Where is the Holy in Holy Week?

I was raised on the soundtrack of Easter. The churches I grew up in didn’t “do” Lent. We didn’t “do” Holy Week. But we “did” Easter, and we did it big: big choirs, big sermons, big altar calls, and big hymns that celebrated the nail-studded cross and the empty tomb with equal enthusiasm. You probably know the soundtrack, too:
“On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame,
And I love that old cross, where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain.”
“God sent his son, they called him Jesus. He came to love, heal, and forgive.
He lived and died to buy my pardon. An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.”
“Living, he loved me! Dying, he saved me! Buried, he carried my sins far away!
Rising, he justified, freely forever! One day he’s coming, O glorious day!”
“He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! He walks with me, and talks with me, along life’s narrow way!
He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart. You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart!”
Since we didn’t “do” Lent and we didn’t “do” Holy Week, Easter Sunday morning and the songs we sang had to tell the whole story: from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the stone-rolled-away. We sang all the holiness of crucifixion and resurrection, before we went home to brunch and bunnies and the serious business of egg hunting.
We had the God part of the Easter story down: the way the Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled in the ultimate sacrifice on the cross; the wonder of the resurrection and the promise of eternal life for the world that God so loved. Only God would willingly give everything for the salvation of the world. Only God could budge an unmovable stone, and leave the grave clothes behind. The work of Easter is God’s work, and our songs rejoice in it! Hallelujah!
But Holy Week; Holy Week may just be the most human week of them all.
Yesterday we observed Palm Sunday, when the crowds in Jerusalem cheered Jesus on his way, spread out their jackets and their branches of palms, singing the pilgrim song of Hosannahs as they all streamed toward the holy city.
Now that’s a human experience we can relate to: the contagious excitement of a crowd! We’ve all joined in at football games, at concerts, at parades. And you can’t turn on the t.v. these days without witnessing the infectiousness of crowd behavior, as people rally behind their chosen political candidates. Of course, lately we’ve also seen all too clearly how easily those cheering crowds can turn into brutal mobs… that’s an ancient story, too, a Passion Week story. The same crowds who sang Hosannahs on Palm Sunday were shouting “Kill him!” by Friday.
It’s such a very human story.
But where is the holy?
After Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he spent the next days teaching in the temple, confronting the religious leaders, telling parables and foretelling redemption. Then Jesus and his friends got together for dinner, as you do, especially at the Passover. They passed around the plate and the cup, and they thanked God for the food… and then the disciples proceeded to argue about which one of them was the most important.
Sounds more or less like dinner at my house.
It’s so very human: worrying about status, and wishing for a pat on the back. But where is the holy?
Jesus left the supper and went out to pray, giving his disciples specific instructions to stay awake and pay attention. So naturally, they dozed off. The Gospel of Mark says they dozed off THREE TIMES. They were so very human! You can almost hear Jesus’ exasperation, “How many times do I have to tell you….”
But before Jesus could get the words out, Judas stepped up to embrace Jesus in a twisted irony: a betrayal wrapped in the kiss of a friend. It may sound like a soap opera, but I have a hunch that most of us have either been betrayed, or we’ve been a betrayer ourselves. It’s just so very human. But if we make Judas the villain, giving up his Lord for a handful of coins, then what about Peter, who denied even knowing Jesus—three times—for free?
Where is the holy in that?
Where was the holy on that Friday, the day we call “Good,” when Jesus faced an unjust legal system, and went up against a bad politician who was more interested in preserving his popularity than in providing true leadership? That is so very human, we’ve come to expect it, it’s not even news to us anymore. And what about the mockery? What about the gambling? What about the offensive placard that was raised above his head?
It’s amazing that an event 2000 years old should seem so contemporary. It sounds just like images we see every day. Ancient, and modern, and painfully human.
But where is the holy?
And then, it was finished. The final human experience: death. In Philippians chapter 2, a traditional text for Palm Sunday, Paul writes that Christ chose to become human, even though that choice meant death—because the bottom line is, humans are mortal. They die—we die. If you’re really going to be human, Jesus, you’ll die. There may be nothing more human than this: to grieve the loss of those we love, and eventually to be grieved by those who love us.
Where is the holy in our human heartbreak?
But these aren’t the thoughts that fill our Easter hymns. On Easter we exalt the cross, and we rejoice at the resurrection; but we don’t sing about mob mentality, and untrustworthy friends, and a broken legal system, and pandering politicians. We don’t sing about what it feels like when the person we love most in the world is lost to us.
These just aren’t the words we want in our Easter songs. They’re more suited to the blues, played to the wail of a harmonica. Or they belong to the aching twang of country music; a little Hank Williams, if you like, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” These stories, these Holy Week lyrics, these very human lyrics—these are the Psalms.
“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress; my eye wastes away from grief…”
“I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances…”
“I have passed out of mind like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel…”
“They scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.”
In the Psalms we discover we are not alone. In the Psalms we find that our most human sorrows, our failings, our fears, our losses have been put into words; somewhere in time they have been set to music, lifted up to God by congregations just like us.
And in Holy Week we discover we are not alone; God has not left us alone. Our most human sorrows, our failings, our fears, our losses were set to the tune of life by Christ himself.
So as we walk this week, this utterly human week, where is the holy?
The holy is on every road we walk together—where two or more gather, journeying together, remembering God’s deliverance, sharing in the song of salvation.
The holy is at every table where we are nourished—where we recognize the broken body and the spilled blood of our Host, where we feast together, where we share in the Kingdom’s new covenant. The holy is the towel over Jesus’ shoulder as he cleanses the feet of his anxious followers.
The holy is the ground where we kneel down to serve one another. Did you know yesterday was Fred Rogers’ birthday? You might’ve seen the story making the rounds online lately about one of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood neighbors, Francois Clemmons. In real life, he is a Grammy-winning singer, who founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble. In 1968, at a time of extreme racial tension, he became the first African-American to have an ongoing role on a kids’ tv show. Recently he was interviewed by a site called StoryCorps, and he talked about his reaction when Fred Rogers asked him to play a policeman in the neighborhood. He said, “I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role.” A year later, on an episode of the show, Mr. Rogers was cooling his feet in a kiddie pool on a summer day, and invited Officer Clemmons to sit and share the cool water. Clemmons said, “The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet.”
Yes, the holy is in our neighborhoods, in the courageous clasp of our friendships, in the sharing of cool water. And when we fail to be true friends, when we fall asleep, the holy is when we wake up. And when we turn traitor, the holy is when we come home.
The holy is in the helpers who step forward when good seems absent. Mr. Rogers said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things on the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are trying to help.” The holy is Simon of Cyrene, carrying Jesus’ cross. The holy is Joseph of Arimathea, caring for Jesus’ body. Helpers are the holy in Holy Week.
And the holy is in our tears. That’s easy to say, and hard to live with. But the holy doesn’t pass over death. The Holy One himself chose to be human, knowing full well that mortality was part of the deal. The holy doesn’t dismiss Good Friday because Easter comes. The holy doesn’t jump to Hallelujahs; the holy also sings the blues. The holy covers us in the darkness. The holy spans the distance that separates us from the ones we love. The holy waits in the tomb.
In this Holy Week, this very human week,
we walk with you, Lord Jesus,
because in your holy life—your very human life—
you walked with us, even to death.

Grant us patience as we wait for resurrection day.
Grant us neighbors–and make us true friends–so we can walk together.
Grant us words to sing even when we cannot yet rejoice.

“We trust in you, O Lord;
we say, ‘You are our God.”
Our times are in your hand.
Let your face shine upon your servants;
save us in your steadfast love.”


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