And so now it’s Holy Week, the last few days of the Lenten season that brings us to the celebration of Easter. This is the time in which the Christian church remembers the central event of its faith: the sacrifice that one Jesus of Nazareth – who was Son of God and Son of Man – made on a wooden cross at a place called Golgotha outside the city of Jerusalem; and it is, to say the very least, a time of heavy reckoning.
The old and familiar story that we’re telling over these next few days remains both powerful and disturbing: it begins with joyous hosanna shouting but leads inevitably to betrayal and desertion, abject humiliation, horrific violence and an agonizing death. This is the gospel story, it’s the Passion story, and it’s our Lord’s story; but in a larger sense it’s our story as well: a sad and stark reminder of the reality of human sin and the fact that it was us, you and me, that Jesus came to save. Yes, it’s a hard, short season of the Christian year; if Lent is indeed a journey as we so often describe it, then the steps taken during Holy Week are certainly the most difficult.
It’s no real surprise, then, that as Christians we’re very good at Palm Sunday and even better at Easter, but not so great at dealing with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Simply put, we prefer the joy and triumph over the sacrifice and pain; we love waving palms and shouting alleluias at the empty tomb far more than we care to hear about Peter’s denials and the crown of thorns cutting into Jesus’ head. It’s as though since we already know and love the story’s end, we decide to “fast-forward” through the hard details in order to get there – we seek to move from triumph to victory without ever having to deal with the passion in-between.
This is a sad truth reflected by the relatively low numbers of people who come to church on Holy Week for special services of worship and other events. It’s very interesting to me, and true of every congregation of which I’ve been a part over the years; that even though our pews are typically filled on Sunday mornings as Easter approaches, it’s a considerably smaller group that comes for communion and the service of Tenebrae on Maundy Thursday, and often a downright tiny fellowship that gathers for prayer and meditation on Good Friday!
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the number of people that matters, but rather the presence of God among those who worship together. But what does concern me is what those people who stay home during Holy Week are missing: a greater understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and what that continues to mean to you and me today. It’s the experience that helps us to better and more joyfully appreciate what all the Easter morning alleluias are all about!
Once when I was in what used to be called junior high school – seventh grade, if I remember correctly – I was assigned to read a short story and then write a report on it. I forget now exactly what the story was supposed to be about, but I do remember reading it and not understanding any of it! In fact, I was so confused that I couldn’t even manage to write a report that made any kind of sense; and what made things worse is that many of my classmates were raving about what a great story it was! It turned out that someone who’d had the book before me had torn out a couple of key pages in the middle that set the stage for everything else that was to come; only when I was able to read the whole story from beginning to end could I understand or appreciate how wonderful it really was.
Likewise, when we don’t confront the whole Passion story – prayerfully and deliberately encountering all the pages in-between Palm Sunday and Easter Morning – we are apt to miss all the wonder, beauty and power of it; not to mention missing the divine opportunity to fully embrace what Christ did for us on that cross so many years ago.
I’ve long been fond of saying that you can’t get to Easter without first going through Good Friday; but more and more these days I’m realizing that the truth is that while you might get to Easter alright, without stopping at the foot of the cross on Friday you are likely to miss the Savior, and that, friends, would be tragic. What we do together as a people of faith on this truly holy week is to walk with Jesus where he leads: from life to death to life. It’s a true spiritual pilgrimage that happens amidst the breaking of bread and the sharing of a cup just as those closest to him first did so long ago; as well as in our prayerful retelling of the old, old story as lights are extinguished and the reality of our place in that story is revealed. It’s a journey made in song and speech, with silence and in tears, and in remembrance that “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
A hard road for any of us to travel, to be sure; but it’s only on this pilgrimage that come Sunday morning we’ll truly be able to greet the sunrise and shout joyfully from our whole hearts that “He is risen! Christ is risen indeed!”
So let the pilgrimage begin.
c. 2017 Rev. Michael W. Lowry