Holy Week is my favorite week of the year. I love the intentionality of it. I love the special services, the detailed planning, and the gathering of a congregation on different days of the week. But mine is a recent love affair. Growing up as a Southern Baptist girl in Texas, I knew nothing of Ash Wednesday or Lent or Holy Week or even Advent.
I was late to the party–late to these beautiful yearly celebrations that now are so much part of the rhythm of my faith. So I have been making up for lost time.
About five years ago, I made the decision to incorporate Holy Week observances into my own faith experience. The church where I was a member at the time did not host Holy Week services, so I was free. Free to explore. Free to visit. Free to discover the varied traditions of other Christian denominations.
In the last five years, I have attended Maundy Thursday services at a traditional Presbyterian church, a really laid back- Methodist church, a more traditional Methodist church, and a large Lutheran church. I have been to Good Friday services at a small Lutheran church, a very contemporary-style Presbyterian church, a very small Methodist church, and a lovely Episcopal church. And all these churches have been less than a twenty-minute drive from my house. I attended a sunrise worship service at the top of Stone Mountain one Easter morning and then attended the Easter service at my own church. One year I sat with hundreds of others on a beautifully manicured lawn and listened to a praise band, while drinking coffee and watching the sun come up over the trees.
Five years later, I am a certifiable Holy Week junkie–one who desperately searches the internet for new churches to attend each year on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.
My all-time favorite was the Tenebrae service at the large Lutheran church. It was so moving that I went back again the next year, and I will probably go back there again this year.
One thing I have gained in all my church visiting during Holy Week is a collection of good stories . . . like the year I went to the Maundy Thursday service at the contemporary-worship Presbyterian church where the pastor dedicated his sermon to talking about the seder meal. He carefully described the food that would be served, offering details about how the food would be prepared–and he had a plate with all the foods on the table in front of him. It was like Show-and-Tell Seder. But he didn’t share. No eating at this meal. I thought the best part was that he provided shopping tips. Matzo could be easily purchased at the near-by Kroger and was in the international food section.
And then there was the Good Friday service at the Episcopal church, where I was greeted with a hug AND a kiss from the priest. I found a seat closer to the back than the front and sat . . . and sat . . . and sat! For two hours. Now you have to understand that I am a member of an African American church. I am accustomed to services that last several hours. But this was a white Episcopal church. I thought Episcopalians had seven minute homilies. Not so on Good Friday at the Episcopal church near my house! They out-prayed, out-preached, out-confessed, out-sang my own church!
But my favorite Holy Week story of all took place at the pretty laid-back Methodist church on Maundy Thursday. That year I was in a hard place in life and was hoping to attend a somber worship service that would reflect the darkness in my life. I needed some time for confession. I wanted to sit in silence and shadows.
But as I entered the brightly-lit sanctuary, I was greeted by the noise of church folk laughing and talking, hugging each other, acting like they hadn’t seen one another in years. I began to suspect that this would not be the experience I had been hoping to have. We sang an upbeat hymn, read a beautiful litany, listened to some prayers. It was a nice service, a warm and friendly service. Nothing dark. Nothing somber. But then the lights were lowered. Finally. I was ready, prepared, waiting. Then the spotlight came on, shining there on the stage, focused on the . . . mime.
Music started playing, canned music. It was a song that I didn’t know but have since learned is Ray Boltz’s “Watch the Lamb.” And as Ray began singing, the mime began moving, swaying, acting out the words as only mimes do.
Now the mime was not small. He was a bigger guy, dressed all in black except for his white gloves, and as he began moving to the music, lifting his arms into the air, pointing and gesturing, his black t-shirt rode up, and suddenly we all had a really clear view of the mime’s belly. His naked, very white belly, shining there in the spotlight. And all my hopes for a somber service were gone. I looked away, hoping that “Watch the Lamb” would be a short song. It was not. I picked up the Methodist hymnal, read several hymns. I took an offering envelope and made a grocery list. I looked at the tiles on the floor, noticing a crack in the one nearest the door. I bit my lip, holding the laughter in, trying so, so hard not to embarrass myself by giggling.
A mime on Maundy Thursday. A mime with a short t-shirt and a white belly.
Not the silence and shadows I was wanting. Not the darkness and soberness I needed.
As a Holy Week junkie, this is what I know: Sometimes you go to church, and you don’t get what you are expecting or even what you are wanting or needing. Sometimes you get a mime.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.