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By Rev. Justin Smoot

One question that I often get is: Why do churches have these seasons? Why do we have Lent before Easter, and Advent before Christmas? My usual response is: how long before December 25th is your Christmas tree up?

We are no strangers to preparation for holidays and festivals. You were probably able to get Easter candy back in January, if not beginning February 15th. We are constantly looking ahead to those days when we celebrate, or at least when we give ourselves the space to change gears in our world, and take a break from the mechanized pace of our digital lives.

Holy Week is especially important for this process. While many folks go to church on Palm Sunday and then Easter, skipping the time between, they miss our on the meat of the Jesus’ story. At some point, too, television will run Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, or Cecil B. DeMils The Ten Commandments, which are worthy of treatments of their own, but the content does not include the entire story.

[Let me pause here for a liturgical interlude: We call it Holy Week and yet only have services Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. There are appointed readings for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week, where, this year, we would hear of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in preparation for his death, Jesus teaching that he must die, and Judas dipping his hand in the bowel with Jesus. All of these from John 12-13. This also means that we could have a service for each day of the week. And we haven’t talked about Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday and the Harrowing of Hell.]

Maundy Thursday is not Monday Thursday, as I used to hear it when I was a kid. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, which means command. While this service pull images from the last supper, when Jesus gathered in the upper room with his disciples, it is focused less on reframing the basic symbols of the Jewish Passover meal as Jesus’ body and blood, and more on his final command to the disciples, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” This command follows closely the washing of the feet, where Jesus the teacher and master took on the role of a servant to those who looked up to him. A clear distinction between human community and community founded upon Christ.

Good Friday is anything but. This is where the Passion of Christ can become overwrought with depictions of violence as we imagine the wrath of God that should be inflicted upon us for our sin and rebellion against God, but is instead inflicted upon Jesus as he is lynched by the Roman authorities and strung up on the tree of the cross. What is Good about that? If it were not for the example of the food washing and the overturning of human expectations in the presence of God, we would be unable to call this unceasing stream of violence, torture, apathy, and death good. Yet, with Jesus’ words predicting this exact event, his clear understanding of God’s purpose to draw us back to life, and the unmistakable new thing that all who follow Christ see in his ministry and hear in his teaching, we begin to see Good Friday as a good day.

But, then we are left in the stillness of Holy Saturday, where Jesus is entombed, the stone is in place, and the whole world wants to move on. Yet, we are watching and waiting for what we pray and hope is coming. We sit in the stillness of death’s shadow with the stories of scripture echoing in our ears. Stories of God’s good creation, God’s strong arm to save, and every way that our God is “gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” While we wait and watch for the dawning to the prophesied Third Day. We were present the first day when Jesus was betrayed, arrested, judged, and executed. We sit now in the second day with the death that is his and ours, knowing Sunday’s coming.

The darkness and the stillness of these great Three Days of Christina faith, also known as the Triduum, provide the contrast for the Alleluia’s of Easter to land where they need to. To recognize the service for us in the passion, death, and resurrection as a model deeper and more meaningful than the washing of feet because we sat in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Resurrection resonating with the reasons for the cross and the restoration that is ours in Easter’s dawn.

Taking it all in, now we understand the reason for the preparation. The need to give the festival, the holiday, the Holy Day its space to speak the old, old story of life with God.

Rev. Justin Smoot

Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.