I love Easter. I’ve always loved Easter. Of course, when I was little I looked forward to the number of eggs we would get. As clergy children, elderly parishioners would love to give us Easter eggs because their own children had grown up and moved away, so we always ended up with massive piles of chocolate- which explains why I was overweight as a child! But then as I started to grow up I was attracted to the joy in the church that came with Easter day. Particularly as I noticed how bare the church was all the way through Lent, compared with the colour and new life that returned on Easter Sunday, When I was a teenager I started to engage with Lent as well, and so Easter became looking forward to not giving things up any more. I don’t know how many times I gave up chocolate, it never felt any easier, and it always ended up seeming pointless after the amount of chocolate I would end up eating on Easter day anyway.
As I got older still, and particularly in the last few years, I’ve been excited by the number of ‘things’ that start happening in the life of the church. Suddenly you have extra bible studies, there’s more discipleship material around, more opportunity for reflection, different ways of praying are introduced, all sorts of services that I’ve never been to before. Each year as I’ve been in a leadership position in the church, I think I’ve found another style of worship to try out- Tenebrae, the way of the cross, the Easter vigil.
Last year I blogged about all the services that happened in my group of churches, which were largely the same this year. We had 2 weekly bible studies and a weekly Compline service throughout Lent; we celebrated Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday with palm crosses; we went to the cathedral for the Chrism Eucharist on Maundy Thursday- although this time I sat in the congregation and didn’t con-celebrate; we celebrated the Passover Supper together; on Good Friday we had our children’s activity session, this year on the theme of Frozen, which was a lot of fun; we also had a stations of the cross service using pictures, prayers, music and readings; and celebrated Easter Sunday with a Eucharist in church.
This year I was really excited about Lent. It’s such a good opportunity for so many things to happen. The bible studies in the benefice were largely run by lay-people, but I was leading confirmation sessions using Youth Alpha in the same time period. The Compline is led alternately by different members of the clergy team and readers, but even so, you find that there is suddenly so much more to do and to plan for, that all your good intentions go out the window. I was determined to follow a personal Lent devotion this year so I signed up for 40 acts, and, as I’d advertised it on the first Sunday of Lent, I posted the link onto the church Facebook page so that other people could follow it as well. I did really well for the first couple of weeks, but then things got busier, and I started to just read them and immediately share the link, rather than engaging with them in any meaningful way.
I wanted to have a theme running through Lent this year, rather than the disjointed sermon topics I usually end up with, and fortunately, I did manage to keep that. We used the Lectionary readings to look at the idea of covenant, constantly linking the covenants that God made with people in the Old Testament to the new covenant with Jesus, and building on that every week. So that happened, and it was all fine.
But then we came into Holy Week and everything started to fall apart. I love the number of things we have going on in Holy Week, they’re all really varied and interesting and I wouldn’t want to cut anything out. In fact, some of them are among the most enjoyable services of the year, and a chance to see people who we don’t see at any other time. The start of the week should have been OK, however I’d put a lot of work into helping out with the Easter Experience running in my fiancé’s church the week before, so I still had a bit of a lag over from that. But the services started coming round very quickly and there was a lot to do for all of them. Added to the fact that we had our Eucharist on the Wednesday morning which was followed by the semi final of the Tearfund Big Bake tournament that we’ve been running, and it was my turn to make a pie (I lost, by the way), and suddenly there weren’t enough hours in the day.
I’m very lucky in my parish to have lots of people who do things- for the Passover Supper the churchwardens bought most of the supplies and prepared a lot of the food; and for the Good Friday Frozen session the planning was done jointly with the Methodist leader so the most difficult thing was trying to find some white pom-poms to make Olafs- which takes considerable time trying to drive around Cardiff when everywhere is out of stock! I’m aware though that I am in a very fortunate position, lots of parishes don’t have lay readers to be focusing on bible studies, or people they can work with, or even pro-active parishioners to take some of the weight off. So I can definitely understand how parishes don’t end up with the variety of Lent activities that we do.
Aside from the difficulty in organising the events themselves, there’s also the problem that the time spent takes away from time when you could be visiting people. I have a whole list of people who I wanted to visit in Holy Week and just ran out of time to go and see. There’s also an expectation that your Easter sermon will be ‘a good one’, particularly if it’s an all-age service. For those people who only come to church at Christmas and Easter, you want to be delivering something that’s going to make an impact. I think secretly we’re hoping that the sermon will be so powerful that it will somehow persuade people to start coming to church every week. That doesn’t happen.
I’m not writing this as a general moan about how busy Holy Week is, I’m just trying to give an idea of the pressures that we face before moving into the more unsettling point. We all get so busy in Lent, that by the time we get to Holy Week, we’re looking forward to Easter being over. All the clergy I spoke to at the Chrism Mass looked exhausted, and were looking forward to all the planning and preparing coming to a close on Easter Sunday.
What worries me is that there’s a danger that by the time we get to Easter Sunday, we’re so tired that we can’t fully appreciate the joy in the resurrection that we’re supposed to- not out of any duty, but because that’s the emotion it should invoke. The picture I paint for my congregations is that Lent is a time of quiet reflection, contemplation and self-examination; in Holy Week we try to identify with the suffering of Jesus until the emptiness and loneliness of Good Friday, and then on Easter Sunday everything suddenly springs back to life- we have flowers in church again, we sing the Gloria, the music is generally very joyful, and that’s good- that’s how it should be. The new life within the church echoing the new life of the resurrection. But for clergy it’s a very different story. Lent is a time of extra business, of not really having much time for self-reflection because you’re too busy helping other people to reflect. In Holy Week we’re trying to think about new and imaginative ways to help people to understand what Jesus went through. Good Friday and Saturday are normally spent with trying desperately to write your sermon for Sunday that will communicate the joy of Easter to all the different groups within your church; before going home to crash on the sofa and not move for the next week.
But that’s not what Easter is about. I don’t want to lose the wonder of Easter because I’m too tired to appreciate it. I don’t want to forget the mystery and the power of the resurrection because I’ve spent too much time over-analysing it for my sermon. I want to go into church and experience the joy and the love and the grace that I’m trying to share with my congregation. If I’m not feeling it, then how on earth can I expect them to?
I don’t know what the answer is. I don’t want to stop doing the things in Lent that we’re doing now because I really enjoy them, and I think their really helpful and important. But I do worry about the ability of clergy to be able to articulate the good news of Easter when they’re (or we’re) just looking forward to it not being Easter any more. Maybe I just need to start doing all my Easter planning in ordinary time when we’ve got nothing better to do, and then I’ll be really prepared for next year. If anyone has worked out a way of doing Easter and not feeling physically drained at the end of it, then please, let me know, and I will try it your way next year!