Why Christians Fear Holy Week
We aren’t willing to face that there is more to the story than the cross and the tomb.
Holy Week freaks us out. Or it would if we kept the whole week. If we cared about all the events of Holy Week. If we made it a priority to read the whole Jerusalem event. If we read the whole thing like we read the Passion.
If we even saw the entering into Jerusalem as the first of several moments in which we can see what Jesus is really doing.
Christian tradition naturally centers on the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
This means that theologians, priests, pastors, and scholars all focus on the principal events of the crucifixion and the empty tomb as dual symbology of our faith. The Cross and the Tomb.
And since we have put these two pieces together as an un/intentional juxtaposition, we are left with the idea that we must focus on one more than the other.
For some, the focus on Jesus’s death, and particularly the grisly elements of his death: the blood, the cutting and whipping and bruising: act as a reminder of the humanity of Jesus, the sacrifice, and the humility of the whole Jesus event.
For others, the focus on Jesus’s resurrection, not only reminds us of the divinity of Jesus, but of the fulfilling of the promise made to humanity of presence and redemption and liberation.
These big elements are huge! And theologians have spent 2000 years obsessing about these three days.
But it isn’t the whole story. It is far from the whole story, in fact. And without the rest of the week, we enter into both of these moments blind and disoriented.
We have 8 days to care about.
In my liturgical tradition, we only cover 4 of the 8 days with some form of worship. And we have tools for covering a fifth day. [Remember that the ancient Jewish custom was that a day counts as dusk-to-dusk, rather than from 12:00:01 am to midnight.]
1. Palm Sunday
We celebrate the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem. Following the Roman change in the 20th Century, we made the Sunday before Easter into a Palm and Passion Sunday. This provides the community with the arrival and the crucifixion on a single Sunday so that when we arrive again the next Sunday, we’ll have at least heard the Passion.
2–4. The Triduum
We follow the ancient liturgical practice of celebrating the Triduum: a three-part service covering the original three days over the course of three actual days. So we gather on Thursday night for a Maundy Thursday liturgy, reconvene at noon on Friday for the Passion, and conclude Saturday night with the Great Vigil of Easter.
*5. Holy Saturday
Almost like an afterthought, the Book of Common Prayer includes a service for Holy Saturday. Without unique liturgical elements, however, it does not have the intrinsic power of the others and few of us observe it.
What happens Monday through Wednesday?
One of the constant questions people ask about the Passion is answered in the story of Holy Week: how does a popular prophet, professed as Messiah, adored by the hundreds (thousands?) of bystanders on Sunday end up spat upon, tortured, and strung up on a cross?
The answer is pretty obvious when we read the whole text. But the fact that we don’t cover this sequence makes the question even more vexing. Because we could. This really could be our priority. What I am led to believe is that we don’t actually want to know why.
Mark is the only gospel which gives day/night indicators, curating the whole story of Holy Week. For the other gospel writers, there is more fluidity to the story and some elements occur differently. If you want to explore these elements in depth, I encourage you to read The Last Week by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan.
We remember that Jesus comes in on a colt on Sunday in what appears to be a mocking parody of Rome. It is an act which Borg and Crossan call “political street theater”. This also is the style of teaching he will be using the whole week.
The first half of the week is three straight days of protest.
After the public protest of Sunday, Jesus heads to the Temple and occupies it: #OccupyWallStreet style. He shuts it down. While many of us focus on the specifics of Jesus driving out the money-changers and the dove-sellers, making the case that Jesus is dividing sacred and secular, this ultimately serves to avoid the bigger issue Jesus is drawing people to see.
The whole economic system is corrupt. And its perpetrators are stealing from the people and exploiting them.
If Sunday is street theater like a modern-day die-in, then Monday is an occupation. Jesus shuts the whole Temple down for the day.
Jesus returns to the Temple and again goes after the system. But this time, he criticizes and humiliates the leadership in front of massive crowds of people. They try to trap him so that they can have him arrested, but they only succeed at getting caught in the traps Jesus sets for them.
The traps in which the leadership hope to catch Jesus are about blasphemy: they are trying to get Jesus to say something wrong or reduce his standing with the people. The traps Jesus sets for the leadership, however, expose their hypocrisy. He makes fools of them and gets them to expose themselves as hypocrites.
The day ends with Jesus’s apocalyptic warning of terrible days to come and the destruction of the Temple. We leave Jerusalem in the evening on Tuesday totally convinced that Jesus sees the entire Temple system as corrupt and not only unresponsive to its people, but abusive to them and exploiting them.
Jesus stays away from Jerusalem, staying in Bethany where he is anointed and prepared for burial by an unnamed woman.
This story, tragically, hauntingly, and convictingly ends with these words (Mark 14:9):
Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
So what is her name again? Do we tell of her when we speak of Jesus? Is her story the first on our lips? Or is it the crucifixion to come and the glorious resurrection? Do we proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus without the anointing and this woman’s example “in remembrance of her”? Despite what Jesus says, that is exactly what we do.
We fear Jesus
The story we tell of Holy Week is missing all of the “why”! Why do they hate Jesus? Because he humiliates them. Who are they who have Jesus killed? The leaders, not the public. Why does Jesus humiliate them? Because they are abusing people, extorting from them, taking the last pennies from the poor. They guilt and shame and appear pious.
The message Jesus enters Jerusalem with is not a generic forgiveness of sins. He doesn’t speak about a metaphysical get-out-of-jail-free card. And he says nothing about your sexual ethics or what kind of language you use.
He talks about what the kingdom does look like and he condemns the leaders who prevent that kingdom from happening.
He goes after the “church” for not preaching the gospel.
This is why we fear Jesus. This is the real reason we don’t cover the whole of Holy Week. We don’t believe the people can handle the message. We don’t think people can handle the real Jesus.
Or maybe worse. We can’t handle the real Jesus.
A Better Holy Week
This is why I encourage people to encounter the whole story. By reading it and reflecting on it. But also to gather in worship around the missing elements of the story. Elements so diffused by the lectionary that we aren’t prompted to deal with the substance of them.
We make all these sorry excuses for ourselves, but here is the one thing most missing from all this talk and it is the one question people keep asking.
And people are going to keep asking it the less and less they are exposed to Christian tradition and liturgy.
This what people are clamoring for! People are hungry for the whole gospel, not the Cliffs Notes. They are searching for meaning in the world and in these sacred texts. And we ought to help them find it!
When we put the first half of the week back into Holy Week, we can see that the people didn’t reject Jesus. The leadership did. The leadership which Jesus protested for three straight days. The leadership Jesus called hypocrites and broods of vipers throughout his ministry. The leadership who did the very thing Jesus most rejects: exploiting the weak.
In the kingdom, we don’t exploit, we anoint.
Holy Week must have a message of protest, of raging against exploitation and economic systems which create and increase poverty. Holy Week must have a message of revolution and reformation of the world. Holy Week must reveal both the world-changing vision of Jesus and the world-changing power of GOD.
Holy Week isn’t about personal salvation in the privacy of our homes or a redemption that leads us to act less like Jesus.
Holy Week is nothing if it doesn’t lead to an Easter of redemption and transformation. If it doesn’t compel us to change the world, it isn’t Holy Week. It isn’t the gospel.
A Holy Week which covers only the death and resurrection of Jesus is proclaiming the Good News without the gift of the unnamed woman. It is ignoring the exploiting and the anointing. It is remembering only in part and forgetting the one who Jesus says will always be remembered. For according to Jesus, she is the gospel itself.
Drew also writes frequently at drewdowns.net and preaches regularly about love, inclusion, and how radical Jesus really is.