It’s been an odd sort of Holy Week as the UK has travelled through its third week of lockdown. For the reflective practitioner in me it has been a fascinating moment of observing how Christians have responded to the lockdown and seeing the variety of responses to ensuring there is a focus on Holy Week and Easter. At the College we decided to gather (online) each day for Holy Moments throughout Holy Week. Technically it’s our Reading Week and normally this would be one week we are less “gathered” than normal, but in the present circumstances the routine and the rhythm of meeting daily has helped us support one another through the odd circumstances.
There are many ways to think about Holy Week leading to Good Friday and Easter Sunday but in these Holy Moments we chose to focus on the context of the events of Holy Week – as we’re learning afresh in the current circumstances, context profoundly shapes our understanding. Within the story of Easter week we’re faced with one main question: “Why did Jesus die?” I think it’s very easy to jump from Palm Sunday to Good Friday and, moreover, it’s very easy to want to get to Easter Sunday – who doesn’t want to hear the Good News rather than sit in the turmoil of Holy Week. However, I think understanding the really human side of Holy Week can help us to interpret the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday in a way that more profoundly draws into the drama.
On Palm Sunday we remember the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem and it is awash with imagery – the procession, the palm branches, the donkey, and so on. The Holy Week story seems to have two stories unfolding simultaneously – an intertwined drama. On one side, we have the crowd expectant of a deliverer – someone to bring relief and perhaps even a new Exodus. But on the other side we have the religious and political authorities uneasy about the growing popularity of Jesus. And where is Jesus in all this – which side does he appeal to? Neither. Aware of both the symbolism of his actions to the masses and the collision course he is on with the authorities, he follows his own path.
And so that leads us to Holy Monday where we centred on Jesus’ anointing (though the scourging of the Temple is also associated with Holy Monday). In the story of the anointing we see a very human side to the incarnate Word. After the clamour of Palm Sunday, Jesus seeks out a quiet place to spend time with close friends (we read the John version that places him with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus). The passage describes the aroma of the perfume as it is poured on his feet; the sensation of the hair wiping his feet; and the intimacy of the event in stark contrast to the exploits of Palm Sunday. It’s a very human picture. But we see an increasingly sinister side to the drama of Holy Week. Judas begins to show his disquiet at the methods of Jesus; the religious authorities grow increasingly concerned about Jesus’ popularity and even threaten Lazarus too; but throughout Jesus continues to follows his own path.
On Holy Tuesday we focused on Jesus’ predictions of his death. It shows his own awareness of the coming conflict with the ruling authorities. It’s often wondered whether Jesus had some kind of divine foreknowledge of his coming fate. Without ruling it out, what is clearer is that he recognised the socio-political implications of living out the values of God’s kingdom on earth. Christ’s path was to inhabit the kingdom of God while on earth, all the time knowing that to do so would challenge the current religious and political authorities of the day. It didn’t take divine foreknowledge to recognise the collision course this would put him on. By the time Holy Tuesday comes around, the conflict has grown to the extent that Jesus was certain, whether sooner or later, it was all going to come to a head. By following his own path, conflict with authorities and powers was an inevitable outcome.
On Spy Wednesday, with the scene set, we read the briefest of excerpts often entitled the betrayal of Judas. The idea of a “spy” conjures up much more appealing ideas than the double agency of Judas, but he is indeed a spy in their midst. Judas’ motives are often questioned – why would someone so close to Jesus double cross him? Money is the usual answer. Upset at the waste of money seen on Holy Monday combined with a tendency to help himself to the general coffers made Judas a prime candidate for bribery. Yet, the 30 silver pieces amounted to very little and it seems there was no haggling by Judas for a greater sum. More likely Judas found himself increasingly disillusioned with the methods of Jesus. Like some in the crowd on Palm Sunday he hoped for a different approach – a re-establishment of the nation of Israel, an overthrow of the occupying powers – something, anything that was more than Jesus’ way of an upside-down kingdom. And so on Spy Wednesday we see a shift in the drama. Disillusionment of the “crowd” came together with the religious authorities’ weakening grip on power to hatch a plot for the downfall of Jesus. Instead of the desired anointing of a king, Holy Monday had foreshadowed the anointing of a dead man. It wasn’t a supernatural turn of events; instead it was a very human reaction and rejection of Jesus’ way. Not unaware, but undeterred, Jesus continues to follow his own path, the way of the Kingdom.
On Maundy Thursday we took time to remember the Passover meal shared by Jesus and his disciples. We revisited the symbolism of the meal and in particular the breaking of the bread and the drinking of the wine. In the Passover meal, the unleavened bread that is broken is then hidden around the house to be found by the children and returned to the table. It symbolises how the scattered are now gathered back and the lost returned. Jesus infuses it with greater significance: it is in and through his body that we, the lost, are returned and reconciled to God. The wine that is shared after the breaking of the bread is the third cup of the Passover meal which remembers God’s promise to redeem. This shared cup is the cup of redemption of God’s people and once again Jesus infuses it with new meaning: through his blood all will be redeemed and brought back to God. This meal, still celebrated today, is a picture of return, of redemption, and of reconciliation. It is a story of God’s faithfulness calling the lost to be reconciled to him. Amid a story of rejection, this is a striking picture of faithfulness. Jesus continues to follow his own path, despite being aware of what lies ahead, not out of blind foolishness, but because the way of the Kingdom is the way of God’s love displayed through his faithfulness. Jesus’ path is not foolishness but faithfulness.
And so we arrive at Good Friday. After a rushed trial and a bemused Pilate, Jesus is sentenced to the cross. The religious authorities turn disillusionment into rejection. The crowd that hoped for a deliverer focus their frustration and inadequacies onto Jesus, a scapegoat for the unrest stirred up by the self-interest of the religious authorities. The drama of Holy Week is not some supernatural show that goes beyond human action but rather it is a very human, very logical chain of events that led to an innocent man dying on a cross one Friday afternoon. All along Jesus’ way was one of peace and love, reaching out to the poor and the margins. That way was rejected one and for all. It was rejected by those who wanted to hold on to power and tradition; it was rejected by those who wanted a new order through violent overthrow; it was rejected by the rich and the comfortable who were made equal with those on the margins. And the same happens today – we reject the ways of God’s kingdom in place of self-interest. But in his dying breaths we get a preview of what is coming. The supposed cry of abandonment gives us hope – God is close to those who are afflicted and despised and he will bring deliverance. At the cross, we did the very worst that we could. We despised out of jealousy; we rejected out of frustration at our own inadequacy; we refused to be hospitable to others. We crucified out of shame. And yet, on Easter Sunday we remember that in our greatest rejection of God, his faithfulness continued. Why did Jesus have to die? He died because humans rejected him. Why did Jesus rise again? Because no matter the depth of our rejection, God’s love remains – He is faithful to his people even beyond death. Christ’s death is a very human story, but his resurrection flows from a love that only God can provide.
These thoughts are not necessarily the views of the College, but hopefully a way to provoke deeper thought. Please feel free to engage in helpful dialogue with me using firstname.lastname@example.org or through social media if that’s where you see it!