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Taking Liturgy to Town

Taking Liturgy to Town

by Lisa G. Fischbeck

Holy Week at the Advocate: Carrboro NC Becomes Jerusalem

We walked together, some carrying placards, some taking turns carrying the large cedar cross. Not a large crowd, twenty-five or so. Enough to been seen as intentional, enough to attract attention. I wore my collar and black cassock, signs my ministry, signs of the Church. It was Good Friday, and we were walking the Way of the Cross through our town, Carrboro, North Carolina. For most of us, this was making church more public than usual. So we felt a little timid and a little bold at the same time. Somewhere between the fifth and sixth station, after we had passed the taqueria and before we reached the InterFaith Council building, a man rode by on his bicycle. “F*** God” He yelled, waving his fist in the air. “F*** religion.”

We walked on, changed.

Good liturgy both expresses what we believe and shapes what we believe. The people of the Church of the Advocate walking the Way of the Cross that day, came to believe more fully in a God made flesh, made vulnerable to the powers of this world. We came to understand more fully the gift of that vulnerability to us all. God with us. We understood a little better how it felt to publically claim our identity as Christians.

Launched in 2003, the Advocate is a 21st century mission of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. We are rooted in the traditions and liturgies of the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer. Born without land or building, though, we experience both the liberation and the challenge of inheriting the liturgies of the church without inheriting the usual structures in which those liturgies take place — church walls. As such, from our beginning the Advocate has had the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Why are we doing this? What does it say? How does it form us?”

As a church without building or congregational history, it has been relatively easy for us to consider our Holy Week liturgies “from scratch” and to take them into new and different places, even into the public square. These liturgies lend themselves to being in the world. After all, that’s where they started.

Engaging in the Holy Week liturgies of the Church outside the confines of a church building profoundly allows us to re-member the experience of Jesus and his followers on the streets of Jerusalem, in the “upper room”, before the councils of church and state, and on the road to Calvary. While the Advocate’s Holy Week liturgies continue to evolve and change from year to year, we have found some meaningful patterns.

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday with the Liturgy of the Palms and procession. Remembering Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, we gather as the people of the first century did, outdoors by the “walls of the city”, in our case, by the Carrboro Town Hall. We hear the story of Jesus, the colt, the people, the palms. And we, too, wave our branches of palm (provided) and flowers brought from our own gardens and trees (which is what the palms were for the people of 1st century Jerusalem). These vary from one year to the next – redbuds, azaleas, daffodils. This year we plan to add large bamboo stalks (while these are not native plants, bamboo is popular in local apartment complexes, and we anticipate quite a visual impact!)

From the Town Hall we process about two blocks to the entrance to the Carrboro Town Commons singing “Jesus is coming, Hosanna Glory”. I encourage people see the processional cross as the symbol of Jesus, and to try to get as close to it as they can. The Town Commons contains the town playground and playing field and the covered farmers market two days a week. When we arrive at the entrance, we “cast our palms” before the crucifer and cross, say a prayer, and enter the covered market singing a different tune — “A Stable Lamp is Lighted”, including the fitting words: This child through David’s city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry, though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway
to pave his kingdom come.

The liturgy quickly moves to the passion narrative, a liturgical jolt resulting from the unfortunate combination of Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday (which practice presumably evolved from the realization that many would not return to church again until the celebration of the Resurrection on Easter Day). Too much for one liturgy, really. Nonetheless, experiencing these two narratives in one hour helps us to realize that we, too, like the people of first century Jerusalem, can quickly, and in the same public space and place, convert from cries of “Hosanna” to shouts of “Crucify Him” when walking in his way becomes to challenging or risky for us.

All who pass by are welcome to join us in our open-air cathedral. And always some, not many, but some, do. People walking with kids or dogs, people who have never been to church, people who remember the church of their childhood and are intrigued to see it being made new. Some stand on the periphery, others take a seat. (This is a “bring your own chair” event, but we always have extras on hand for the strangers who join us).

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday, we gather more privately, as Jesus did with his disciples. This is far and away the favorite liturgy of the year for the congregation, as we experience the intimacy and warmth of friendship and community. Jesus and the disciples met for the Passover meal in the “upper room”, we meet together in a rustic lodge out in the country north of town, and share a Middle Eastern meal. One member of the congregation takes two days off work each year to coordinate and lovingly prepare the food. The menu varies, but always includes stuffed grape leaves, pita and humus, olives, almonds, salad with feta cheese, cider and wine. Fresh tulips decorate each table. Music is led with fiddle, flute and guitar, and the singing is robust – All Who Hunger Gather Gladly, Jesu Jesu, The Servant Song, Ubi caritas, Thuma mia.

We experience servant leadership in a variety of dimensions. Each round table of eight is tended by a member of the vestry. Apart from blessing the food, I do not preside, but rather sit among the people. Like everyone else, I have my feet washed by a member of the congregation. And each year I find it would be far easier for me to serve than to allow myself to be served. My servant leadership is to relinquish the leadership….

After the meal, there is no altar to strip, so we clear the tables and stack the chairs, first in silence, then with the musicians playing Wayfaring Stranger. We find our way to the large open porch, gather in darkness there, chant Taizé’s “Stay With Me, Watch and Pray”, then hear the words of Psalm 22. It is haunting, knowing these words, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” are the same attributed to Jesus on the cross.

We depart in silence, finding our way to our cars with flashlights, and feeling within us the tension between the warmth of the community and the cold knowledge of the events of the next day. The complexity of the Christian life, with joy and pain, made plain.

Good Friday

Good Friday we return to downtown Carrboro. At the noon hour, we gather once again at the Carrboro Town Commons, the farmers market, this time for the Good Friday liturgy — a simple service of prayer and scripture from the Book of Common Prayer. Once again we hear the Passion narrative, third time in a week, and it begins to penetrate our hearts and our bones. The weather, of course, varies from year to year. But when it is cold an rainy, we identify with Peter, warming his hands by the fire, even as he denies he knows the Lord.

Someone brings forth the five feet tall cross, made of two pieces of cedar lashed together, and we see and feel its heft. We walk to the Carrboro Town Hall, where we last met on Palm Sunday, and begin The Way of the Cross/ Via Dolorosa with the first station: Jesus is condemned to die.

The traditional stations are maintained, yet re-written for a 21st century context (see example below), so as we walk that Way through our own town, we do so not only to remember a series of events in 1st century Palestine, but also to reflect on the state of our world, our nation, our city, and our selves. We walk through downtown, for more than a mile, past social service agencies, People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, the center for conflict resolution, the police station, the local popular food coop. We realize and make known Christ’s presence in all of these places.

The Way made public brings the Gospel story to the people of the town and forms the people who walk it. We read the stations in English and in Spanish, in recognition of, and with hospitality for, our neighbors who are Spanish-speaking, many who come from countries where the Fridays in Lent are marked by a public procession of the cross. And every year strangers spontaneously join us on the Way, sometimes just for a station or two, sometimes through to the end.

Last year we added placards to our presence, in order to make known to passers by that we were applying the Gospel to today. “Occupy the Cross; Love the World“, Jesus Welcomes the Alien and the Stranger”, “Dichosos los Pobres”. Carrying these signs, we felt even more public and more vulnerable to the judgment and anti-Christian prejudice of others. We were cheered and jeered. Horns honked support and annoyance. Yet when we talked about it afterward, we agreed that we by our actions we all felt strangely empowered and formed as 21st century Christians in the world. We realized we can be open with our faith and practice.


Our Easter celebrations are not as public. But neither were the events that inspired them. According to our Gospel accounts, the resurrection took place in the dark for night with no witnesses. Still, I wonder how we might share Easter with the stranger or the passerby.

For now, though, for the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, we gather in the dark outside near the space we rent for worship on most Sundays. We experience the excitement of the resurrection, the Light of Christ in the darkness, as we light the Paschal fire, carry the Paschal candle in procession past kerosene soaked torches that burst into flame. We keep Vigil through the stories of creation and liberation, baptize by immersion outdoors in an inflatable pool, and return indoors for the Paschal Shout, lights and celebration, culminating with an alleluia and the pop of a champagne cork.

Easter Day we celebrate the discovery of the resurrection – in the daylight — in a garden yard of a parishioner or friend, with beauty, joy, Eucharist. We’ve heard the story, now we live in the light of the resurrection. We cheer the ancient song: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life. And we dance.

As I wrote at the start, it is relatively easy for the Advocate to take our Holy Week liturgies into town, because the Advocate doesn’t have a building of our own, with all the traditions and expectations that would go along with it. But with the emerging buzz about taking Ash Wednesday practices to the streets with “Ashes to Go”, I wonder if other congregations might consider the ways that Holy Week liturgies lend themselves to spaces and places beyond our doors, connecting us by experience with our 1st century ancestors in the faith and with the 21st century world in which we live. Expressing our faith and forming it in ways we can only now begin to imagine.

Fifth Station: The Cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene

Tres Amigos Tienda y Taquería

A reading from the Gospel according to Mark

Then they led him out to crucify him. They compelled a passerby, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene. (Mark 15:20b-21)

Silent Reflection


With Jesus tired and weak, and having fallen once already, it was clear to the soldiers escorting him that he might not be able to carry the cross himself the whole way. It was beneath their station as Romans to carry the cross—not in their job description. Just at that moment, their eyes landed on someone—someone who could bring no complaint and who could cause them no trouble—a foreigner from Cyrene, in what is now Libya.

Simon’s case is in so many ways nothing new—just another person harrassed and oppressed because of his origin, his accent, his skin color—a stranger in a strange land, without help, without rights, without recourse. It happens still today, in our country, in our state, in our cities. It has long been the case that immigrants perform the hardest, lowest-paying, most dangerous jobs, jobs that most people will not take. As we stand in front of Tres Amigos, let us remember all those who are vulnerable and oppressed because of their race, ethnicity, or immigration status.

Silent Reflection

Photos here.

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission in Chapel Hill/Carrboro, North Carolina.


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Donald Schell

readers – do click on the link for photos. The story tells much and is evocative, and the pictures add to it. Faces. Moments. Thank you Lisa and Church of the Advocate!

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