Holy . . . What?

It started yesterday. And it ended yesterday for all too many Christians and non-believers alike. It started with an impromptu parade and will end with a tepid celebration of an event many people believe didn’t really occur. To an extent that last point is understandable, given the hidden nature of the most significant moment in human history. But I’m getting ahead of myself, which is just what today’s pep rally Christians tend to do so easily.

If we cannot find it within ourselves to observe the approximately six weeks of Lent, one might hope that surely we could be more aware of what once went by the name of Holy Week, that period throughout which our attention is to be keenly focused on the identity of Jesus with virtually every form of human suffering, whether emotional, mental, psychological, or physical. Even spiritual. When we fail to so focus we are in danger of losing our story, and the story loses its grip on us. What I sometimes dreaded as a child and even into teen years I now recall as a significant shaping of how to see the world. We called it Holy Week.

It wasn’t just a name in that small country church where faith was formed after its generation from my parents. We would observe the special week by having worship every night through Good Friday, each night recalling something about the Passion of our Lord. I don’t recall a single sermon, though I heard many. What I recall is our community of faith gathering to be reminded of who we are and what God in Christ did about it. By the time Thursday evening and Holy Communion came, it was a meaningful observance because of the honesty with which we could see our need and God’s sacrificial provision. By Friday folks were broken at he sight of the cross. By Sunday we were ready to celebrate life. Really ready.

It’s not just about nostalgia for a by-gone tradition. When one looks at the gospels recorded in the New Testament, one should be struck by the amount of space each of the writers devotes to the events between the Sundays of Jesus’s final week among the disciples. Matthew has 28 chapters, 8 of which describe events beginning with Palm Sunday; Mark has 16 chapter, with the final week beginning in chapter 11; Luke begins the Triumphal Entry in chapter 19 of his 24. John is more concentrated than any of the so-called synoptic gospels, with chapters 12-21 occurring on or after Palm Sunday. Even if one were to argue that some of the events and sayings, if they occurred at all, were relocated from their true chronology and placed into this week by the writer, one would have to conclude that doing so only reveals an authorial strategy that intends for the reader to see all of what is described in the light of this week.

There are some implications of this heavy emphasis on what happened in one week of history. Obviously, the movement of those events toward the cross cannot be ignored. This alone argues against any interpretation of the Christian faith that by-passes the crucifixion. Perhaps we betray our discomfort with the necessity of the cross when we skip the climax of Jesus’ life and ministry in order to say the nicer, more hopeful aspects of his teaching. But are they really as hopeful if they are not seen as the teachings of the crucified one?

I’m interested in responses to a couple of questions raised here. For one, are there reasons for which the Holy Week traditions have been largely abandoned? Should they be renewed, perhaps in different fashion? What sort might you suggest? Do you think our telling of the story is compromised by not acting out liturgically, in some fashion what that story really is?