SPARTA, NJ-It is the season of Lent and Palm Sunday is fast approaching. The earmarks of Lent, the presence of solemnity and simplicity, are all around.   The silver has been put away replaced by earthenware, and there are no flowers on the altar.  All services begin with the penitential order with us kneeling.  There are no alleluias, and the music is much more reverential and less upbeat.   The readings are filled with challenges for Jesus and his earthly ministry. 

On April 13th, the Palm Sunday service will end with the reading of the Passion. For those new to St. Mary’s, the observance is mindful that Palm Sunday begins the last week of Jesus’ life, the commemoration of the day Jesus enters Jerusalem.  This day is as powerful as the remainder of the days leading to the day of the Resurrection. 

Much of the service follows the familiar format with the distribution of the palms and the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but its conclusion is vastly different.  The Gospel, in this case, the reading of the Passion, is moved from its usual place following the Epistle to the very last spot in the order of service. 

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Readers will take their places around the sanctuary and enact the events between the time of the Last Supper through his betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his death upon the Cross.   The sanctuary will be filled with the sounds of timpani in the background; these sounds capture and enhance the drama of the reading.  Once the reading of the Passion is completed, we all will leave the sanctuary in silence.  There will be no coffee hour that week.  This should set the stage for what is ahead; the sense of being yanked from the familiar and moved to something far from comforting, even unsettling.

St Mary's will have a traditional Eucharist at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday at 6:30 p.m. there will be candlelight supper in Shaffer Hall.  There will be a simple soup supper, foot washing, and communion that harkens the memory of the upper room the night Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist and was betrayed by Judas. 

From there all will be invited to walk to the sanctuary, where to hear the account of the event according to the Gospel of Matthew, as the altar is stripped and leaving the chancel area totally stark and bare in anticipation of Good Friday.  Immediately following this, the watch throughout the night begins and continues until 6 a.m. Friday.

On Good Friday starting at noon, will be the Episcopal version of Stations of the Cross, The Way of the Cross.  From 1 until 2 p.m. there will be meditations about the Cross; and at 2 the liturgy for Good Friday will be celebrated with communion from the reserved sacrament.  This Good Friday liturgy will be repeated on Friday evening at 7:30.  

Saturday evening at 7:30 is the Easter Vigil.  What might be unknown to many is that this service was the service of Easter.  It was the time that those who studied for baptism, catechumens were baptized. Four congregations will be sharing this beautiful and powerful service:  St. Peter’s, Mt. Arlington, St. Gabriel’s, Milton, Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Sparta, and St. Mary’s. 

The service begins in darkness with the kindling of the new fire and the lighting of the Paschal Candle.  The Exsultet will be sung, telling us that “This is the night when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, and rose victorious from the grave” and “this is the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from the gloom of sin, and restored to grace and holiness of life.” 

Next, echoing the theology of the Exsultet, the stories of salvation history, the stories of God’s loving intervention and saving of God’s people are read. Regardless of whether there is a baptism or not, the baptismal vows are renewed.  This year, there may have a baptism, a newborn from Shepherd of the Hills.   Immediately  following either the baptism or the renewal of our baptismal vows, the darkness is ended, the horror and injustice of Good Friday is shattered and defeated, representing the move into the next day by both sound and light; it is Easter.

Please bring either a penlight or flashlight and some type of noisemaker to be used for the breaking into the light from the dark. Our noise represents the stone being rolled from the mouth of Jesus’ burial place, the heavens and earth breaking forth with the proclamation of the defeat of sin and evil.

"I cannot emphasize strongly enough what a beautiful, powerful service the Vigil is. This service has the ability to be one of the most profound experiences you will ever have.  It is my favorite service of the year, and for me, the most meaningful," says  the Rev.  Carol Gadsden, Rector of St. Mary’s.   St Mary's deacon, the  Reverend Liz Ostuni, will be the homilist for this service.

For the Vigil and both Easter Sunday services there will be a choir accompanied by the organ and a brass quintet.  The items and the tenor of feeling lost at the beginning of Lent are restored, to again celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord.

Gadsden says, "I invite you to make that walk through Holy Week with me, and hope to see many of you at these services."

Visitors are welcome at any and all services.    St Mary's does request visitors call the church office at 973- 729-3136 by Tuesday, April 15th if they intend to attend the Maundy Thursday supper, to ensure there is enough food for all in attendance .