Back in the day, before becoming a Franciscan, back when the rhythm of my day was set by clients, projects, and things of the workplace, I let a different pattern take hold for Holy Week. I always took vacation. I took time off to relax, visit people, take long bike rides and decompress so I would be ready to celebrate Holy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil, and Easter Sunday.
But you know what? I have to admit, I did not pay a lot of attention to Palm Sunday. I wonder if I went to Mass and then to the office to clear up last minute things to make sure the week was free. Yet today is the gateway to Holy Week.
Although most everyone calls today Palm Sunday, today is properly called Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. I remember one year when it finally dawned on me that the waving of palms, the Hosannas, and the joy of Jesus entering Jerusalem was short lived. Not only in history, but in the liturgy, too. As soon as the entrance procession is over, the readings take on a decidedly different tone.
I remembering thinking that reading the Passion was jumping the gun a bit. I mean, won’t Good Friday arrive in its own good time? Can’t we let the week unfold, walking the journey with Jesus as he spends the week? Can’t we wait to hear about the Last Supper, the betrayal, Gethsemane, the trials, Pontius Pilate, scouring, the crucifixion, and Jesus dead, laid in a tomb? What is the rush?
Some historians say that since many people didn’t participate in Holy Thursday and Good Friday, it is a way to ensure that they hear the reading of the Passion before Easter. They point to a danger in going from the Palm Sunday shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest;” then jumping to Christ Resurrected. The “danger” is “see, it all works out, Jesus wins” and thinking the glory of God is revealed in the Resurrection alone.
In time I have come to appreciate reading the Passion today. It not only gives us the context for the week. I think it points to the heart of Holy Week. It’s complicated. It’s intense. And it rushes at us all at once. We need to sit with the story for a few days before we celebrate the particulars of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. We need time to let it rummage around and let it find its home within us. So here it is, at least a part of the heart of Holy Week:
Just over our shoulder, we celebrated Christmas when the Son of God and Son of Mary, fully divine and fully human, enters into the fullness of the human condition. Jesus encounters so much weakness: blindness, lepers, the lame, those needed healing, a lack of faith, hopelessness, and more. He encounters it all; he heals, he teaches, he performs miracles and mighty works. We are amazed. Then he is transfigured on the mountain top and we see the inner glory of the Son of God just as we begin our Lenten journey.
And our Lenten journey has brought us to Holy Week where not everyone is amazed or believes. We encounter the darker part of the human condition, the stiff-necked, unrepentant part of us. The part of us that like Judas, will betray Jesus. The part of us that is still mired in sin. The part of us that admits we need a Savior, one who has to atone for all our mistakes, who has to suffer to make amends to God on our behalf. Who has to die that all be saved.
It is the teaching of the Church all these long millennia. Even though that is true, I think it misses the mark – is incomplete at best. Yes, Jesus suffered and died for us, but where previously he had healed, now in Holy Week, in his Passion, Jesus enters into the part of humanity where darkness dwells.
Before he stood outside the tomb and called Lazarus out, now he enters the place where people are entombed. Where there is torture, brokenness, bondage, hopelessness, and abandonment. The place where we hear “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? … My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the voices of the faithful, the lost, the despairing, and those who are afflicted and feels as though there is no place left for hope. He enters into the darkness, into suffering, into death.
He enters through the betrayal, Gethsemane, the trials, Pontius Pilate, scouring, the crucifixion, and death, Jesus enters into the darkest part of humanity. Where he is tortured, broken, held in bondage, scourged and crucified – helpless in the hands of Roman power, corrupt authorities and betrayal. Now, there is no vestige of human experience untouched by God. He is on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His voice joins the chorus. Jesus dies and he now lies in the tomb.
The Passion is the glory of God on full display. This is the glory Jesus points to, his time when he will be lifted up. Not by the resurrecting hands of God, but by our hands.
Such is the love of God for us. The glory of God displayed as a Love so vast, a desire that all be saved that runs so deep, that God holds back nothing. Nothing. Not even his only Son. Such love. Such love. It is the glory of God. It is the God who is.
Holy Week is a journey into the Glory of God, rightly understood. We need time to let it rummage around and let it find its home within us. And maybe, just maybe, we see the rest of Holy Week a bit differently.
For me, it makes Holy Thursday a little richer. To understand that the Word of God, who condescendere, stepped down in humility to pitch his tent with us; who stepped down to wash his disciples feet; it is to know that Jesus will step down even further into the full darkness of my human condition. That all will be saved; all will be converted even the most broken part of our lives. So, when Jesus asks the Apostles on Holy Thursday, “Do you know what I have done for you?” I need to consider it anew…and then sit, watch the altar being stripped, darkness begin to fall within the church, and let the grand silence settle. Do I really understand what He has done for us?
Holy Week, begins to today. And by Easter Sunday morning we pray we will be closer to being able to more completely answer that question: “Do you know what I have done for you?” We need time to let it rummage around and let it find its home within us.