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?

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11 thoughts on “Holy . . . What?

  1. Wow, Dr. Miller, I am totally “with you” here. This might sound strange, but I LOVE Holy Week. It is fundamental to our faith walks to be reminded of exactly what Jesus did for us and exactly who we are in Him.

    I agree that many people miss out on the suffering part of Holy Week. They go right from a celebratory Palm Sunday service to another celebratory Easter service. Sometimes their churches do offer Holy Thursday and Good Friday services, but people find many excuses not to attend.

    Yesterday, I was able to preach/lead the service at my church. I did a Palm-to-Passion service specifically for this reason. We started out in high celebratory mode, and I did a re-enactment of Jesus’ triumphal entry as a parade with the children. However, then we changed to focus to His Passion. I agree with you that to miss the Passion, misses the whole point. What are we then celebrating on Easter Sunday? If we are to have any depth to our faith, we must re-experience (“amanesis”) the whole story.

  2. I think because we as Christians in the West, yes we have lost something of the liturgical tradition. These events of the entire week do need to be celebrated both for reflection and a greater anticipation. Honestly, most dont know the events from Monday to Wenesday, which are important. I echo Jen on this one, I too love Holy Week. I think these traditions do need to be renewed and I think one of the main reasons they have been abandoned (and I am just speculating here), is that we made the church fit everyone’s busy schedule instead of compelling them to take the time each night to reflect on the events of the week (Hey, our Jewish friends can do this for 8 days of Passover so why cant we?!). I think the main point to stress, no matter how you revive the traditions, is that each night is to point to the cross/resurrection. Each night finding some way to put those events into perspective.

    • I would like to riff on Craig’s statement “understand the events”, which is striking to me this morning.

      As I draw my interns towards the performance of the Holy Office on a daily basis we must establish some foundational groundwork as they are children of “classic” evangelicals. the church appeared only 40 years ago in America etc. Today working through “On Spiritual Friendship” (Thanks Dr. Mellinger), we tripped over a landmine.

      Trevor talked about discipling 3 older teens in peru for six months and just before he was about to leave the country, saw them drunk, with prostitutes, checking into a motel, and how he felt, weeping…..

      My comment was on the order of “Imagine what Christ must feel, betrayed by His disciples….” There was of course dead silence as we all contemplated this.

      So today I consider and have just finished talking with my youngest on my/our betrayal of Christ as his disciples.

      Sometimes I think the American way is so anesthesized by choices of self-centeredness that it there is no practical connection to suffering in the young and prosperous middle class Generation Yers, because there is no “other”, and btw, suffering and lament of course are not for us, we are to be overcomers and prosperous! one must snip out the end of Hebrews 11.

      Lastly, the setting in the future is not the drywalled churches, where you and I went, this needs to be incarnated in the conversations and intersections of life.

      • Both/and rather than either/or? I distrust almost all either/or constructs, as they are generally slanted beyond recovery of the possibility of conversation.

      • You know I draw with a broad brush.

        I watched the monks of Mt. Athos last night via CBS 60 minutes. They took great pride in not changing over the last 1000 years, 334 square miles of mountain peninsula with a couple of thousand monks. Their prayer and worship are clearly pertinent, but do they represent a future?

        My relatives worshipping in Ebenezer EC is clearly pertinent, even to me, but do they represent a future?

        I love the tents of Africa and India which people meet under, they seem to have a future. I’m starting to think that should be the motif – tents.

  3. One of the things I miss the most since leaving the church I grew up in and attending the church tradition my husband was/is a part of is the focus on liturgy and celebrating the seasons of the church–in my small home church, we always celebrated Advent, Pentecost, Lent and Holy Week. The churches I have been a part of in the last decade do not acknowledge liturgies or the Church seasons, saying those are more traditional and less biblical. Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not, but I just know that for me, there’s something missing.
    Why don’t churches “do” Holy Week? I can only speak for the churches I have recently been involved with. One church does elaborate Easter and/or Christmas plays, and I suspect that by the time they finish the last performance on Palm Sunday weekend, they and the pastoral staff may be exhausted and don’t want to do a week’s worth of services/contemplations. They do have a Wednesday evening communion service that takes the place of their regular Wednesday night programming. I’m not sure if that church does a Good Friday service or not. The church I currently attend has an evening service.
    That reminds me of another Good Friday tradition I miss from home–the whole community of churches met at one church from 12-3pm and kind of tag-teamed meditations about Christ’s death or his final words. One year, the pastors led a trek around town, carrying a large wooden cross as Jesus would have.

  4. There are so many subjects wrapped up in or implied by your questions, Dr. Miller (and I suspect you probably meant to do that!). As for the first question, I suspect that the discomfort with the cross betrayed by the lack of Holy Week activities and participation – in some but certainly not all Christian communities – has a longish list of complicated reasons, not the least of which is that it requires “too much” of an emotional investment for a series of time commitments that are for many considered “optional.” While on one hand, this might betray the assimilation of cultural sensibilities, I wonder if it also reflects the alarmingly high percentage of folks in our congregations who truly have little emotional capital to invest in such activities. I suspect we could trace this kind of poverty to a lack of good discipleship and instruction on the place and purpose of prayer in our lives (i.e., consideration of the Christlike ways of dealing with stress available to us), less than meaningful (in so many senses of the word) worship gatherings, or just simply the crippling effects of dealing with the challenges and burdens of everyday life. It seems that so many of these issues could be addressed precisely by having Holy Week gatherings to walk through the emotions and spiritual realities inherent in the climax of Jesus’ ministry and in which we can and should see our own struggles reflected. After all, it is the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ that demonstrates God’s personal investment in and identification with our humanity.

    • wow Gene, that was good. yes on the emotional investment. As I tilled today with the tractor following today’s contemplation of Christ’s humility and tonight’s readings on kenosis. I have been a penitential, tearful wreck.

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