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Holy Week is my favorite time of year to be a pastor. That’s not to say it isn’t stressful. It is intense and tiring. But the extra effort seems worthwhile because of what it allows: For one week, we focus solely on Jesus. For one week, all the petty distractions and concerns that disproportionately consume our ministries during the rest of the year fade away. For one week, we pay attention to the one thing needful.

For a few years, our young church has hosted a full set of Holy Week services. At The Upper Room, we observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and our regular 11:00 a.m. worship on Easter Sunday. This seems uncommon among Presbyterians – a bit too “high church” for some of our sister churches. It’s also a lot for a small congregation to take on. With only 40 regular attendees on a Sunday morning, you may expect our church to have a sparse turnout at so many midweek services, but people come. One year we were filled to overflowing on Good Friday. People seem to come to church with an increasingly genuine hunger for Jesus in this season. And all the extra services are worthwhile if the Holy Spirit uses them to draw one person more deeply into love with Jesus.

By walking through every part of the narrative of Holy Week, we also “wrap our lives around Jesus’ life.”[1]  It’s the core story of our faith, that narrative which formed and forms us. By hearing the story anew, we’re reminded both of who we are and who we’re becoming in Christ. We start to see ourselves in the people surrounding Jesus: On Thursday we may identify with the Beloved Disciple, resting our heads against Jesus’ chest in intimate fellowship. Then as the story continues, we recognize the Judas within ourselves, we identify with Peter’s betrayal, and we watch with Mary as her son dies.

But then a beautiful thing happens: At the Easter Vigil, we join with the angels in proclaiming the victory of Light over darkness. When the sun rises on Sunday morning, we feel the magnitude of the resurrection more strongly. Having dwelt with Jesus through those hours of betrayal and agony yields for us a deeper joy, such that when we contemplate the glory of the resurrection, we too experience transformation into the ever-increasing glory of Jesus’ likeness (2 Cor 3:18). The Apostle Paul said that we “share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17), and dwelling deeply in the narrative of Holy Week gives us a taste of such transformation from suffering to glory.

Of course, this all will happen in a messy, incarnate manner. A child may spill her food at Thursday’s agapé meal. It will be freezing cold on Sunday morning and my fingers will go numb while playing guitar in the park at sunrise. All of this is taking place in the context of a church plant in Pittsburgh where we’re still struggling to follow Jesus together. But that’s exactly what this week is about: following Jesus together, wrapping our lives around his death and his life, so that his glory can shine in our lives.

As we experience Holy Week, may the Lord give us the grace to soak in the story of his passion and resurrection. May we delight in the extra work, the extra worship, the extra time spent adoring Christ upon the cross. And may our current sufferings prove unworthy of comparison to the glory that is being revealed to us.

This post first appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

[1] Our church picked up this phrase from the bridge of the popular worship song “Center” by Charlie Hall: “We lift our eyes to heaven; we wrap our lives around Your life.”

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Tonight at sunset – 7:50pmUpper Room will begin its Easter Vigil service. I say begin because it’s actually the first part of a service that doesn’t completely end until the conclusion of our 11:00am service on Easter Sunday. Not only is it part three of the Triduum (see below), it’s also parts one and two of a four-part Easter celebration (see further below). This may merit some explanation, so, let me explain. (Note also that this explanation is also the fruit of what my co-pastor Mike explained to me earlier in the week.  He’s turning me into a liturgy geek.)

If you’ve never been to an Easter Vigil service before, you may be surprised when some of the language tonight speaks as though Christ has already been raised from the dead.  That didn’t happen till Sunday morning, right? Well, the women found the tomb empty at sunrise on Sunday morning, so technically it would have been sometime during the night that Jesus was raised.  And who would have witnessed this? The angels. We join in worship tonight with the angels, seeing the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection through their eyes.  So, our liturgy for tonight will include part of the Exultet, a centuries old hymn which proclaims the resurrection beginning with the angels: “Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, / and let your trumpets shout Salvation / for the victory of our mighty King!”

Easter Vigil is the third service of the Triduum, the series of services including Maundy Thursday and Good Friday which in effect constitute one long service. There’s no benediction at the end of any of them. And each of the services is fully aware of the events of the whole week. On Maundy Thursday we included songs about the cross and speech about the resurrection in the service.  This is because (as Mike explained to me) we’re looking at the events again through the eyes of the angels. We know the good news about how the story ends.

Now to the four-part piece of information: The liturgy we’ll use tonight is a combination of Anglican and Presbyterian liturgies, with some traditional, contemporary, and home-grown music added to the mix.  In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer’s liturgy for Easter Vigil, there are actually four parts to the service.  While I think they would normally be celebrated together as one long service, we’re breaking things up and allowing people to go home and sleep.  The parts are listed below, as we will celebrate them tonight and tomorrow morning.

1) The Service of Light – Sunset was the beginning of the next day for Judaism and for the ancient Church. So as we mark the transition to Sunday, we also will light the Christ candle again, signifying the return of life to Jesus’ body.  We’ll sing a modern version of the ancient hymn Phos Hilaron (“Hail Gladdening Light”) and process into our worship space, where we’ll read the Exultet.

2) The Service of the Word – After the Exultet, the service of the Word begins. Most of the service tonight will consist of long readings from scripture, followed by space for reflection and singing.  The scripture passages recall God’s faithfulness throughout history from creation to the promise of Christ. It’s meditative, and joyful in its simplicity.  This is becoming my favorite service of the entire Church year. When it ends, you’re free to go home and sleep.  The service continues at sunrise.

3) The Service of Baptism – This will be our sunrise service at 6:50am near the Blue Slide entrance of Frick Park.  We will sing, we will read the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, and then we will have a renewal of baptismal vows.

4) The Service of Eucharist – 11:00am at Upper Room. Our normal Sunday worship service will conclude the celebration of Holy Week, complete with Eucharist, celebrating our union with the risen Christ.  Though this may feel like the “big” Easter service, it’s really the big conclusion and celebration of the worship which has continued throughout the week.

I’m really looking forward to the next few days in the life of our Church. This will be the fourth (yes, fourth!) Holy Week that The Upper Room has celebrated together since we ventured out on this journey of planting a new congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Each year our worship together grows richer and deeper, and I believe that God will continue that trend this year. Here’s the full slate of services, borrowed from Upper Room’s website:

At Upper Room, we have a tradition of transitioning from Lent to Easter with a full set of Holy Week services that the Church has called the “Triduum” – a set of three services, which is actually considered one long service of worship over the course of three nights. Here’s a schedule of this year’s services, with a little bit of background on each. Each service (except for the sunrise service) will be at 5828 Forward Ave. and will last about 60 minutes.

Maundy Thursday – Thursday April 5 @ 7pm
This service is the celebration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples before his crucifixion. This service will include an “Agape (Love) Meal.” We ask everyone to bring a contribution of bread, fruit, cheese or veggies to share. We’ll also celebrate Communion together.

Good Friday – Friday April 6 @ Sunset (7:50pm)
This is the service remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. This service will include some extended readings of Scripture and silence at the end to meditate on Jesus’ death for our sake.

Easter Vigil (part 1) – Saturday April 7 @ sunset (7:51pm)
This service is the oldest known holiday in the Christian church, and is designed to move us to Easter by reflecting on the mystery of the resurrection and recalling God’s faithfulness to his people by reading several Old Testament stories.

Easter Sunrise Service / Easter Vigil (part 2) – Sunday April 8 @ sunrise (6:51am) in Frick Park.  Go to the Blue Slide Entrance at the corner of Beechwood and Nicholson. (weather permitting)
While many Easter Vigils actually last all night, our will be “paused” a little before 9pm and resume with our sunrise service the next day on Easter morning. This service will include the reading of the Easter story and a renewal of our baptismal vows.

Easter Day Worship – Sunday April 8 @ 11am
And of course we’ll be celebrating Easter Sunday at our normal Sunday morning time as well!