Holy Week is the heart of the church’s ritual, theological, and missional life. Everything we do in worship, doctrine, and mission is grounded in, leads to, and springs from this week. The life and mission of Jesus meet their fullest test. Jesus stares directly into the face of the structures of sin and the powers of death and remains true to his calling and the work of God’s kingdom. Jesus is executed by crucifixion. Three days later, God raises Jesus from death in sure and certain pledge of raising all who are found in him. Everything is here. Life, sin, love, death, life and love overcoming sin and death. This week remembers, enacts, and participates in the hope of the renovation of all creation, starting with our lives and loves, here and now.
That is why these eight days from Passion/Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday include more worship services for the whole congregation than any other time of the Christian year. Many United Methodists will participate in at least five distinct services during these eight days: Passion/Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, a sunrise service on Easter Sunday morning, and a “main” Easter Sunday service. Some United Methodists join the larger church in adding two more to this calendar: a Holy Saturday vigil of silence and lament (some on Twitter, at #holysat17 at 10 a.m. ET on April 15) and the Great Vigil of Easter, on which the later development of sunrise services is based.
The sheer number of services is impressive, and for worship planners and leaders, a bit daunting every year. But what’s more significant is the intensity of the journey these services take us through. Hope, community, betrayal, trial, execution, death, burial, watching at the grave, and the disturbing or even terrifying surprise of Resurrection and an empty tomb meet us through this week. And in gathering to observe them all, we open ourselves to the many ways the Holy Spirit has been active, is active, and will be active in the church and world throughout history, in our own lives, and in the lives of those who follow us in seeking to live the way of Jesus in generations to come.
As United Methodists who follow in the footsteps of the Wesleys, we know the power of such ritual in gathered community through this week will take deeper root in our own lives if we also practice the means of grace of family and private prayer. That is why our series of resources for Holy Week includes guidance from our colleagues, Scott Hughes and Melanie Gordon, for ways to observe family or private prayer using a selection of the Old Testament lectionary readings for each day, Monday through Friday, connected to the major themes of Israel’s salvation history up to that point: Creation, Exodus, Kings, Exile, and Restoration. These same five themes guide our celebration of the Easter Sunrise service on Sunday morning. You’ll find these in the Other Resources tab for this series.
The Main Services
Palm/Passion Sunday recapitulates the beginning and the end of Christ’s final week in Jerusalem. We move from a triumphal procession and its stirring of hope as our entrance rite to hearing of a very different kind of procession, a forced march with a crucifix, to conclude it.
Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, marks the last conversation Jesus has with his disciples, a conversation grounded in what he calls a new commandment (mandatum in Latin, hence our English word “Maundy”). He illustrates and underscores the new commandment by washing the disciples’ feet: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
On Good Friday, or Holy Friday as it is known in nearly every non-English-speaking culture, we witness the execution of Jesus, recognize our ongoing complicity with the powers of death, and are called to enter the Great Silence of all creation in response to the death of its God and Maker.
Easter Sunrise is an early morning service built on the framework of the Great Vigil of Easter. It moves from contemplation to celebration.
Easter Sunday is the principal Easter Sunday morning service of word and sacrament celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and kicking off the Easter Season of fifty days (through the Day of Pentecost).
Links to Additional Services
Holy Saturday is a daytime (late morning, early afternoon) service of silence before the tomb of Jesus, occasionally punctuated by readings from Scripture and prayer. For more about this service, and a link to a complete script you may use with whomever you gather or on Twitter (including hashtags and audio links to the readings), see “Holy Saturday: The Great Silence.”
The Great Vigil of Easter reflects the most ancient and continuing practices of Easter worship from the early church to today. Like Holy Week in general, this service has everything: Fire, Word, Water, and Table. We have many resources to support it. If you have never offered such a service before, consider taking a group from your church to another one (notably Episcopal, Roman Catholic, or Lutheran) with long experience in doing so. Then bring the wisdom of your experience to the resources offered by United Methodists and the awareness of your particular context to design your own service for next year.
Book of Worship Service »
Brief Service » (Taylor Burton-Edwards)
Preparing for the Easter Vigil » (Dwight W. Vogel)
Reflecting on the Easter Vigil » (Dwight W. Vogel)