New Episcopal bishop marks first Holy Week in Arkansas

Praying hands with faith in religion / Getty Images
Praying hands with faith in religion / Getty Images

Clergy in the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas gathered at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Little Rock on Tuesday to reaffirm their ordination vows and retrieve the holy oils they will use in the year to come.

Their new bishop, John Harmon, was there with them, renewing the vows he took in January.

In England's Anglican churches, the blessing of the oils is often held on Maundy Thursday, early enough that parish priests can return in time for their evening services.

That's harder, logistically, in Arkansas given the size of the state, so the priests gathered earlier in the week.

During Tuesday's service, two types of oil were consecrated; both are olive-based.

"One oil, the Unction, is used for healing," Harmon said. "The other oil, if you're doing baptism, that's the Chrism." Both terms come from words meaning "anointing." Chrism comes from the Greek, khrisma, while unction comes from the Latin, unctio.

When Christians are sick, James 5:14 says they should "call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord." (New Revised Standard Version)

"The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up, and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven," the 15th verse promises.

This is Harmon's first Holy Week as bishop. He preached at the Little Rock cathedral on Palm Sunday and will do so again on Easter Sunday. During his first three months in Arkansas, he has crisscrossed the state, often rising Sundays before dawn so he can visit far-flung parishes.

There are 54 Episcopal congregations that he oversees, and he must visit them all. "Sometimes (it's) early -- 4 o'clock in the morning. Other times, it might be ... 6 o'clock, but I leave my home with joyful expectation, anticipating meeting people who love Jesus," he said.

Elected bishop in August, he has been embraced by his new neighbors. "The people of Arkansas (have) just been welcoming, hospitable, and I think they represent the kingdom of God in the flesh," he said.

The clergy have impressed him as well. "The dean of the cathedral (Amy Dafler Meaux) is extraordinary, ... and the churches where I go, the clergy are all just really prepared," he said.

Harmon, who grew up on Cape Palmas in Liberia, grew up in the Episcopal Church of Liberia and attended St. Mark's Episcopal Church -- reportedly the oldest existing Episcopal Church in Africa.

On Easter Sunday, the throngs would joyfully sing "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today," he said. He'll hear it again at Trinity on Sunday.

"Palmas" in Spanish means palms, and there were plenty of them in Harmon's hometown. As a result, it was never hard to find fronds.

"On the eve of Palm Sunday, on Saturday, the men and the boys will go out to cut palms. And the women and the girls will go and cut flowers," he said. Massive palm branches are plaited together to create arches over the church's aisles, he said.

On Easter morning, worshippers there assemble in darkness with joyful anticipation. "Our Baptist friends would call it a sunrise service. We called it 'The Vigil,'" Harmon said.

Once the Paschal candle is lighted, a deacon sings the Exsultet, sometimes referred to as the Easter Proclamation, which begins: "Rejoice now, heavenly hosts and choirs of angels, and let your trumpets shout Salvation for the victory of our mighty King."

Trinity churchgoers will celebrate The Great Vigil with Lighting of the Fire today at 7 p.m. The Holy Eucharist will occur Easter morning at 7, 9 and 11 a.m.

While the resurrection of Jesus is the focus of the celebration, Harmon maintains that "resurrection happens every day." "Easter is about life-giving experiences," he said.

"When we can live into the hope of what it means to be a beloved community, when we lend a helping hand and make someone's life better -- that's the resurrection," he said.

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