If you’re a Lutheran, you probably know the punch line to this joke: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. Lutherans don’t believe in change.
Okay, I have to admit, it’s a little bit true. Sitting on the pulpit side of the church does feel strange to me, and I still pine for the red 1941 hymnal. But change is a good thing.
Case in point: Holy Week services. I’ve always loved Holy Week, but now I really look forward to the services.
All four of them.
When I was young, we attended two services: one on Good Friday, and one on Easter morning. (There was probably a Maundy Thursday service, too, but I don’t recall going.) The Good Friday service was in the afternoon and ended around 3:00 p.m.—a nice parallel with Mark 15:33: “And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”
For a long time, that 1:00 service (which my old church still offers) was the ONLY way to observe Good Friday (and the days leading up to Easter).
Of course, the Lutheran experience is broader than that. I just didn’t know how much until I started attending churches in other denominations.
Today, my “Lutheran Holy Week” experience includes a Maundy Thursday Divine Service, Tenebrae (meaning “darkness” or “shadows”) on Good Friday, an Easter Vigil on Saturday, and Divine Service on Easter morning.
These services are all special in their own way, communicating through different sights, sounds, and symbols the message of Christ’s suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection.
At the end of Maundy Thursday service, for instance, there’s the somber stripping of the altar, accompanied by the chanting of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
On Good Friday, all but one of the candles on the Tenebrae candelabrum (see image above) are methodically extinguished, symbolizing the flight of the apostles and the agonizing death of Christ. The central candle is removed, a book slams shut, and the candle returns: It is finished.
At the Vigil, worshippers gather outside around a fire, holding small candles lit by the paschal candle, representing the light of Christ. The dark opening stages of the Easter Vigil give way to church bells, bright lights, and a change of vestments later in the service, signaling the transition from Lent to Easter, from suffering and death to resurrection.
Then there’s the joy of Easter morning, with its triumphant hymns, Easter lilies, and packed pews.
On those packed pews: I suppose the attendance on Easter, in comparison with the other Holy Week services, makes sense. Easter church is, no doubt, one tradition that all of us share—not just Lutherans, but Christians generally. The other services? Probably not so much.
Take Tenebrae, for example. Our Kantor, Pastor Roger Goetz, tells me he introduced the Tenebrae service at St. John’s in the early 1980s. At the time, there were no Lutheran versions available, so he composed chants for the service. The Easter Vigil is even newer; it’s been offered at St. John’s only since 2004.
To be honest, I might not be inclined to attend all four services, if not for someone else in the family with a strong interest. The services aren’t part of my Lutheran DNA, and they’re still somewhat unfamiliar.
But now that I’ve attended all of them for a few years now, I’m hooked. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.