Making space, taking time: Holy Week at Wheaton

While some members of the Church may be tempted to see Easter as a lackluster version of its winter holiday counterpart, sophomore Madeleine Ruch said that Holy Week, “was my favorite week as a child! It really trumped Christmas, honestly.”

And her enthusiasm is contagious. Most Wheaton students, whether regular attendants of Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton or liturgical-bystanders, are at least familiar with Rez’s Easter Vigil, an all-out celebratory event which includes bells, ribbons and even a dancing Bishop — Bishop Stewart, Madeleine Ruch’s father, can be spotted among the colorful throng like an Anglican version of “Where’s Waldo.” Previously, the Easter Vigil was hosted in Edman Chapel but it has recently moved to Rez’s own property on West Union Avenue. The week boasts a whopping seven services: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Stations of the Cross, Good Friday, Saturday’s Easter Festival and Easter Vigil and The Great Acclamation at sunrise on Easter Sunday — causing the liturgically uninclined to ask, why all the fuss? Church of the Resurrection echoes this question in its own Holy Week pamphlet: “What makes this week different from every other week?”

The question is a simple one but begs deeper reflection from even those who have participated in Easter services in the past: What is the attitude I should bring into Easter week? I sat down with sophomore Madeleine Ruch and senior Leah McMichael, one raised in the Anglican community  and one a recent addition, who spoke of their own attitudes towards Holy Weeks with the metaphor of pilgrimage. In this way their journey actually parallels the decent and uplifting of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the culmination of the season of lent.

Photo Courtesy Michael Johnson

Matter Matters: Remembering the Past Bodily

Growing up, McMichael felt a sort of existential angst at the thought of Good Friday and Easter. “There’s a sense that you’re supposed to feel a lot of things, but maybe because you’re supposed to feel intensely you don’t really feel a whole lot of anything.” Having a sense that these days should be significant, she began to search for ways to celebrate the holiday appropriately, for example watching the “Passion of the Christ” movie on Good Friday to maybe “freak out a little,” or seeing the sunrise on Easter morning. But overall, this search proved relatively unsuccessful for McMichael. “I was trying to do it entirely on my own and apart from any knowledge of kind of what had gone before.”

In its Holy Week pamphlet, Church of the Resurrection explains pilgrimage as “a journey initiated by God with a spiritual goal.” In other words, it’s not just a “sightseeing tour” or even an experience, but rather an act of making time and expecting to be changed by God. This tradition echoes biblical pilgrimages, as early as God calling Abram to go to the land promised him, but is based on the traditions of first century Jews. Every year, Jews — including Mary and Joseph and the disciples and Jesus —would pilgrimage from all corners of Israel to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This served as a time of remembrance of the night when Israelites sacrificed lambs and the angel of death passed over their houses, the final step in God’s miraculous deliverance of Israel from the Egyptians. The Passover pilgrimage, therefore, served as a remembrance of God’s saving deeds for all of Israel.

Today’s liturgical pilgrimage was derived from this idea. Holy Week serves as an act of remembrance, paralleling Jesus’ journey, in “real time” as Ruch explained. The seven main services throughout the week allow participants to walk through the events of Jesus’ Passion on the days he would have also experienced them. The idea of going beyond the basic Good Friday and Easter Sunday services is not unique to Rez, but extends to all of Anglicanism: “ love to experience real things, things of this world that have transcendent import,” Ruch said. She then used the catchphrase so omnipresent in Rez’s liturgical services, “Matter Matters.” While mental affirmations and feelings can be a part of worship, our bodies are a crucial part of how we engage with God, Ruch explained.

For this reason, the services are symbol-heavy, from the decorations on the altar, to the colors of the banners, to the robes worn by the clergy that new members may first confuse with Snuggies due to their similar shape. Bishop Stewart desires newcomers to ask any question about the symbols that they may have. On Palm Sunday, he lifted the large, forked hat off his head which he dubbed a “mitre,” and declared for those unfamiliar with liturgy, “You may be wondering why I’m wearing this.” He went on to explain that it represented the flame of the Holy Spirit hovering over him. The symbols have purpose behind them, affirming the fact that as humans in bodies we engage with spiritual things mentally, yes, but also through what we see, touch, feel and smell.

For McMichael, being able to orient herself around the existing liturgy and symbols was not mindless affirmation, but mental relief. Instead of trying to shock herself into feelings on Good Friday, she recalls walking through the Good Friday and Easter Vigil services: “There’s really a sense of descent of going down and down until there’s not really anywhere else left to go and you’re just really aware of the moment Jesus is dead.”

But she notes that, “by framing it as a pilgrimage in real time, it sort of puts space between Jesus’ death-and-resurrection, which we tend to say in a single breath, and it makes that space very emphatic. Finally, with the arrival of Easter morning comes the Easter Acclamation: ‘Christ is Risen!’ The sanctuary really just erupts. And the noise, it’s…raucous, and all of the mourning and the waiting of Lent is overturned in about two seconds.” These images stuck vividly for McMichael, and helped her process her next semester in Rwanda which she spent documenting stories of genocide survivors. While she didn’t feel a particular “Easter moment” during this time, the “emphatic” space between Jesus’ death and resurrection during the Great Vigil helped her understand that God shares in the pain in the life of the Church. While she already believed this, “Holy Week gave me a much stronger imaginative spiritual framework to hold on to.”

Photo Courtesy Michael Johnson

Watching with Expectation

While McMichael’s first encounter with liturgy was in college, Ruch grew up with Holy Week as the central week of every year during childhood. Her favorite moment each year comes when the congregation proclaims at dawn on Easter Morning: “The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!”

“As a kid it was the excitement of ‘Oh my goodness, we’re getting the bells ready, and then we’re gonna hear the Great Acclamation and then we’re gonna go for it!’” This is the moment the congregation waits for, when the ribbons are pulled out and everyone dances through the aisles in a massive tumult of bodies and music. The enthusiasm is not limited to her childhood memories, says Ruch: “very year I wonder, ‘Am I going to be able to muster all that joy again?’ and I never have to because at that moment he says those words (“Christ is risen!”) that I can’t say right now it’s just a huge release, a huge rush of excitement that the Lord did rise from the dead.”

As the daughter of Bishop Stewart, Ruch never experienced a separation between the religious side of Easter and the secular. She explained that while sometimes the late-night liturgy of the Easter Vigil — which has recently become an all-night service — could feel long growing up, she was mostly excited to be allowed to be up past her bedtime at church. Her parents’ enthusiasm naturally catalyzed her own: “The expectation was created that we’re gonna be present here, and it just began from such an early age that it was natural that you were gonna grow to love it.”

While this year Ruch can be seen leading worship during the Maundy Thursday service, where original music, written by church members, is performed along with ceremonial foot-washing, she has been involved in some capacity every year that she can remember. Ruch’s mother also plays a pivotal role in the events of Easter Festival on Saturday afternoon. Her drama background helps her to organize the theatrical scriptural readings and reenactments of biblical stories that consist of one of the week’s most well-attended events. This service, started in the 1980s by the diocese’s previous bishop, is unique to the congregation, which boasts talented musicians and artists of the written, visual and theatrical arts, including some of Wheaton’s own Arena Theater members.

Photo Courtesy Church of the Resurrection

But lest one gets overwhelmed, both Ruch and McMichael acknowledge that attendance of events isn’t a prescription for a particular religious experience. Rather it’s this obedience that bridges the gap when feelings fail. “Even if I’m not feeling intensely any of it, there’s a motion, there’s a rhythm of worship that I can join and participate in,” McMichael said. “Like I can walk the Stations of the Cross and bow and pray the prayers and join in this movement of worship even though I’m still trying to figure out how to compose my emotions.”

To attend the Holy Week services is to join with the church tradition of those throughout centuries who have sought the Lord through pilgrimage, journeying to the tombs of famous Apostles or Saints expecting miraculous healing or spiritual insight. By visiting these significant sites, pilgrimage represented a remembrance of the past, and a desire to make it present. In the same way, participants are encouraged to go into Holy Week remembering what the Lord has done in the past, while watching with expectation for God to work in the present. According to Ruch, “I do walk into it with the expectation that I’ll meet the Lord. And I don’t know what it will look like, and some years it will be more emotional and some years it will be a still small voice, but he has changed me through these services.”


Photo Courtesy Church of the Resurrection
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