This has been a blessed week. At every point, the week has been marked by powerful music. Here is a re-tracing of the steps we took together at my church.
Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! We sang "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" as our opening hymn on Palm/Passion Sunday while the children waved palm branches. The choir sang the "Palm Processional" from our upcoming cantata (April 15), Benjamin Harlan's "Wondrous Love" (the movement combined "Hosanna, Loud Hosanna" and the refrain from "The Holy City"). After our pastor guided us scripturally from the palms of Sunday to the Friday cries of "Crucify him!", we closed the service with "Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross."
Thursday we gathered again for Maundy Thursday communion, with our "informal service" music group (minus our lead singer, whose husband suffered a heart attack on Wednesday--doing well, praise God) singing "The Wonderful Cross" and our pianist providing exquisite communion musical meditation. The service ended with the hymn, "Go to Dark Gethsemane," as we did a ceremonial removal of Lenten purple and draped the communion table cross in black.
Our Good Friday was an evening service, so the sanctuary was fully draped in black. We have a very large central wooden cross on the front chancel wall, over which was displayed a black banner with a stark silver-gray outline of the suffering Savior in crown of thorns. It was visually stunning. We had diminished lighting and seven votive candles on the draped communion table, which were distinguished one by one during the final Scripture reading. Earlier readings were punctuated with several hymns, including "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" and "Jesus, Remember Me." The choir sang a dramatic piece by Don Besig and Nancy Price, "Within the Shadow of the Cross." The opening verse was done as a solo by a nearly ten-year-old girl, who sang absolutely perfectly (we were very proud of her; it was only her second time to sing a solo in public). The her solo's final phrase, "A little child, like me," which was echoed by the choir at the end of the piece: "A child of God, like you and me." The entire congregation filed out as we sang, "Were You There?" and gathered (shivering) on the sanctuary porch, where the pastor chained and padlocked the doors until Easter morning.
During the Easter Vigil, we offered a Catacombs service. The pastor and I were not actually in attendance, though we were able to listen at a distance. The simulation is that the church leaders had been arrested and all printed resources destroyed by "the authorities" who had declared Christian gatherings--and the faith itself--illegal. Those who attended this service had a combination of worship and discussion focused around how to keep the faith alive amidst persecution, when the only worship and study resources are the memories of the saints. We listened as the group of twenty or so people sang hymns of their own choosing ("Amazing Grace," "Jesus, Remember Me," "I Love to Tell the Story," and "Jesus Loves Me"), shared various memorized Scripture passages (including the 23rd Psalm and John 3:16-17), and recited the Apostles' Creed together. Testimonies were shared. There was excellent discussion about the difference between what Americans tend to call "persecution" and true persecution of faithful Christians. After 50 minutes, the "lookout" (pastor) gave a signal door knock to warn that the "patrols were on their way into town," and after closing with a prayer circle and ending with the Lord's Prayer, the group dispersed by ones and twos to return home.
I was still at church, working on final details for this morning's services, when the final scheduled on-site vigil prayer partner, a high school senior boy, finished his "shift" at midnight. He knocked at the office door to tell me he was leaving. I wished him a happy Easter and told him I'd see him later in the morning. He smiled as he realized it was technically a few minutes into Easter morning, and made my whole day by offering me the ancient greeting: "He is risen!" Of course, I replied, with joy in my heart, "He is risen indeed!"
Our liturgical dance group presented the sunrise service, which was once again reluctantly moved indoors because of our area's snow storm (no lie!) much of the day yesterday. It was near freezing this morning; in our part of Texas, that's not considered "outdoor weather." It is done entirely by school-age children and junior and senior high youth. They re-enact the entire passion and resurrection story in their unique combination of dance and American Sign Language. It is stunningly beautiful. As the Lord Jesus (one of my youth handbell ringers) was taken down from the cross and cradled by his mother (a high school girl), there was no one I could see who was not in tears. They perform to recorded music, which included
"Via Dolorosa," "At the Foot of the Cross," and "Was It a Morning Like this," among several other pieces.
We broke "new" ground with our informal group at the 9:00 service. We have had only piano/keyboard accompaniment until about a month ago, when a good guitarist joined us. Still, this means we don't have a complete rhythm section for the more energetic songs we do. Nevertheless, we presented a passable rendition of "My Redeemer Lives" this morning, greeted by more enthusiastic "Amens" than normal. People sang the chorus (many times) with gusto. (Though this is far from a favorite of mine, there's something to be said for people singing "My Redeemer lives! My redeemer lives!" with conviction.) At both the 9:00 and 10:45 services, the pastor preached on 1 Corinthians 15, focusing on "if" Christ had not been raised from the dead and looking at the reliable evidence passed on to us of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We were challenged both to believe the evidence we have received, and to testify to our own experience of the risen Christ in our own lives. Powerful!
At the late service, our handbell choir rang "Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain," which is one of the best efforts we've had all year. They also rang on the first hymn, "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." The children of the church, including several of the many young guests we welcomed today, sang "He Is Exalted" and did a superb job. I've "come around" on the appropriateness of "In the Garden" at Easter; this is our prayer hymn through the rest of April. The choir took it a little easy, given our scheduled cantata next week, and sang Hal Hopson's arrangement of a William Boyce work, which Hopson calls "Let the Praise Go 'Round" (actually, it consists of a three-part canon to the primary text of "Hallelujah," which made it very appropriate for Easter). We closed with one of my personal least-favorite Easter hymns, "He Lives," but here again, it's hard to argue with "He lives...you ask me how I know...he lives within my heart."
Bells. Children's voices. Piano. Keyboard and guitar. Choral music. Enthusiastic hymn singing (we ARE Methodist!). All in worship of the One who suffered, died, and rose from the dead, for us.
Christ is risen, indeed! Hallelujah!