A Service of Art, Music, and Readings for Holy Week

Holy Week is a special time in the church year.

We retell the old, old story of Jesus gathering with his disciples, washing their feet, and breaking bread with them; praying in the garden; being betrayed and condemned to death on a cross; and laid in a tomb sealed with a stone. It’s a somber week of remembrance and reflection on God’s great gifts of love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption. But, we all know how the story ends: with victory, resurrection, hope, and new life.

Some churches have services every day during Holy Week; others may have only one or two services. Maundy Thursday, the remembrance of the Last Supper, and Good Friday, the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice for us, are the two most common Holy Week services.

We’re in the midst of finalizing our plans for our Maundy Thursday service this year and are leaning toward a more reflective service, with art, music, readings, and communion around the table.

Looking to create something similar for your church? Here’s my step-by-step process:

Step 1  |  Create an Outline

Depending on what day you hold your service(s), you might use the Stations of the Cross or Tenebrae (Latin for "shadows") Service (see examples here, here, and here), the Seven Last Words of Christ, or a sequence of readings and hymns (like Lessons and Carols) as an outline.

Here is an outline I created, based on readings and hymns:

Prelude
Hymn - “Come Just As You Are”
Prayer

THE LIGHT
Reading: John 12:20-36 and/or
Poem: "Light" (Steve Garnaas-Holmes)
Music - “Christ is the World’s Light”

THE WATER
Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Hymn - “Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands” or
             “Make Me a Servant”

THE TABLE
Readings: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:21-32
Communion (around the table)
Music - “Come to the Table of Grace” or
             “In Remembrance of Me” or
             “Here, O My Lord, I See Thee” or
             “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast”

THE GARDEN
Reading: Matthew 26:36-56
Hymn - “Go to Dark Gethsemane”

THE COURTYARD
Reading: John 18:1-19:42
Music - “To Mock Your Reign, O Dearest Lord” or
             “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”    

THE CROSS
Reading: Psalm 22     
Hymn - “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or
             “Were You There”

THE DARKNESS
Reading: Matthew 27:57-66 and/or
Poem: "Mary Magdalene and The Other Mary; A Song for All Maries" (Christina Rossetti)
Music - “What Wondrous Love Is This”   

Prayer
Hymn - “Ah, Holy Jesus”

Please leave the sanctuary in silence.

Click here to download a PDF version of this service template.

I decided to organize this service template by symbols and places mentioned in the story - light, water, table, garden, courtyard, cross, darkness. Notice that the service begins with “light" and ends with “darkness."

Step 2  |  Select Readings

Once you have a structure and outline in place, select the readings you will use in the service. This might include Scripture readings, responsive readings, other liturgy, and even poems and hymn texts. 

Here are a few helpful resources:

Unfolding Light - beautiful poems and daily reflections written by Steve Garnaas-Holmes
wordsout - poems and performance pieces by Godfrey Rust
re:Worship - numerous prayers and other liturgy resources
Lent and Easter Poetry - including selections by Christina Rossetti, Oscar Wilde, Isaac Watts, and
others (note: some are still under copyright)
Blue Eyed Ennis - a collection of poems for Holy Week, some in the public domain, some under copyright
Lent & Beyond - a compilation of Good Friday quotes, poems, hymns, and prayers

Consider mixing up the format of the readings to keep the congregation engaged and connected. Think about including some readings for the pastor or worship leader to read, printing some in the bulletin or displaying them on a screen for silent reading and reflection, and including some (shorter selections) to read together as a congregation (in unison or responsively).

Add an element of drama by having a few people act out the readings through dialogue and conversation. Or, have multiple people read parts of the given text from different places around the room. Be creative!

Step 3  |  Choose Music

The next step is to choose music (hymns, songs, anthem(s), responses, etc.) that correspond with the readings you’ve selected. In the outline I shared above, I tried to alternate congregational hymns and other music (instrumental, handbells, choir, etc.). For instrumental selections, you might consider printing the text in the bulletin or displaying it on a screen so the congregation can meditate on the words as they listen.

Looking for anthem ideas? Here are a few suggestions: Ten Church Choir Anthems for Lent

Use the topical index in the back of your hymnal or sites like Hymnary.org to find hymns that might fit and use wordtoworship.com to search for contemporary selections that match Scripture references.

Step 4  |  Search for Art

This is the fun part! Look for images of paintings, woodcuts, sketches, etc. Remember to look for images that are in the public domain and free to copy or display in your service. 

Here are a few helpful sites that have collections of art work in the public domain:

An artwork concordance indexed by biblical/liturgical subject
Art in the Christian Tradition: Maundy Thursday
Art in the Christian Tradition: Good Friday

Step 5  |  Create a Slideshow

Use Keynote or Powerpoint to create a simple slideshow to accompany the service. Keep the slides simple - a white or gray background with the image filling up most of the slide. Add a small text box underneath the image, or in the lower-right corner with the title of the work, attribution, and any source information. Use a simple, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Georgia. 

I would choose a few images for each reading (when the congregation is listening) and a few for each piece of instrumental music in the service. Insert text slides - unison or responsive readings, silent readings, lyrics for instrumental works, etc. - where needed, so everything is in order.

Make sure the person running the slideshow during the service has a printout of all the slides and appropriate directions regarding which images go with what.

What do your Holy Week services look like? Have you ever used art or poetry to enhance your worship?


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