Evangelical Questions: Holy Week
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about Holy Week. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before we get started though I want to remind you about the upcoming FAIR Conference, August 2-4 in Provo at the Experience Event Center. I will be there and would love to say Hi to you. I’ll be speaking one of the days, not sure which. You can register online at https://www.fairlatterdaysaints.org/conference/august-2023 and there are options for viewing online or in person. Let me tell you about one of the talks that will be happening. You may know who Keith Erekson is, but if you don’t he is the director of historical research for the church. He had a really good book come out a couple of years ago called, “Real vs. Rumor” where he gives really helpful instruction about how to think critically about when you hear a “historical” story. I love history – if you’ve listened to this podcast at all you know that I try to give you the history of why certain theologies or practices developed – but I am by no means trained as a historian. So I adore Keith’s work because he helps normal people like me think better. He really blends expertise in history with a desire to help regular people learn from history in a way that is helpful. I can’t tell you how excited I am to hear his talk. So, come to the FAIR conference and geek out with me.
Okay, onward with our work here. Today we’re talking about Palm Sunday and Holy Week. Yes, I know, it’s already past – you’re probably watching this in late May and Palm Sunday was many weeks ago. But I’m brining it up now because 1) It’s contained in our CFM readings this week and 2) It got talked about a lot at General Conference and I’ve heard a number of really interesting conversations and questions come up about it from lifetime Latter-day Saints. So, our text for this week is Matthew 21:8:
And a very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way.
I think the talks in General Conference did a good job of talking about what Holy Week is and why it’s important. So I’m not going to repeat that information. If somehow you missed those talks go back to the recordings of the April 2023 General Conference and check them out. What I want to do here is talk about what Holy Week is like for Evangelicals, why they’re doing what they’re doing, so that you might have a better conversation with them. And honestly, this is a topic where we Latter-day Saints might have our own imaginations expanded by learning about what they’re doing. I don’t think a re-creation of the typical Evangelical practices of Holy Week should just be copied and used in our church – but Holy Week has been important to believers for 2,000 years and it might be time to figure out how to put some of that into our own context, in a way that fits our church culture, and leads Saints closer to Jesus Christ.
Okay, so you know what a Latter-day Saint Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday is normally like. Let me tell you what an Evangelical version of that is like. And with all things Evangelical there is a wide spectrum. But one familiar dynamic you will notice is that more people are interested in coming to church on Easter (and Christmas) so Evangelical churches try to capitalize on this as much as they can.
Version 1 – The “lowest church” version (you’ll remember we talked about what “low church” and “high church” are in a previous episode – “low church” here just basically means very little emphasis placed on ritual, ceremony, or formalness) of this that I can think of is the “Helicopter Egg Drop.” And this is exactly what it sounds like. For about $500 a church can hire out a helicopter for the hour, it goes up, drops anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 plastic eggs filled with candy in a field – and the kids go crazy hunting for them. This is usually part of the Sunday morning worship, not a side-event on Saturday or something, and it’s a big deal for them. It does draw families out. The kids love it, so their parents love it, and the church hopes this will translate into families being interested in getting involved with them. And it frequently works – churches wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t. And for some churches, this embodies their entire philosophy toward Holy Week and Easter itself – it’s essentially a “put on your best face and try to draw in new families” event. The churches are perfectly aware that dropping eggs out of a helicopter isn’t exactly the essence of how the Savior might want to be recognized on this day. They’re not confused about that, they’re just trying to make a really easy onramp so that the family who comes to church because they want to see a helicopter drop 20,000 eggs (and I’ll be honest – I kind of want to see that too) might be wooed so that eventually their interest in developing a relationship with Jesus grows. They’re playing a long game, and they do a few events like this a year, and it seems worth it.
I will say this though, there are churches that use this strategy full-time. Every single Sunday is about impressing people in hopes that they will want to become more involved eventually. I’ll give you an example that is both dazzling and horrifying (even many Evangelicals I know can see both sides of this one.) Years ago I worked as a full-time children’s pastor at a church in California. They were lovely people who had a passion for Jesus and wanted to know how to bring other families into their fold so that they could teach them about Jesus too. So I was working for this church and it had become obvious that the buildings they were used for children’s ministries were getting old and looking run down. Instead of just doing a refresh of carpet and paint, they decided – with very good motives – that they wanted to have buildings that looked closer to a children’s museum than a children’s Sunday School building. So, they sent me on a trip across the country to go visit a church that had done this very thing.
My purpose for this trip was to get a tour of the building and come to understand what aspects had been worth the investment, what had not, and what elements our church back in California could be inspired by. They start the tour by showing me the check-in desk for school-age children – this is a common feature for bigger churches – the children are brought to that point, checked into their class, and sometimes the parents are given a vibrating pager (like you get while waiting for a restaurant sometimes) and the kids are off to their classes. But in this church, after the check-in process was complete the worker would go to the wall behind the desk and open up 1 of 4 round hatches. When it was open it revealed a slide. The child would then be invited to slide from the main floor down to the floor where their classroom was. A monitor above the portal showed a video feed from the bottom where the parents could see their child greeted by a worker and taken to class. Then they took me to the infant/toddler area – instead of having some toys and blankets laid out on a floor for the nursery-age children they had constructed a room where 2 of the walls were floor-to-ceiling salt-water aquariums filled with exotic fishes. And it went on and on from there. And I’ll be honest, it was impressive. It was exactly children’s-museum-meets-Sunday-School. If I were an Evangelical parent looking for a place my child would be excited to go to on Sundays – this would be it. But much like the churches that use helicopters to drop thousands of eggs, churches that are doing this have to be crystal clear on why they’re doing it and work hard to get people to the actual goal – becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. And sometimes, this goal seems to take second place to “being impressive.” Because it’s really fun to be impressive. When I was an Evangelical I fell into that trap for a long time. And it’s not an easy one to see your way out of.
Version 2 – back to Holy Week – the next version of what Evangelical churches do for Holy Week is a step up in terms of what you might recognize as looking like a religious observation. The bare-bones version of this is…1) Palm Sunday. Congregations members are given palm branches when they arrive for the Service that Sunday. At some point during the service one of the leaders will talk the congregation through the meaning of the Palm Sunday story and the congregation will wave the palm branches in the air. (Many parents know how to teach their children to make little items with the palms after they’ve been waved – they can be made into woven crosses or even little dolls while the children sit in church.) This service is often accompanied by upbeat music and singing. In many scenarios that will be the extent of it. Most churches will allow the mood to stay upbeat until the end. A minority of churches will end the service talking about that while Jesus receives a warm welcome on this day, things would turn against him in the days to come. But most of them will let the mood remain festive. The next even of Holy Week for a church like this might be either a “Maundy Thursday” or “Good Friday” service. Maundy Thursday is traditionally a feet-washing service. And in the past perhaps everyone in the congregation would have the opportunity to have their feet washed, these days it is far more likely to be a symbolic event that maybe a handful of people experience on behalf of the rest of the congregation. The idea here is that Jesus washed the disciple’s feet and we are to remember that he humbled himself to be the servant of all. This is generally a service attended by adults and maybe older children, though I’ve never heard of younger children being prohibited. The same is true with Good Friday. This is a somber service where congregants remember the crucifixion. It’s often an emotional service with music, low lights, scripture readings, and not many bells and whistles. Sunday morning – Easter – can either be a ramped-up version of their normal service, or perhaps a Sunrise service. People are more likely to dress up – Evangelicals normally do not dress up for church – but there are lots of exceptions to that too. All of this is sort of a middle-of-the-road kind of approach to Holy Week.
Version 3 – this is a church that goes all out. They will do all the things just mentioned plus some additional things. The first difference that you would notice is that the palm branches used on Palm Sunday are collected from the congregation – so no little crosses or dolls are made from them. Seems weird at first, but the reason they do this is that those branches are laid out and dried, then later they are burned. The ashes will become the ashes used in next year’s Ash Wednesday service. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the season leading up to Easter called Lent. Lent is the 40-day (minus Sundays) period leading up to Easter. The point of Lent is to get your heart ready to celebrate the resurrection. And they will often give up things like sugar to help them stay disciplined and focused during that time. On Ash Wednesday they go to church for a special service where the ashes (made from the Palms) are smeared on their forehead in the shape of a cross. After Palm Sunday they would certainly celebrate Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as well. But they add in a Saturday service that I think you will be fascinated by. It’s called Easter Vigil. It usually takes place on Saturday night. Sometimes this is a simple service, and sometimes it’s a grand production with actors and costumes, lights and music, but here is the point of it…..The service tells this history of humanity beginning in the Garden of Eden. It talks about how and why Adam and Eve left the garden and tells the history of God’s people down to Moses, and then from Moses to Jesus Christ. The point is for them to tell the history of the salvation of God’s people – leading to the resurrection or the doorway to eternity. The highlight of the service is at the end when the congregation is symbolically placed in Heaven celebrating God’s love. I imagine that every adult Latter-day Saint is making connections here to what we’re doing in our temple worship. Some of the same things are going on – we Latter-day Saints have a much more developed theology around what all of that means, and this is a similar practice to what many of you do on a regular basis. So it might be interesting to learn that at least some Evangelicals are doing this once a year – it doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it means to us. But some of the raw materials are there.
I don’t where our traditions around Holy Week will go in the future. We had some great talks and inspiration at General Conference this last time, and we’ll see what that might develop into. I think it’s exciting. Join us next time and we will continue on. See you then!
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.