Like many things in our modern culture, Holy Week has become a muddled grey paste of a religious experience. Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter all get jumbled up together in an atheological hodge-podge that leaves the veteran confused and the novitiate clueless. I have already sung, “He Lives!,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” “Hail, Thou Once Despised Jesus,” and “‘Tis Finished! The Messiah Dies,” and it is the day after Palm Sunday. In the past couple weeks, Jesus has already instituted the Last Supper, has been before Pilate and Herod, has been scourged, both Peter and Judas have played their respective screw-up roles, Barabbas has been released — as well as Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the colt of an ass with crowds waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna. Talk about anti-climax. It feels like someone dropped all their index cards with their speech notes and they shuffled them together in random order and proceeded to launch into their talk. Welcome to Easter 2011 A.D.D.
Is it that we really don’t get the story? Lent ≠ Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday ≠ Good Friday. Maundy Thursday ≠ Easter. Maundy Thursday ≠ Good Friday. None of these things are equivalent. Each is distinct and adds incredible texture and meaning to our Christian faith. Each phase of the journey to and through Jerusalem to glory is rich in significance. To jumble them up, conflate and deflate them, to blur their lines is to do violence to the gospel. And this is not meant as structural legalism — there is an elegant and sublime trajectory to the stories as they are presented — even though they are presented differently in the four gospels. Reading those retellings that made it into the canon as well as the many extra-canonical perspectives, there are some glaring differences: running the full gauntlet from Jesus being unaware of what was to come to having inklings to knowing full-well, to being the grand architect of his own death and resurrection; of the events of his last night with the disciples; of the nature of the betrayals and denials — the story gains credibility because key players remember it differently. However, there are some striking similarities: the decision to go to Jerusalem for the Passover forced a “High Noon” showdown, Jesus struggled with how ready his friends were to be left in charge, humiliation and degradation were part of the result whether forced by politics or religion, an execution occurred, (and moving away from Mark’s gospel) a resurrection event changed hearts, minds and lives for all time.
The progression follows something like this:
Palm Sunday — the underdog challenger comes to town, with those betting on the long-shot turning out to rally behind their Messianic hopeful.
Monday through Wednesday — challenging the status quo, irritating the powers that be, making the power structure nervous, preparing the faithful for coming crisis
Thursday — celebration of faith and identity, friendship and community, solidarity and farewell. A fundamental paradigm shift from Jewish Passover to Christian communion, not meant as ritual practice but as way of life (not a once-a-month church worship experience, but a multiple-times-daily covenant of unity (as often as you eat, as often as you drink, remember me…) This a fore-shadowing event of resurrection — old life being replaced by new life, physical life being upgraded to eternal life.
Thursday night/Friday morning — natural and supernatural disaster, relationships broken and damaged, misunderstandings and ignorance abound, malevolence attempts to destroy good, human will-to-power matched with power of God’s will.
Friday — apparent defeat, total despair, fear replaces faith, emptiness and a cold dark tomb, the end of hope.
Saturday — life in the void, hope gone, faith erased, wilderness, futility, why bother?
Sunday — act of loving compassion to visit and anoint, but not an act of faith; surprise/fear/shock/confusion — dawning awareness, hope restored, glimmers of joy, jubilation, a world turned on its head, the defeat and destruction of death itself.
How cool is this? An absolute roller coaster. Coming from the remembrance of the forty days of denial and temptation — hunger, thirst, aches, weakness we are whipped into the frenzy of the adoring crowds looking for a very practical, very physical salvation. Jesus rides on in triumph. Days pass with a mounting sense of tension and foreboding. Regardless of one’s powers of prescience, something is coming — the storm clouds are gathering. In the calm before the storm, one of the most personal, loving, compassionate and transforming experiences in the upper room. Jesus takes the ordinary (eating bread, drinking wine — done every single day of one’s life from early childhood to the day of death) and makes it extraordinary. Then he enters into a life-ending series of events that, while nowhere as gruesome as Mel Gibson might want us to believe, are horrendous at their most basic level. The lowest low ensues — the end of all that is good and decent and positive and possible in the lives of hundreds of men and women. End of story. But it’s not. End of Act I, maybe. But the story God has in mind is bigger and better than any other we might conceive. Yet, the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is commensurate to and dependent upon the depths of despair of Good Friday — with out Maundy Thursday, without Good Friday, without the despair of black Saturday, THERE IS NO EASTER!
We need to get Easter back — stop singing “He Lives!” during Lent, having Jesus institute the Last Supper of Palm Sunday, nailing Jesus to the Cross on Maundy Thursday, and celebrating his imminent return on Good Friday — that just spoils the story for everyone. Oh, I know why we do it — most people only give us one or two hours to tell the whole thing. Easter has become just another Sunday, and the elements of Holy Week leading to the main event aren’t even on most people’s radar screen. (And how did THIS happen?…)
This is one story of our faith that should not be watered down or conflated. This is the story of human faith in the face of human life that leads to transformation through resurrection. This is our whole story in microcosm, and we need to honor and revere it as its caretakers and stewards. I am probably revealing myself as an old coot who wishes things were more like they were when he was younger, but I hope it is more than that. I believe our world needs Easter as much today as it ever has, and that the power of Easter exists in contrast with the misplaced hope and misunderstanding of Palm Sunday, the anxiety and poignancy of Maundy Thursday, and the darkness and despair of Good Friday. Ah, well, that’s my opinion anyway.