Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Monday-Thursday of Holy Week


Between Monday morning and Thursday night
Reflections on the symbols and ceremonies of Holy Week by Michael Merriman




As we think about Holy Week our focus is usually on Palm Sunday and then the Great Three Days. What the BCP (USA) and the BAS (Canada) offer for between them is limited – the Daily Office and propers for Eucharists on Monday through Wednesday. The American Prayer Book lectionary offered an alternative Gospel reading for Thursday of the institution of the Eucharist from Luke rather than the foot-washing reading, I presume to offer the opportunity to omit foot-washing or perhaps for a Eucharist earlier in the day.  With the adoption of the RCL that option is no longer provided. It is fairly common to see Eucharist offered each of the first three days and perhaps a daytime Eucharist on Thursday for those who cannot come to an evening celebration.

There are two other events in those first days of Holy Week that are common – Tenebrae on Wednesday evening and a diocesan Eucharist with clergy renewal of ordination vows and in many places blessing of oils.

There are many sources for Tenebrae, including the Episcopal Church’s Book of Occasional Services.  This rite is a monastic observance from the period before Vatican II when the Eucharist could not be offered after Noon. Thus the Maundy Thursday Eucharist with foot-washing was celebrated on Maundy Thursday morning and to keep the morning free for that, the offices of Matins and Lauds for Thursday were celebrated on Wednesday night.  (Likewise in monastic use at least, there was also Tenebrae for Thursday night and Friday night in order to leave the next mornings free for the proper liturgies of those days.) The question for me at least is what is the purpose of Tenebrae when the Triduum liturgies are now celebrated at night? Is Tenebrae a living rite or the rehearsal of a no longer needed rite celebrated for nostalgic purposes?  I wonder.

The Eucharist for Ordination Renewal and Blessing of Oils (in many dioceses now celebrated earlier in Holy Week rather than on Maundy Thursday) is a merging together of three different rites with differing purposes and rationales:

- Commemoration of the Last Supper
- Blessing of oils, especially Chrism for the Easter Baptisms
- Renewal of ordination vows, with the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Last Supper being the establishment of the priesthood.

Many of us may see in this a piling on of meaning that obscures the movement of Holy Week itself by overlaying the primary meaning of Maundy Thursday with other themes.

While in the past it might have made sense to bless the oils in Holy Week, the provision in the American BCP for bishops to consecrate chrism for baptism when the bishop visits the local parish would seem to suffice for keeping a supply on hand in each congregation. And since oil for anointing the sick can be and usually is blessed by the priest at need, there is no point for a bishop to bless it in Holy Week.

The renewal of clerical ordination vows was first added on Maundy Thursday by Pope Paul VI during the changes following Vatican II to ensure that Roman Catholic priests would renew their vows of celibacy, a concern of the Vatican in those days. Somewhere in the 1970’s Episcopal bishops started doing the renewal in imitation (though, obviously, without the vow of celibacy).  The Roman Catholic rationale was its teaching that Jesus established the priesthood at the Last Supper, something that is not generally taught in Anglicanism.

Some dioceses now have a renewal of ordination vows at their annual clergy conference rather than in Holy Week and that seems to many liturgists a better plan (if such a general renewal is considered something that really should be done).

What is being done on these days in your congregation and diocese? What discussions take place concerning these days? 

Perhaps the first three and one half days of Holy Week would better be devoted to the Daily Office and Eucharist when possible, as a kind of retreat to prepare us for the Paschal observance that stretches from Maundy Thursday at sunset to Easter Day at sunset.


Michael Merriman, a member of APLM Council, is a presbyter serving Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, Texas.

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