Holy Week Highlights: Churches inspire with worship, outreach

Holy Week may well be the most celebrated and worship-filled week of the year in Christian churches. Many EPA Conference churches are bustling with activities from Palm/Passion Sunday through Easter, including worship, final Lenten Bible study classes and community outreach and fellowship events, Easter egg hunts included.

Nearly a dozen churches kindly responded to our appeal to send us their Holy Week highlights, and we thank each and every one that did. Some of those highlights, gathered from e-mail and e-newsletters, include plans for dramatic events showing remarkable creativity—everything from Taize and Tenebrae services to full-week revivals and New Orleans funeral-style Dixieland Jazz.

Grove UMC in West Chester (490 W. Boot Rd. West Chester, PA) has a remarkable, New Orleans-style worship experience on Holy Saturday, the somber day after Good Friday when Jesus’ crucified body lay in the tomb. The popular tradition of an Easter vigil on this day begins at dusk, awaiting Jesus’ resurrection and exit from the tomb.

“We gather in the cemetery outside the church,” reports the Rev. Bron Yocum, Grove’s lead pastor, “and follow a Dixieland Jazz band into the sanctuary. It is modeled on a New Orleans-style funeral, with the band playing slowly as we enter. When everyone is inside the music goes up-tempo (like the traditional “second line” that ends a funeral), and the lights come on. It is an Easter vigil service, with many of the Easter vigil readings, a short homily and music by the Dixieland band. It is a long-standing tradition at Grove.”

Between Palm/Passion Sunday and Easter

Grace UMC in Telford (295 S. Main Street, Telford, PA) has a service every day of Holy Week beginning with two services on Palm/Passion Sunday. “We believe many people forget what happened between Palm Sunday and Easter and need to be reminded,” wrote the Rev. Nancy Haigh Ross, pastor. Both services used special readings, hymns, prayers and a message to first celebrate Palm Sunday, including a blessing of the palms, and then different readings, hymns, prayers and a message to celebrate the Passion.

On Tuesday night the church worshiped in the style of Taize with chanting, responsive readings and silence. And Maundy Thursday’s service will begin with the Last Supper and end with the arrest of Jesus in the garden. “On Good Friday we will have a litany calling for Christ’s crucifixion, followed by a powerful mini-video of the arrest, trial and crucifixion that shows Christ was innocent,” wrote Ross. “Then after appropriate hymns, readings, etc., we will leave in silence as we hear a hammer pounding nails in the background.”

Like many congregations, Church of the Open Door (210 South Broad St., Kennett Square, PA) will dramatize Holy (or Maundy) Thursday in its celebration with participants seated at the Lord’s Table.  Meanwhile, First UMC Lancaster (29 E. Walnut St., Lancaster) will illustrate Communion service with liturgical art by Brian Lehman. Like many congregations, it will join with neighboring churches for a solemn “watch service” on Good Friday, from noon to 3 PM, when worshipers traditionally hear homilies preached on Jesus’ “seven last words” (which are statements he spoke from the cross as he hung there dying).  Brian Lehman’s art will also illustrate the sermon during Sunday’s “Methodist Mass for Easter,” along with special music and liturgy.

From Taize to Tenebrae

Some churches, like St. John’s UMC Ivyland (820 Almshouse Road, Iyvland, PA), will celebrate a Tenebrae (Latin for “shadows” or “darkness”) service on Maundy Thursday (at 7:30 PM), using Gospel readings, prayers, music, the Lord’s Supper, silence and the extinguishing of lights to symbolize in darkness Jesus’ imminent crucifixion and death.

New London UMC started its Holy Week early with a Taize service on March 26. The Passion Story was read amid prayer, music, contemplation and Communion. After the service, the church received several appreciative e-mail responses from worshippers.  “One person said it was one of the most moving services they had ever attended,” wrote the Rev. Mercedes Case, pastor.

Churches collaborate and worship together for Holy Week

Members of the North Philadelphia Cluster of UM churches are congregating this entire Holy Week at Haven Peniel UMC for its weeklong worship revival, including guest preachers and choirs. The cluster’s mid-day Good Friday service will be at Mother African Zoar UMC, following gatherings for Wednesday night Lenten Bible study together each week at member churches, a practice started two years ago. Indeed, it’s a practice many other church clusters and Mission Connections in Philadelphia and elsewhere have followed for some time, yielding rich opportunities for fellowship and cooperation.

Wayne UMC is one of many churches that reaches out ecumenically in its collaborative Holy Week services. It will share Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday services with its neighbors: Wayne Presbyterian Church, St. Katharine of Siena Roman Catholic Church and Christ Church Anglican.  But Easter Sunday Sunrise Service, at 6:30 AM, will be at Valley Forge National Historical Park (1400 N Outer Line Dr, King of Prussia, PA), specifically at the Muhlenburg Brigade (stop #2 on the Valley Forge Park Tour), just south of the Visitor Center. Six area UM churches will sponsor the service and everyone is invited.

Fallsington UMC will join in a Good Friday Cantata at Emilie UMC (7300 New Falls Road, Levittown, PA). The mass choir from Emilie and Fallsington churches will perform “Song of the Shadows” at 7 PM.  Fallsington UMC’s missions committee will also distribute Easter baskets filled with food prepared by members to 10 families identified by neighboring elementary schools.

Community outreach is key for some

Sharing food and other necessities with neighbors is a key Holy Week activity for some churches. For example, Paoli UMC (81 Devon Road, Paoli, PA) will host a Community Easter Dinner on Sunday, at 4 PM. But Easter egg hunts are also a big community outreach event for many. Avondale UMC got a head start by hosting its egg hunt on March 21, posing an extra challenge for children who had to search through snow that fell the previous day and covered its yard. But the children came, and they saw and they conquered, earning numerous prizes to reward them for their determination.

By John Coleman, EPA Conference Communications Director

Photo: Maundy Thursday Lord’s Supper table setting at Church of the Open Door, by Pastor Neil Gutmaker