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Pondering a Good Friday Wake

Burial Icon I’m thinking this week about the one Holy Week liturgy I’m involved in planning this year, a Good Friday wake. The basic concept is a wake for Jesus–to provide a space and a time to sit with friends and grieve his death, and to remember the things he did in his life with us on earth, much as we do when friends and relatives die. The central focus of the space is a table or a bench draped in dark fabric on which is laid a burial icon–an icon of Jesus laid in the tomb (known in Eastern Orthodox traditions as an *Epitaphios*). There are flowers which can be laid on the icon, candles that can be lit and placed near the icon, spices and fragrant oils that can be placed on the icon.

The lighting is subdued. There should be ample seating–a few seats near the icon (along with a few cushions for kneeling), but others in more conversational clusters around the room. We set up a table with cups, hot water, a selection of teas, and hot cross buns. There are bibles, prayerbooks, and images of the crucifixion and burial around the room for us in prayer or quiet contemplation.

Mostly, the space and time is open for people to quietly engage as they need to–at the icon, sitting elsewhere in the room, in quiet conversation, perhaps with a cup of tea. At 15-30 minute intervals, there is a reading–maybe a poem, maybe a section from a letter or an essay, reflecting on Jesus’ death. Maybe a song, or a psalm. And then we invite people to share their memories, their stories about Jesus, in the form, “I remember when Jesus . . . “. At the end of the evening (we let it run maybe 3-4 hours) we say a closing prayer, put out all the candles, and cover the icon with a white cloth.

We’ve done this liturgy twice now, once at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, and once here at EDS. We developed it with some of the rest of the liturgy team at ECOTA. We took some inspiration from the approach of the Good Friday liturgy (PDF) at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, but the wake we developed is designed as a supplemental liturgy to allow some time to process through some of the rather emotional content of the main Maundy Thursday and Good Friday Liturgies. I also wanted it to be a time to engage with the death of Jesus, rather than with mainly the events leading to it, and from the viewpoint of his followers, rather than his betrayers or accusers.

It’s been a powerful and moving experience both times, but in different ways. At the Advocate, the most powerful part was the open sharing. It was tentative at first, and mostly people shared memories of events from the gospels–the sermon on the mount, the healing of a blind man–but as we continued, something wonderful began happening, and the gospels opened up and we stepped into them.

We spoke from inside the stories of the gospel. We were there in the feeding of the 5000. We were in the boat when Jesus calmed the storm. We shared our memories of what Jesus was like, what he laughed at. What we were doing when he called us, and called us again. The times he comforted us, when he challenged us. And suddenly, somehow, we were talking abut real memories, not just the gospels anymore, but our own lives, and we were also mourning our loss, the times when we felt separated from Jesus, when we felt alone. Mourning that we never had Jesus with us bodily the way those first disciples did. Grieving not just the death of Jesus, but all the deaths before and after that have been seen in the light of his death, all the deaths that his has come to stand for.

And oh, what joy to share and hear the Good News of the Resurrection the next night at the Great Vigil.

Last year, at EDS, I felt that the most powerful part of the evening was the ways people interacted with the icon, and the set readings we had. The sharing was still an important part of the time, but I found it much less personal, less raw, and more reflective, theological. It is hardly surprising that a group of faculty and students at a seminary would be more intellectual in their approach to this liturgy, and I can think of many reasons why it could be more difficult to open in the same way in this context.

So this week I am thinking about the differences in the two experiences and their contexts, and pondering what to tweak, how to set things up differently, how to structure the time and the readings and the biddings to better fit this community, to call them into something that will work for here. There are some adjustments to the physical space that might be helpful, and I can manage those–but that’s just the comfortable aspect for me to work in. One challenge is coming up with good readings–mostly because I’m just not very well read in this area, and I imagine pretty much every seminarian here is much better read in these areas than I am. But that task can be shared out–which is what we’ve done the last two years, with good results. The part that I think really needs work is all the framing, the ways we interrupt silence, introduce readings, invite people to share, explain what we’re doing–but without overdetermining things.

I’ll post a proper script for this once I have a draft in another week or so. Any comments or suggestions before or after then are much appreciated.

Burial icon by Miranda Hassett, 2007.

Update: I’ve posted some further thoughts.

Update (3/16/2008): A draft script is now available. This will continue to change over the next several days, but I wanted to share what I’m working with right now. Feedback is certainly appreciated.

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