Engaging with Holy Week

One of the great privileges of worshipping in St Albans Cathedral is the wonderful liturgy and music throughout the year. Holy Week provides such variety – the joyful entry behind a donkey; the pauses to reflect; then the roller coaster ride of the Triduum – the time from the evening of Maundy Thursday to the end of the Easter Vigil.

The Cathedral is perhaps fuller of people as Christmas approaches, yet Holy Week is the busiest for the virgers, musicians, clergy and volunteers. The sheer variety means frequent changes of pace, of rearranging the furniture, of musical tone.

Last year, with health worries and sadness hanging over the family, I didn’t engage with Holy Week. The week after, whilst I still felt I trusted God, I felt him more distant – almost let down. It’s a feeling that has lingered, a bit, for the last year – a feeling that is unreasonable, but not unexpected.

And then Lent 2015 arrived. Work has been stupidly busy for both Sarah and I. I was ill, then Sarah was ill. Tiredness has been the watchword. Late trips home from work have been a temptation to sleep or catch up on professional matters, not to read a Lent book or three. Would Holy Week be the same? Well, would it?

At last. A glimmer. Not of hope – there’s more than a glimmer of that already in the promises we heard on Palm Sunday. No, a glimmer of the closeness of God.

Firstly, there’s music. On Sunday morning we processed behind Harry the Donkey, down to the Abbey where we were met with ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. Tonight, already, we’ve had a stunning anthem ‘As the Father hath loved me’ – a setting of parts of John 15. My iPhone has been topped up with Victoria’s Lamentations, Macmillan’s Seven Last Words and more. There’s more to come tomorrow with the Sanders Reproaches. And that’s before Easter itself arrives.

All of this may be gibberish if you’re not into that sort of church music, yet if you could but hear, you’d perhaps get a sense of the majesty of God, and the range of emotions it can bring.

Is it just emotive music to me? Is the effect of the Sanders on me not just the same sadness the plaintive trumpet at the end of La Boheme triggers? No. For me, God has never been a convenient excuse to listen to great music; great music has been a way of signposting my soul to God. Of letting the mood bring you closer when your rational mind wants to think instead on “that which we have left undone” – loose ends at the office, whether the Ocado order is complete, what to do with my parents at the weekend if it rains. Of praying when words alone aren’t enough.

Our preacher tonight, Rev’d Dr Gregory Seach, spoke of the richness of Maundy Thursday’s liturgy. For me, this was:

  • The simple sound of a chanted psalm, Psalm 22, as the church was stripped of decoration – a powerful metaphor for the darkness to come tomorrow.
  • The joy of tasting bread and wine – tonight of all nights remembering “Do this in memory of me” – my italics to stress that this is a direct instruction.
  • The act of moving at the end of the service from my comfortable seat to kneeling before the altar of repose, lit only by candles with all around in darkness, my mind blotting out my fellow worshippers and focussing on prayer.
  • Leaving in quietness, alone with my thoughts and prayers.

Before this Holy Week is out, you know, it might just have done its thing and reminded me that God isn’t as distant as he’s seemed of late. There’s a word (in fact an A word) to respond to that, but it’ll have to wait until Sunday…