Most people who didn't grow up in the church assume that Christmas is the biggest holiday for Christians. It's certainly the most visible and drawn out, the most easily co-opted and inviting of all our holidays (and we have a lot). It's warm and fuzzy and bright at the darkest time of year. The gift portion is certainly attractive to pretty much everyone. And it looks like our name! that's convenient.
But the reality is the Christmas is, at best, the second most important holiday. Holy Week and Easter, collectively known as Passiontide, is our most important holiday. Christmas is joyous, of course, but it's a prelude, and one that is theologically tempered. If you read through the texts of Christmas hymns and carols, you'll find that some of the less-popular-on-the-radio-station verses are rather bleak (some more modern, cheerful hymnals even leave them out). Take, for example, the second verse of "What Child is this?"
Why lies he in such mean estateThe whole point of Christmas, the arrival of God-made-flesh, is so that Good Friday may take place. Good Friday is rarely a service that draws in people from the outside, even though it is as well advertised with lawn signs. Who in their right mind wants to go sit in a darkened, quiet church and contemplate on their sins, the agony of death on the cross, and the [seeming] finality of death?
where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear: for sinners here
the silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce him through,
the cross be borne for me, for you;
hail, hail the Word made flesh,
the babe, the son of Mary.
Growing up, I would say that Holy Week was one of the biggest weeks of the year (I was still a kid). Partly because I grew up the child of the church organist and the person in charge of decorating the church so I was there nearly everyday starting the day before Palm Sunday to strip the palms all the way through Easter. But also because it is a compelling narrative that the Church has been telling for centuries. During Holy Week we don't just read the accounts. We re-enact them to a greater or lesser extent.
On Palm Sunday the congregation plays the part of the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem. We cry "Hosanna!" and sing hymns set to triumphal, often marching tunes. We wave palms and the organ plays at full blast.
But we know what is coming. Monday through Wednesday are spent in solitary preparation. There might be quiet preparations for Easter morning, but they are typically kept quiet.
Maundy Thursday exhibits the greatest variation I've seen among Churches. It commemorates the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before he was arrested and condemned to death, which became for Christians the sacrament of Communion. For some its a meditative service, with quiet hymns, prayer, perhaps a short homily, and of course communion. Others include 'maundy' or the rite of foot washing, something else Jesus gave to his disciples as a ritual that got lost (probably as it moved north where socks and boots were the norm instead of sandals). The services are beautiful, but also introspective. This is not to say that visitors aren't welcomed, but for many Christians these services are deeply personal.
Good Friday is a hard day. It's a holiday, in the sense that it is holy and in the sense that most people don't have to go to work on it, but it is also hard. Hard to explain to anyone who hasn't experienced it in its full, raw power and hard to go through. Whether its the stations of the cross, mentally walking with Jesus to his death, or Tenebrae going through the entire passion narrative with the congregation playing the part of the crowd who cries "Crucify!", it is a strange day that we put ourselves through. We meditate on the idea that we killed God, that the second person of the Trinity willingly walked into Death, paying the price our sinfulness, our brokenness, so we never have to. We leave the church in silence and darkness, the Bible closed, a single candle burning on the altar.
Holy Saturday is the quietest day in the church. Everyone who has to go in to make preparations for Sunday whispers. You try to walk quietly. The lights stay dim. Even though we all know what happened that first Easter, that Jesus isn't in that tomb again, we are still quiet, as though we mourn with the apostles.
Easter sunrise services are the most joyful thing I know of, whatever the variation. The one I can describe best is the one I grew up with. You enter the church in darkness and silence, praying and waiting. The pastor comes in through a door by the altar, and proclaims "Why do you look for the living among the dead? I tell you he is not here. He is risen!" and the lights go up and the organ roars to life in one of the many Easter Hymns. The litany of "He is risen!" "He is risen indeed, Alleluia!" tumbles from everyone's lips. Our sin may have been atoned for on Good Friday, but the empty tomb gives us hope and therefore joy.
Does all this sound insane? Sure. There's a reason St. Paul wrote that the message of the cross was foolishness in the eyes of the world (I Corinthians 1:18)--it is. Most self-aware Christians know this. We know we sound crazy. (We also know some of our traditions are good theatre). And we're ok with that. We can give reasons and offer some sort of explanation. But at the core, we know its not rational. We don't believe because of a Pascal's wager. We believe because, at some point, we've had a moment at the well, an encounter in the garden, whether subtle or bolt out of the blue or anywhere in between. And we believe.