Holy Week is about journeys. The journey of Jesus during his final earthly week: from the acclaim of the crowds on Palm Sunday as they lay down their cloaks, waved palms and shouted Hosanna!, through to a final meal with his followers, betrayal, imprisonment, humiliation, an agonising death, being laid in a sealed-up tomb and joyful resurrection on Easter Sunday.
It is an intentional journey: Jesus chooses it. We are told that he ‘sets his face towards Jerusalem’. He knows there are prophecies to fulfil. He knows he has been incarnated for something. That doesn’t mean it is an easy choice – because of the very fact of his incarnation. He is human, he tires, he weeps, he forms friendships, he loves, he feels pain.
And in Holy Week we intentionally follow that journey, with its emotional ups and downs, knowing that there is no escape from the cross – we can’t bypass Maundy Thursday and Good Friday to get to the joy of Easter Sunday. They are part of the journey. We must go down before we can come back up.
It is like going down into the waters of baptism. If we are baptised as adults, it is something we choose to do – to identify with Christ. If we are baptised by full immersion, we go down into the waters, entrusting ourselves to them, and are raised again to new life. Water has many symbolic meanings in the Bible – it is life-giving, but It can also be overwhelming.
Sometimes in life we have to go down into the pit – the pit of illness, or of gruelling medical treatment, of suffering, of loss, of bereavement. We do not choose to go there willingly. But we cling on to the hope of resurrection, that we will come out the other side. We hold fast to the hope that we one day angels will gently wake us, the stone will be rolled away from our tomb and we will have been raised again to new life.
But back to the intentional journey of Holy Week. The Church marks the journey with feasts and special services.
I’m not much of a fan of the Maundy Thursday liturgy, in which we mark Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, the night before he was betrayed. The liturgy seems to me to turn something very Middle Eastern and earthy – a meal where they recline on cushions and pass flatbreads around, followed by Jesus washing their no doubt dirty and smelly feet – into something too sanitised and, I’m afraid to say, sometimes a bit dull.
Even the stripping of the altars afterwards always seems a bit too ‘churchy’ for me.
And then the ‘watch’ – a few hours after the service where we sit quietly in church. But I cannot settle and others struggle too. Perhaps, like the disciples who desert Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, I find it too uncomfortable and prefer to flee to my own home.
But Good Friday I love, in all its quiet solemnity. Sheridan appears in her stark black cassock, brandishing long iron nails, which we will pick up later as we enter church for the afternoon service. We gather for our walk of witness, remembering the journey Jesus made from the place of condemnation to death to Golgotha, the site of crucifixion. We walk from St Catherine’s on the top of Telegraph Hill down through Nunhead to the green. There are no more than about 20 to 30 who gather at St Catherine’s. There is a large, plain wooden cross to carry.
We start outside the church and move down through the park. One person carries the cross, the rest walk in silence. The cross is heavy, so we take it in turns to carry it. I love to see the faces of those we pass – in the park, playing with children or just wandering through. There is bewilderment, astonishment, sometimes mild contempt. But then I think, without being too portentous, that it must have been this way in Jerusalem as Jesus walked through its streets towards Golgotha with his cross of his back. Some wept, some gawped, others asked him why he, a prophet who had performed miracles, couldn’t save himself.
We stop in the park to sing and pray. And then move on through quieter streets than usual to Nunhead. The main street with its row of shops – a baker, a butcher, a florist, a fishmonger – is busy with people buying for the Easter feast. There are more askance looks, although some stop respectfully to let us pass. I love this bit! These people are just going about their everyday business, as some of the people of Jerusalem were when Jesus passed by.
We have to cross the road to Nunhead Green. We use the zebra crossing. Some traffic stops; some people just want to race on. Sheridan once leaned into the open window of one car to ask him to stop. The driver must have had the shock of his life.
Then we gather at Nunhead Green, close to a small mound, and remember Christ’s crucifixion. We sing ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’, an old spiritual, which is appropriate as many of those gathered here are ground down, careworn.
Then we scatter to the four winds. The spectacle is over, just as it was on that first Good Friday. We make our way back to the hall of St Thomas the Apostle Catholic church for tea and hot cross buns. In past years, we have been joined by our favourite nuns who have moved into the bottom of Waller Road. One of them has been called to another house, and we shall miss her.
Then it’s time for Sheridan and I to do a bit of shopping before we return up the hill (some kind man usually volunteers to return the cross to the top of the hill to save us carrying it all the way back up).
I love the frisson of shock and confusion as a priest in full-on black cassock orders something at the fishmonger or purchases some hot cross buns in Ayres. In previous years, we have been to the ironmongers to get more nails for the afternoon service. The men there are of Middle Eastern descent – perhaps Turkish. Sheridan shows them an example of the kind of nail she wants – a three-inch long steel nail. They return with them. She asks how much. They say ‘Nothing – it’s for the church, innit’.
We return joyfully up the hill but there is more solemnity to come in the afternoon.
From 1.30, there is the Good Friday service, in which we stay with Christ as he hangs upon the cross. The cross is brought out by Arthur, who is in his 70s and slightly stooped. ‘The cross of Christ’, he sings and we respond, ‘Thanks be to God’. He processes it with it up to the plain, stripped altar and places it on the steps. We are invited to venerate the cross – to go up and touch it, or kneel and kiss it. When I first saw this, something of my evangelical heritage bristled. What a ridiculous, Catholic thing to do, thought I. I’m not going to do that. And some years I don’t. I’ve never managed to kiss it. Sometimes a light touch is all I can manage. But it is beyond moving to see members of the congregation, some of them old and frail, some of them with difficult stories, go up, kneel and touch or kiss this cross.
Then there is the long wait to the Easter vigil on the Saturday evening. The long wait, while Christ’s body is taken down from the cross, wrapped in burial cloths and placed in a tomb. His followers, scattered as they are, must hear the news. Did they feel as if the lives they had lived over the past few years, giving up their occupations and families to follow this man Jesus around, were a waste of time? That they had been fooled? Wasn’t he a prophet, even the Messiah, the one who was going to redeem Israel? And look at him know – executed in the most humiliating and gruesome way, hanging on a tree for all to see and laugh, and shake their heads knowingly. How many more false prophets and leaders of rebellions would end up this way?
His mother and the beloved disciple John have witnessed it all, the horror of it, the painful death.
And we wait in silence. Silence in our hearts.
The Easter vigil begins at 8 pm on Holy Saturday. It is not dark by then, but we gather outside the church to light a fire. We are usually few in number – a handful. Sometimes we struggle to light the fire. The wood is too damp, the firelighters ineffective. But we usually get enough of a fire going to light our individual candles from it, as the sun goes down. We then enter the dark church, in single file. Sheridan sings ‘The light of Christ’ and we respond, ‘Thanks be to God.’ I love this bit of the service. I feel like a medieval monk. There are then some very long readings – we seem to do the whole of the creation story – but then there is another favourite bit – the renewal of baptism vows, which we do at the back of the church by the font, dipping out fingers in the water, making the sign of the cross, renewing our commitment to follow this Lord who has lain in a tomb but is about to rise again to new life.
I’ve always loved Easter – to me it’s daffodils and the coming of spring and new clothes. A former neighbour here used to quote a saying from her Irish father, ‘The sun always dances on Easter day’. And it often seems to do.
In church we gather in joy and clatter instruments. We greet each other with ‘Christ is risen!’ and respond ‘He is risen indeed! Alleluia!’ Often we have a trumpeter who is no doubt bemused but nonetheless seems to relish the opportunity to play along joyfully. There is relief – we have done it, we have walked another Holy Week with Christ, we have been down to the pit, to the depths of sorrow, we have looked death in the face, given it a long hard look, but we have come up again – we have risen again through the waters of baptism to new life. We are risen indeed. Alleluia.