. This ceremony is unique to the Passions, and should not be used for other readings from Holy Scripture. Finally, it is appropriate after the words about our Lord giving up His spirit and before the tearing of the temple veil for everyone who is able to pause and kneel as the bell is tolled thirty-three times, and then to have the narrator continue.

The Passion from St. Mark (14:1—15:47) is assigned for Holy Tuesday, the Passion from St. Luke (22:1—23:56) is assigned for Holy Wednesday, and the Passion from St. John (18:1—19:42), of course, is assigned for Good Friday. If the Passions are read they are handled in each case with the same ceremonies as that of Palm Sunday.

Maundy Thursday has its own ceremonies. The altar is clothed in white, not violet, in honor of the Lord’s last will and testament given in His Holy Supper. The service enjoys the return of the Greater Gloria, but not the Alleluias or Gloria Patri. At the conclusion of the service the altar is stripped and the sanctuary decorations, such as the candelabra, as far as is possible are removed, including the main crucifix, while Psalm 22 is chanted or read.

Good Friday is the most complicated day of the year and would require a full column on its own. Suffice for now that it should include the return of the main crucifix in procession and, if the Holy Communion is offered, a revesting of the altar, albeit in black, and return of the sanctuary decorations. What was undone on Maundy Thursday is being redone on Good Friday. This is a very helpful ceremony, for it is on the cross that our Lord remakes creation.

All these ceremonies serve to teach us to mortify the flesh. The liturgy would teach us to depend more and more upon the grace of God in Christ. For never, even in our most somber of ceremonies, is the Church in doubt about the end. Jesus died, but He is not dead. Jesus lives. Easter is coming. Our Alleluias, Gloria Patris, crosses, fatty foods, and the like will all return, but even better than that, we shall have them forever in heaven when our own resurrections occur.

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