I love the Paschal Triduum. I love it to little tiny pieces, and have ever since I was a little kid. My home congregation happens to do these four services–Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday–very well, and I looked forward to them every year. You read that correctly: as a small child, I would look at the concept of four straight days of church, and be like, “Can we go early? Do they need help? We’re going to all of them, right?”
I can’t quite articulate how much I love these four services on a blog. It has to be an in-person explanation, so that even when I still fail to describe the total awesomeness of these services, you’ll at least get a sense from my flailing arms and the high, rushed tone of my voice that the Triduum is really, really, totally fabulous. The Triduum had, and has, all the feels. All of them. All the feels that you will ever feel as a Christian or, indeed, as a human. In four amazing days. Set to a kick-ass soundtrack.
But the thing I realized during this year’s celebration of the Triduum with my wonderful internship congregation is that all those feels are supposed to come in a very particular order:
Maundy Thursday: confused/awkward.
What is the deal with foot-washing? Does everyone else feel as gross and vulnerable and deeply touched during it as I do? Were the disciples as mystified as I am? What does “Maundy” even mean?
Good Friday: sad.
Jesus dies. It is awful. Even if one of the youth pronounces Pilate as “pilates” during the Passion play, you’re not supposed to laugh.
Holy Saturday: sad–>joyful, plus all the feels in the middle.
The Easter Vigil service starts out in darkness and progresses toward that moment when the pastor/priest says “Christ is risen!” and we shout back “He is risen indeed!” and immediately and simultaneously do all the things that we haven’t been allowed to do all Lent: shout “Alleluia!”, play the organ, stuff our faces with chocolate, and down a shot of tequila.
Easter Sunday: unmitigated joy.
Even those with a Vigil hangover somehow find it in them to boom out the zillion “Alleluia” choruses with the best of them.
So there it is: you go from confused/awkward to sad to joyful. It’s a straightforward trajectory, and we do it every year.
This year I knew that experiencing the feels was going to be a bit of a struggle for me personally, because I’d had the brilliant idea of not only doing the Vigil with my internship congregation for the first time, but also making it an overnight vigil for the youth. Because nothing says “Happy Easter!” like sullen-eyed glares from teenagers and one hour of sleep that’s supposed to get you through four services.
The Vigil liturgy went incredibly well. I was the cantor/liturgist/stage-manager for the thing, so I wasn’t as immersed in the feels as I like to be, but I was blown over by how great the turnout was, and how well the kids who helped lead the service did. The Vigil overnight also went very well, and even though I was starting to get that thin, hollow feeling that comes with pulling an all-nighter, I hit 6am feeling totally strong enough to get through the four morning services, starting at 6:30.
And then at 6:15 I checked my phone messages, and found a voicemail from my mom:
My older brother’s house had burned down the night before. Everyone made it out OK, including the animals, but my brother was in the hospital for smoke inhalation and the house looked like it would be a total loss.
I called my mom and we talked for two minutes, during which I felt totally calm and collected. There was no reason to freak out. The important thing was that everyone was OK. My mom and I said our “I love yous,” and we hung up.
And then I totally lost it. The office was mercifully empty, so no one heard my crying, which wasn’t even the lady-like boo-hooing of a moderately distressed damsel, but was instead the heaving, gasping sobs of a visceral reaction.
The next four services were hard. I can usually compartmentalize feelings when necessary, leaving them to be felt at a more convenient time, but something in me wasn’t having it during Easter Sunday. Shouting “Alleluia!” and singing about how life has triumphed over death felt singularly at odds with the reality I knew my brother and his family were facing: they could have lost their lives, and they had lost absolutely everything else. I was in Easter Sunday, but it felt like Good Friday: death had happened, grief was stretching its powerful wings, and no one could picture what the future would look like.
It occurred to me that this isn’t the Bible’s fault. Mary shows up at the tomb on resurrection morning weeping. Earthquakes keep shaking the foundations in Matthew’s gospel. There wasn’t much joy on the resurrection morning. There was a lot of fear, uncertainty, silence, and trembling. It didn’t feel glorious. It was glorious, but the feels of the all the disciples hadn’t caught up to the reality of the resurrection.
I love the Triduum–I will always love the Triduum–but I realized yesterday that the trajectory of feels around it is artificial. And while I loved it as a child, when the world was a little simpler and more uncomplicated, I don’t think it’s working for me as an adult.
And I wonder how many others it’s not really working for. How many people come to us on Easter Sunday struggling with depression and grief and loss and an overwhelming burden of responsibility–or for that matter, simply the more complex worldview of mature adulthood–and experience nothing there that touches them? Or perhaps worse–how many people comes to the services of the Triduum and glean the lesson that this is how life is supposed to be–one long procession towards unmitigated joy–and that there’s no room in the spiritual life for an emotional backslide towards Good Friday?
I get that it’s important to celebrate the joy of the resurrection and its implications for us as followers of Christ. But I’m not sure how healthy it is, nor how faithful it is, that we seem to have drawn such deep emotional lines between the cross of Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter Sunday.
I’m not saying that purely joyful Easter services are as hollow and artificial as a chocolate bunny lying on plastic grass. But I do think it’s telling that people can’t figure out why we call Good Friday “Good,” but that the standard salutation I heard yesterday was “Happy Easter!” I do think that perhaps in designing liturgies that so clearly delineate between light and darkness, life and death, we may inadvertently be suggesting that Christ is absent from darkness and death, despite the resurrection having happened in the midst of both.
Are we doing what Barbara Brown Taylor suggests is this quote that I totally lifted from an amazing lecture she did called “Learning to Walk in the Dark?”:
All you have to do to get a thank you note from some [people] is to set down in print what they’ve known all along: that the days of their lives are not easily divisible into good or evil, spirit or flesh, that some of the best things that have ever happened to them have happened in the darkest places, and some of the worst things in the best-lit places…that their bodies have not only been the source of great pain, but also the locus of great pleasure…that they experience the world as a place of wonder as well as brokenness, and that they have a hard time warming up to any kind of salvation that divides reality in two and asks them to forsake the bottom half.
How could we make Easter Sunday, one of the two days during the whole year when non-church going Christians actually consider going to church, a place where we can bring all of ourselves: our songs of joy as well as our songs of lament? Our tears as well as our laughter? Our fears as well as our confidence?
Because surely the Christ who rose in the darkness, when no one was there to see, can hold all of these things in his pierced hands.