Bunnies and baskets began gracing supermarket shelves weeks ago. Every third commercial on television is for Cadbury eggs, people on Facebook are wishing you a happy Easter, and signs of spring abound.
But it’s not Easter yet! It’s still Lent, and liturgical Christians around the world continue to restrain their joy (and their alleluias) until April 16. The celebration of Christ’s resurrection takes on even greater meaning when we are rightly prepared. If you have not been observing Lent, or even if you have, here are some ways to make Holy Week—the week before Easter—a time to quietly and repentantly reflect upon the most important event in the history of the world.
1. Observe Palm Sunday
Many Christians attend church on Easter. Way fewer attend the week before. If you don’t normally go to church on Palm Sunday (observed as “Passion” Sunday by some churches), you are missing out on the moment when Christ’s steps turn unmistakably toward the cross. When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, his followers threw palm branches in His path, singing “hosannas” and hailing Him as a king.
Within days, Jesus was deserted and denied by those followers, condemned, scourged, crucified, and laid in a borrowed tomb. To fully grasp the significance of Jesus’ redemptive work for a fickle, unworthy humanity, one needs to trace His path from the very beginning of Holy Week. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
2. Listen To Holy Week Music
Nothing sets the proper mood like music. A couple of years ago I wrote this suggested listening list for Holy Week. Here are two others. Lutheran Public Radio also streams sacred music in keeping with the liturgical season.
3. Read Your Way Through Holy Week
“The Greatest Part of the Greatest Story: The History of Jesus from Cross to Crown” draws on all four gospels to narrate the story of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. “A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience,” organized into sections on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday, “invites us to develop a faith that embraces the tension between what we believe and what we experience” (back cover).
The online Revised Common Lectionary has appointed readings for each day of Holy Week. Or you might choose to spend the week reading one (or all?) of the four Gospels. (I suggest Luke, as it leads naturally into Acts, which would be great to read during the season of Easter).
4. Attend The Other Services Of Holy Week
Holy Week is framed by Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, but what happens between is what makes the Sundays make sense. Many churches offer worship each day of Holy Week.
The Triduum, or Three Days, includes the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Vigil. Maundy Thursday commemorates Christ’s Last Supper with the apostles, Good Friday marks His crucifixion and death, and the Easter Vigil, traditionally beginning at sundown on Holy Saturday, provides a bridge between Lent and Easter by moving from dark and quiet reverence to bells, alleluias, and joyful celebration of the Resurrection.
This can be a particularly good way of teaching children about the meaning of Holy Week, as the visual and aural changes in a short span of time are quite striking. In a matter of days, the sanctuary moves from palms and hosannas to an altar that is first stripped, then draped in black, then resplendent with lilies and paraments of white and gold. In my own church, the stripping and re-adorning of the altar actually occur during the church services themselves, further heightening the significance of what is happening.
5. Do A Mini-Lenten Observance
Maybe you thought about participating in a Lenten discipline but didn’t quite get around to doing so. Believe me, you’re not alone.
But it’s not too late! Beginning Palm Sunday and carrying through to Easter Sunday, consider engaging in an act of sacrifice or devotion. Give up the chocolate or the swearing. Alternatively, or additionally, commit to a daily activity designed to help focus your mind on the business at hand. Consider a reading plan for the week (see #3 above), or if you aren’t already in the habit, commit to regular daily prayer. Pray when you wake up, at breakfast, lunch, supper, and before bed.
If you aren’t sure how or what to pray, you can’t go wrong with The Lord’s Prayer. Or, since the Book of Psalms is also known as the Bible’s prayer book, you could choose a psalm to read at each prayer time. Also consider these beautiful prayers for morning and evening written by Martin Luther.
6. Take Part In A Mini-Fast
Consider a full or modified fast starting from the conclusion of Good Friday worship through sundown on Saturday (biblically speaking, sundown is equivalent to the start of the next day, which is why the Vigil is considered to be an Easter service).
You don’t have to give up all sustenance to reap the spiritual benefit of fasting. You might simply eat less, eat more simply, or skip supper Friday, eat a light breakfast Saturday, and then have a meal after the Easter Vigil. The point of fasting is not to prove anything, make yourself suffer, or earn God’s approval. It is to help focus one’s mind and spirit, and as such is an extremely personal thing. If you typically can’t get through the day without chain-drinking coffee or diet Dr. Pepper, going without for six hours might be sufficient.
7. Unplug For The Week
Turn off the TV, shut down the computer and cell phone, and sign off social media. Doing one or more of the preceding could be part of your Holy Week discipline (see #5), or it could be an addition to it, one that would have the effect of helping you stay tuned in to the amazing story that is being played out before you in Word, worship and song.
8. Use Social Media Posts to Direct Attention to Holy Week
If you decide to stay plugged in, use your social media to proclaim the events of the week. Instead of posting political rants, pictures of your food, or updates about your activities, post Bible passages and links to great works of art that point to the most important social act of all time: how God in His great mercy kept His promise, given to Adam and Eve, to redeem His creation.
The list above is not meant to be a burden but a blessing. If your life is such that waking up, putting two feet on the floor and getting out of bed takes great effort, skip all of the above. It’s okay. Go to church on Easter and hear of God’s love for you. He isn’t keeping score.