Today marks the beginning of our walk through Holy Week. And it’s a week that can seem paradoxical and confusing. We move from the triumphal entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday, a parade with shouts of joy and cheers of “Hosanna” (Lord have mercy, Lord save us) — we move from such a parade into Maundy Thursday and the Last Supper. Remembering that it was during this meal that the disciples, who thought they were gathering for the usual Passover Meal, suddenly had Jesus turn to them and say, “This is my body that is for you,” and “This cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood.” And with these gifts of body and blood Jesus also told the disciples that they would all fall away and that one of them would utterly betray him. And by Friday, the disciples had all run away, and one of them had utterly betrayed him. By Friday Jesus had been tried and convicted and was nailed to a cross and left to die.
In just a matter of days Holy Week takes us from the mountain of festive palms to the mountain of Golgatha’s despair. And that is why we resist it so. I mean, do we really need the emotional rollercoaster of Holy Week? What’s so wrong with just jumping from one parade to the next and skipping all the sacrifice and death stuff? What’s wrong with simply moving on to the joy of Easter, with it’s white bonnets, Easter eggs, family, friends, big ham dinner, and of course the empty tomb.
Well, I think we know the answer to that. For starters, an empty tomb, at face value, is a lot easier to deal with than a dying, bleeding Savior on a cross. Add to that all the pain and suffering that comes with Holy Week, is it any wonder that the human tendency is to try and ignore the events of the week and simply move on to the Easter celebration? But as much as we’d like to skip Holy Week we know that the only way to Easter is through the cross. We know where the parade of Palm Sunday leads and we also know that we’re part of that parade. That is to say, we know this intellectually. Our hearts are another story. Our hearts may be more in sync with the disciples and the fear and disbelief that led them to run away. It would seem that 2000 years later Jesus’ disciples are still running away.
The Lenten Season has been long, almost 40 days long, and most of us would like to just get it over with! We began the Lenten Season with ashes on our foreheads and by now those ashes have gotten pretty heavy. Those ashes reminded us of our own mortality and the fact that our only hope is in God. And now, as move into Holy Week, the shadow of those ashes looms large as we follow Jesus from parade, to supper, to crucifixion, to hopeless tomb.
We walk this Holy Week road because it is loaded with everything in life that has the power to weigh us down and cause us pain. And so some might ask, “Why in the world would you do it then? Why would you choose to be weighed down, to experience suffering, even if it is only vicariously?”
Well, because the experience of Holy Week not only provides us with the model of Jesus Christ who teaches us how to bear burdens, but also the experience of Holy Week teaches us that Jesus Christ has borne our burdens in such a complete way that not even death can overwhelm us now. What our walk through Holy Week reminds of is the fact that pain has the power to change us. And God’s pain has the power to transform us and resurrect us.
Which sounds like great good news. And it is great good news. But that doesn’t keep us from quietly harboring a certain uneasiness about how the whole thing came about. We wonder, “How could a God of love let this happen to his only Son?” Or, to look at it another way, “If God let this happen to Jesus (who was perfect) what’s in store for me?” The truth is, we want to ask this about all suffering, and all death: “Why does God continue to let cancer cells thrive, and children starve, and good, faithful people die in horrible car crashes?”
Those are good questions. And in many ways Holy Week embodies them all. In Holy Week it’s all there. All the unfairness, all the injustice, all the mystery of not knowing, all the mystery of God’s ways being different and higher than our ways.
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You see, Holy Week is big picture time. Holy Week brings it all together, in sort of a tapestry of the human experience. Holy Week brings together all the joy and friendship of Jesus and his disciples, and all the pain and anguish of Jesus and his disciples. Holy Week brings together all the joy of Palms with all the pain of the Passion; it brings together all the highs and lows of the lives we lead. Holy Week doesn’t so much answer our questions as it confirms them by saying to us life is not fair, bad stuff happens to good people, death is a reality. Holy Week confirms all of that for us but adds a significant word of hope; a word that says, “And just when you think it’s all over…”
In his book Messengers of God, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel talks about the difference between Judaism and Christianity by comparing the two mountains that rise in each one. For Judaism, it is Mount Moriah, where Abraham bound his son Isaac. Remember that story? God tests Abraham by telling him to go up the mountain and offer Isaac as a burnt offering, his only son Isaac, whom he loved, sacrifice him on a bed of kindling wood. And just when you think it’s all over, God intervenes and provides a ram that’s stuck in the thicket as the sacrifice instead (Genesis 22:1-19).
For Christianity, Wiesel writes, the mountain is Golgatha, where according to tradition another father bound an only son to a deadly piece of wood. The difference between the two religions, Wiesel says, is that in the Jewish story the father does not kill the son, but in the Christian story he does. “For the Jew,” Wiesel says, “all truth must spring from life, never death.” (Elie Weisel, Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends, 67).
Now whether you agree with Wiesel or not, you can’t say he doesn’t make his point. It IS very difficult to reconcile a God of love with a God who wills the death of his only Son. And yet, what Wiesel doesn’t take into account with the story of Jesus that he did take into account with the Abraham and Isaac story is the whole idea of God finding a way to say, “Just when you think it’s over…”
The Christian story doesn’t end with the death of Jesus. The Christian story is about life, not death. What Holy Week leads us through is, in many ways, a reenactment of the story of Abraham and Isaac, only this time Jesus is the ram. This time Jesus does not equal Isaac, we do. We are the beloved only children of God who are spared through the sacrifice of another. The Great Shepherd becomes a lamb on our behalf, so that all the sons and daughters of Abraham might know life and know it fully (Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, 99).
The holy hope that Holy Week brings is like a splash of cold water that startles us. Wake up! Look and see! God is at work in human suffering, in the unfairness and injustices of the world. God is at work to overcome these things not by making them disappear with the wave of a magic wand, but by transforming them into something meaningful, something useful, something valuable. It’s a word of good news and a word of hopeful warning that just when we think it’s all over…”
Copyright 2006, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.