A Procession Introduction

What is a procession?  

When there are special occasions people make it special by “marching forward” (processing) and entering in a different way than they normally would at other occasions.  We see this at football games (especially the Super Bowl) where each team doesn’t just show up on the field. Instead, they make it special by processing in. We see this at weddings where, instead of having the bride at the front of church at the beginning of the service, she processes in from the back as the congregation rises to greet her.  

How long have believers joined in processions in worship?

Processions are nothing new in the church.  In our psalm for Palm Sunday, we read these words:  “The Lord is God, and he has made his light shine on us. With boughs in hand, join in the festal procession up to the horns of the altar.” (Psalms 118:27 NIV).  Believers have joined in processions for far more than 3000 years.  Especially, during Holy Week, Christians have set aside time for processions.  In our liturgies, there is a place for processions on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil (Easter Sunrise Service).  

Do we have to have processions?

Processions are not commanded in God’s word. They are a useful way of marking off the occasion as special and different than other occasions for worship. But, like the use of ashes for Ash Wednesday, they are not commanded. And for the occasions where we do make use of them, please do not feel forced or coerced into a procession.  It’s perfectly fitting to sit down in your regular seat and prepare for worship the way you do every other time we gather for worship.

What are the two types of processions?

Processions take two basic shapes.  The first type of procession is one where a larger groups processes in from outside the church.  This is the sort of procession that happens on Palm Sunday. The second type is one where a small group enters the sanctuary. As they do, the congregation stands up and faces them as they make their way down the aisle.  Weddings are the most familiar example of this second sort of procession.

What are the people carrying as they procéss to the front?

At the front of the procession there are usually these three people, in this order:

  1. Gospel bearer (someone carries a copy of the four gospels down the aisle)
  2. Crucifer  (someone to carry the processional cross down the aisle to its stand at the front of the church)
  3. Lucifer (someone to carry the paschal candle down the aisle to its place by the baptismal font)

In addition to this, on Palm Sunday, those who are joining in the procession would carry palm branches and lay them at the foot of the processional cross.

For our procession on Palm Sunday, where do we meet—especially if it snows?

The first option would be to meet in the upper parking lot about 5 minutes before the service starts. There we would have a brief beginning to our worship by singing a psalm. And then we’d procéss into the church.  As we enter the sanctuary we would sing “All Glory, Laud, And Honor.” And as each person lays down their palm branches at the foot of the processional cross, they then return to their seats.

Option two, is that if it snows, we’d be meeting in the fireside room. And then we’d walk in from there.

What would the procession look like on Good Friday?

There are three services that have been traditionally used in our churches on Good Friday:

  • Service of Darkness (Tenebræ)
  • Service of the seven words
  • Service of the cross

The first two are the ones that are most familiar in our congregations. But the one that includes a procession is the service of the cross.  In that service the crucifer (cross-bearer) carries the processional cross into the sanctuary. He stands at the entryway to the sanctuary as key portions of God’s word is read.  Then he moves to the middle of the sanctuary, and another portion of God’s word is read. Finally, he moves to the front, where God’s word is read a final time. After that the cross is placed in its holder at the front of the congregation.  For the focus of that service is the suffering our Savior endured on the cross to take away our sins.

What would a procession look like on the Easter Vigil?

The Easter Vigil in many ways is the reversal of the Service of Darkness (Tenebræ).  Just as we slowly deprived the sanctuary of light on Good Friday evening to remind ourselves of the life that was slowly taken away from Jesus, so also, in the Vigil, we slowly add light to the sanctuary.  It is a different service than the Easter Resurrection service. In the Resurrection service there are trumpets and the organ “pulls out the stops” and the people sing exultant “alleluias”. In the Vigil there is a transition from dark to light, from death to life, from sadness to joy.  And finally, about ⅔ of the way through the service, there are loud alleluias that the congregation sings. 

The Easter Vigil is a time of transition.  As one reads the events that span the time from Jesus’ death to his resurrection early on Easter morning, it seems so long (at least from our perspective) before they rejoiced.  They mourned on Friday. They tried to make sense of what they had seen and heard on Saturday. And even though all the promises that Jesus made to them came true for them on Easter Sunday morning, when they saw the empty tomb they were terrified.  They needed time to transition. The Christian Church picked up the cue from these first visitors to the empty tomb and joined in a time of preparation and transition in the early centuries of the Christian Church. The Easter Vigil would usually start late on Saturday evening and stretch through dawn on Easter Sunday morning. Then, after the sun rose, they would go home. The difficulty is that very few of our churches today would have the ability to “pull an all-nighter” to do the vigil in a comprehensive way.  So, churches either have a late-night service on Saturday or a really early service on Easter Sunday.

What this looks like then in the service itself is that, first, those who would like to join the procession assemble outside of the sanctuary in the fellowship hall area.  A fire is struck. The paschal candle is lit. And after some introductory words, the procession enters the sanctuary. The group pauses at the three familiar stations (the back, the middle, the front of the sanctuary). Then they go to their pews and remain standing there.  Finally then the candles are extinguished as there is just enough light added to the sanctuary to see. Then, as each of the four parts of the service is concluded more light is added until the softer hymns and low-light conditions are exchanged for full-voiced “alleluias” and triumphant Easter Hymns.