24 March 2008

A Most Surrealistic Holy Week

The observances of Holy Week are the most profound experience for me each year. Really, I live the rest of the year in anticipation of those days — which then sustain me in the faith of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ as I begin another year of waiting for Holy Week to come again.

I've often said that no one can imagine or understand Holy Week without experiencing it. There are all sorts of ways, I suppose, to mark this time and to remember the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and my point is not to disparage the piety and practice of faithful Christians who may approach this differently than I do. But I do intend to say that hearing the Word of the Passion according to each of the holy evangelists over the course of the week, and receiving the fruits of the Passion in the Holy Communion each day, is truly meet, right and salutary. I hunger for this, and savor it, each and every year. For the Church sanctifies these days unto herself by the Word of God and prayer. The public reading of the Passion gives Christ crucified to His people. The eating and drinking of His Body and His Blood is a participation in the very salvation that He obtained for His Church by His death. There simply is no viable substitute for this Gospel of the Word and Sacrament.

Thus, we enter upon Holy Week with the Reading of our Lord's entry into Jerusalem. And we are led by His Cross to His Passion. In the three-year lectionary, a different evangelist is heard each year on Palm Sunday, but then each of the evangelists is heard during the week every year: St. Matthew on Monday, St. Mark on Tuesday, St. Luke on Wednesday, and St. John on Good Friday. At Emmaus, we hear the Passion during Matins on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then celebrate the Divine Service with the Holy Gospel from St. John 12 or 13 on each of those three evenings. Maundy Thursday morning begins with the Litany and the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution, corresponding with the way that Lent began on Ash Wednesday. The evening is a restrained festival of Christ, concluding with the very somber, solemn stripping of the altar. The chief service on Good Friday is held in the evening at Emmaus, as long and elaborate in its own right as the Easter Vigil on the following night. I am of a mind to think that a Christian could survive many days on the strength of the Triduum, like the food with which Elijah was fed before running forty days and forty nights to the Mountain of God. In addition to the Easter Vigil on the Eve of the Resurrection, the Paschal Feast is kept at Easter Sunrise (6:00 a.m.) and in the Hauptgottesdienst at 9:00 a.m. on Easter Sunday. Then we revel in the Resurrection with Divine Service each day throughout the first octave of Easter.

All of these observanes transpired again this year according to plan, but they took place in the midst of varying distractions, difficulties and discouragements, which made this perhaps the hardest Holy Week I have yet experienced. Not more difficult than for our Lord, but tough enough for me, His servant, to bear in the weakness and infirmity of my mortal flesh and blood. My spirit remained willing, though it sagged, but my poor body was reduced to dragging along.

An elder friend and colleague died on the evening of Palm Sunday. He had been quite ill for the past several weeks, so it did not come entirely as a surprise, but it was a sad shock to my system nonetheless. We didn't always see things eye to eye, but I looked up to him with admiration and respect, and I deeply appreciated his mentoring role in my life, as well as his sincere friendship. His death means that I have lost the chance to visit him again in this vale of tears; which is fine and good for him, Christ be praised, but I regret it for myself. Though he was a colleague and brother in Christ and in office, he was shaped by a significantly different personal history than I have been, and that gave us decidedly different perspectives on certain aspects of the Church's life on earth. I'm sorry to say there were times when we found it difficult to understand and appreciate those differences in one another. The last time we spoke to one another in person was one of those occasions when contrasting opinions caused each of us some consternation, despite the fact that, I really believe, many of our concerns were really much alike. We did not part in anger, but in faith and forgiveness; yet, I am sorry for a decade of good friendship to have marked its temporal conclusion in this world with tension and frustration. I am reminded of the need for greater patience and consideration in my dealings with others, for there are some regrets that time and opportunity will not permit to be amended. For this, then, I am all the more grateful for the Atonement wrought by Christ and the Peace that He bestows.

As it so happened, I was already feeling poorly on Palm Sunday morning, myself, and the flu symptoms became progressively worse in the ensuing days. It began with congestion in my chest that made it difficult for me to sing the hymns without gasping for breath. How sad, that I could barely croak my way through several of my most beloved Gerhardt hymns, without which Holy Week would not be the same. On several occasions, I simply had to be content to listen as the congregation sang the beautiful words so dear to my heart, and I was comforted in this.

On Holy Tuesday, along with feeling physically awful, I was sickened to learn along with the rest of the world that the radio program Issues, Etc., had been summarily disconnected, and that my good friends, Rev. Todd Wilken and Mr. Jeff Schwarz had been fired without warning and without cause. I've not had time to comment on those events, not least of all because of being ill, but I've also found myself at such a loss as to what I might possibly say. Putting the best construction on such things requires that I not attempt to read hearts and that I not impugne motivations, though the temptation has at times been very strong to do so. On the surface of it, though, the actions themselves were simply wrong. Pulling the plug on a broadcast that has so clearly and consistently confessed the Word of God, faithfully proclaiming the Gospel all over the world, was a diabolical sort of act, irrespective of the rationale and no matter how good the intentions may have been. To silence that preaching of the Gospel in the midst of Holy Week adds shame upon the shame. And to deal with faithful servants of the Word in the manner that appears to have been done is reprehensible; more than unbecoming of the Christian Church, it is the sort of thing that should not be tolerated even in the corporations of the world.

I've heard conflicting information regarding the financial viability of Issues, Etc. And of course, I do realize that running a radio station and airing a broadcast requires funding, that money does have to be taken into account. Nevertheless, the real value of the show should not have been measured by the amount of money it was making or losing. Shame on all of us for not keeping it afloat, if that really was the issue (I'm not convinced, and I'm not sure, one way or the other). But faithfulness and real success cannot be measured by numbers, whether it be a body count or the calculation of figures with dollar signs and decimal points at the bottom of a ledger. There is only one sort of diagnostic question the Church should ever be asking of herself and her practice: Is the Word of God being served and supported by this or that, so that the Law and the Gospel are properly divided unto repentance, the Gospel predominating with clarity and having free course in the world, unto faith and life in the forgiveness of sins? Issues, Etc. was serving that holy purpose beautifully, so that sinners were daily being called from death to life, from darkness to light. It is a scandal that the LCMS could not find a way to sustain that good work.

For my part, I have counted it a privilege to speak on Issues, Etc. from time to time, and have been proud to be associated in that small way with the show. Although I have only occasionally had the pleasure of meeting Rev. Wilken and Mr. Schwarz in person, I have been glad to number them among my friends. I hurt for them and for their families, and I pray that God the Lord, for Jesus' sake, will richly and daily provide for their needs of body and soul. With that, I also look forward to the new ways in which He will raise them up to serve His Church on earth in the future. I have no doubts that He will do so. He will ever continue to cause His Gospel to be preached, even to the ends of the earth, with or without the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

By Wednesday of Holy Week, I had no choice but to put myself to bed. In fact, one dear member of Emmaus, who also happens to be a physician, frankly told me that I needed to go to bed and sleep for as long as I could; otherwise, the infection in my body would hang on all the longer, getting worse instead of better. Being out of commission for the Triduum did not seem a desirable option, so I dutifully went back to bed after the Holy Wednesday Matins. Thankfully, Pastor Grobien was able to officiate the Wednesday evening Divine Service and the Thursday morning Service of Corporate Confession, while I rested and allowed my body a chance to fight off the viral infection that was wrecking havoc in my chest and sinuses. Sadly, the funeral for my elder friend and colleague who had died was held on Thursday afternoon, and there was no way for me to go; nor would it have been such a good thing for those who were there to be exposed to my coughing and sniffling nose. By that point, I was all but despairing, because I could not help but feel as though Holy Week were being taken from me, and that I was being hindered and prevented from performing the duties of my office for the people of God. In this the Lord's discipline was at work, that I should learn to place my faith and trust in Him and His Word, rather than relying on my own strength and ingenuity.

By the grace and mercies of God, I persevered for the Maundy Thursday Divine Service that evening, which I would not have missed for anything less than my own deathbed. But my voice was ragged and weak, and I had to resort to speaking the eucharistic rite. My head was foggy and I had no energy, but at least I was able to keep the Feast with my congregation. It was all I could do to keep from weeping with frustration at the frailty of my flesh. Yet, for good or ill, I pushed myself to write one of two Good Friday sermons that night, before I went back to bad.

That sermon was for my portion of a local Tre Ore on Good Friday afternoon. I preached on the Word of Jesus, "Today you shall be with Me in Paradise." Although I love that passage, and I was relatively pleased with my sermon, I was again lacking in energy, and my head was foggy and fuzzy (whether from congestion or the decongestants, I can't say for sure). One member of Emmaus who attended the Tre Ore later told me that she didn't even recognize my voice at first, and she could hardly believe that it was me preaching. Such things are very aggravating and discouraging. Then again, Good Friday was not more difficult or worse for me than for our dear Lord Jesus, not even remotely so. Christ be praised for the depths of His loving compassion!

Happily, the Good Friday Hauptgottesdienst that evening went very well, and my voice seemed finally to be resuming some degree of strength and dependability. I credit the solemn power of the day, and of that uniquely poignant Service, with invigorating my body, soul and spirit. In any case, I was very grateful to be able to serve my office and the preaching of the Gospel; not as though it ever depends upon me, but in the very sense that I and my people depend upon it.

Holy Saturday morning has become another aspect of Holy Week that I treasure and anticipate each year. A simplified Matins sanctifies the Sabbath Rest of Christ in the tomb unto His people at Emmaus, and there is such quietness and peace about it. The Old Testament Reading of Daniel in the lions' den is particularly well-suited to the occasion, and a delight to preach in view of the accomplished victory of the Cross. Remembering that our Lord's rest in the tomb has sanctified the graves of His saints was especially comforting in the wake of my friend's death at the beginning of the week, all the more so having missed his funeral.

The celebration of the Resurrection began marvelously with the Easter Vigil. After a decade of keeping the Vigil, it has thankfully become somewhat less stressful and more a relaxing entry upon Eastertide. Still, it is such a complex and powerful Service, it can't be taken for granted or approached casually. At 42, my eyes are getting a bit dim, which made it difficult to read the text and music of the Exsultet. By the end of the Vigil, my voice was also wearing thin again. There were a couple points, too, where my fuzzy head took my poor body in the wrong direction, though not to any lasting harm of the Service. Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The Services of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday both went very well, better than I would have dared to hope when I was feeling so rotten on Wednesday and Thursday. Pastor Grobien preached one of the most beautiful sermons I have ever been privileged to hear, at the Sunrise Service. It is such a blessing to be thus served by the preaching of the Gospel, so that I am both strengthened in my own faith and life, and thereby assisted in my own preaching of the Gospel unto others. Yet, the one real frustration of the day came when I got up to preach for the Easter Hauptgottesdienst. My wireless microphone started going nuts, spewing crazy, loud obnoxious static, and no amount of subtle (or not so subtle) fiddling with the thing could get it to stop. The devil is in the details, and sometimes the devil is in the electronics. My own children and others were amused when I declared that such electronics would not prevent the preaching of the Gospel. With a momentary pause, I took the microphone off and set it aside and preached without any amplification. I hope my voice was sufficiently strong and clear enough to be heard, even if not in the nursery or on any recording.

Through much toil and tribulation do we enter the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it is a lot just to get through Holy Week in this vale of tears. But I'm pleased to say that our Lord has triumphed and prevailed; both by His Cross and in His Resurrection, and through the preaching of these good things that He has accomplished for us. His power continues to be made perfect in weakness.

There was one other melancholy aspect of the week for me, which had nothing to do with anything gone wrong. Neither of my two oldest children could be here for any of the Services of Holy Week or Easter, and I really missed having them around to share those observances with us. Not because I view these things as "family affairs," leastwise not in the usual sense. We belong to the family of Christ. But I have greatly treasured the privilege of serving my children with the things of Christ in His Church, and have rejoiced at their confession of the faith and their beautiful piety in receiving His gifts. For that very reason, I am so profoundly grateful that DoRena and Zachary are both well served by the Gospel in the places where they are living. No amount of thanks would adequately repay the faithful pastors who now care for them.

Although there are no substitutions for my Zach and Bean, I do enjoy seeing Nicholai grow into the position of oldest child at home. He is pious and faithful in his own right, and he will not be outdone or outshone by his elder siblings in this regard. His younger siblings likewise seem to be following in the same pattern of piety, which causes much encouragement to my paternal heart. I was similarly buoyed in my spirit by the enthusiastic Emmaus Youth, many of whom gathered spontaneously for spirited Easter hymn singing after the Divine Service yesterday. We had not managed to sing the final distribution hymn, and they deemed it necessary to do so on their own; and then from there they could not bring themselves to stop any time soon. Their voices rang out clearly and beautifully throughout the church for quite a while, bringing joy and gladness to my heart at the end of an exhausting week. Their radiant smiles and even their good-natured teasing (which I know conveys their youthful affection for their pastor) cheer my weary soul and lift my countenance, even when I might otherwise be tempted to despair.

And then I did get to have my Beanie Belle and her Sam home for the afternoon and evening, which made for a delightful and relaxing conclusion to the day. My lovely young bride, LaRena, prepared us quite a feast in honor of the occasion, for which we also had my Mom and Dad on hand. Such a gathering is surrealistic in its own way. How and when did I become a patriarch in the midst of such a family? I'm still a little boy at heart, yet here I am with all these little (and not so little) boys of my own. Better just enjoy it while I can. These days will come and go too fast.


sarahlaughed said...

Thank you Pastor for persevering. Seeing you carry through Holy Week even in such obvious weakening of sickness encouraged me more than than words can express. It was like seeing Christ. It showed me that my Pastor valued the Gospel more than anything else - even to the point of exhaustion. I never thought to see such a thing in my life but there it was - right before my eyes! Please do not feel badly about your voice or your weakness. At least to me, it was a beautiful thing because you modeled patient endurance under the cross and didn't let suffering prevent you from speaking and hearing Christ's Word of the Gospel.
I can't thank you and Pastor Grobien enough for serving us with the Word and Sacrament daily these past two weeks. Sometimes during the day at school I didn't know how I was going to get through - it seems silly, but little things can overwhelm me sometimes - but I could look ahead to the rest of hearing the Gospel and receiving forgiveness in the Sacrament in the evening.
As for a fuzzy head on Thursday and Friday, no matter how your words sounded to you, the Holy Spirit used them to kill and raise Christ's sheep with the Law and the Gospel. Though you may have spoken the words, they were Christ's, for He spoke through you and fed his people by your lips.

Both the Good Friday Service and Easter Vigil were not only reverently beautiful but also life-giving. It was so refreshing to have a Good Friday Service which was subdued and reverently contemplative and instructive rather than being the big choir production of sorrowful songs.
As for the Easter Vigil - what can I say? I've never 'experienced' such a "salutary" service. He is Risen! Why would anyone ever voluntarily relinquish or cast such a gift as the Vigil aside?
And both Easter services also were almost (may I use this word?) intoxicating with joy. Not from a pietistic sense (though there is a part of me that pulls me that direction), but in the overwhelming joy of the objective forgiveness of sin!

Thank you so so much for all of the work you and Pastor Grobien did to provide your sheep with ample fodder!

[And the microphone did not hinder the delivery of the Gospel to my ears even in the far back of the sanctuary.]

God bless you and your family, Pastor!

Anan said...

Sadly I was not amongst the youth singing after the service... I had people to talk to. *mischevious smirk*

NOTE: I'm smirking at myself.

Cindy R. said...

I'm sorry to hear that you had such a trying Holy Week. Surely it is no fun for you to be sick, but seeing a pastor in a weakened state is instructive to a congregation. I once saw a pastor with a broken leg conduct a communion service on crutches. It reminds us that the Lord will provide, that His Word somehow will be preached despite our limitations. As you well know, the power of God's Word does not depend upon the spring in your step or the quality of your voice. Our hope is not in princes, nor in pastors. (Though of course we do appreciate our ministers of the gospel, and your perseverance through difficulty reminds us how important your work is.)

I must say, your congregation's dedication to the observance of Holy Week is absolutely amazing. I've never heard of a church having so many services, but it sounds wonderful. Those at Emmaus are generously served by the gospel.

Rev. Rick Stuckwisch said...

Thanks for your comments, Cindy (and Truth Questioner). It is by grace that we do what we are given to do, and by grace that God's people are served in spite of our various weaknesses of body, mind, soul and spirit. It is also in such frailty that we see and experience the Cross, by which the Lord overcomes sin and death: once for all, and now also for us by the Gospel.

As far as the number of Services is concerned, I just can't imagine Holy Week without such daily observances. In truth, I'd prefer to have daily Services all year long, but there's no way I could sustain that. I am grateful that the people of Emmaus do have such a hunger for the Word of God and for the Body and Blood of Christ; for this not only enables me, but even compels me, to provide the regular opportunities that we have. There are always a million other demands competing for our attention, and a million other things than any or all of us could be doing, but there is nothing so constitutive and definitive of the Christian Church than the Divine Service and the regular rhythmn of the Word of God and prayer. Nor is there anything so constitutive and definitive of the Christian faith and life than hearing the Word and receiving the gifts Christ freely gives. Individual Christians have the responsibilities of their vocations in the world, which is precisely where and how they serve the Lord by serving their neighbor. For the Church and her pastors, however, I don't suppose there could ever be anything more important or valuable than to make the time and opportunity available to be gathered around the Gospel-Word and Sacraments.

Anan, I'm sorry that you didn't get to participate in the imprompto hymn singing of your usual cohorts on Easter Sunday. But I trust that your chatting was fruitful and edifying ;-)