A Guide to Holy Week:
The approach to Easter falls into three triads. Three Sundays before Lent are a call to the effort of pilgrimage – “behold we go up to Jerusalem”. The first three Sundays in Lent consider the hazards of the journey – the conflict with demons, and deliverance from them. Then in the final three Sundays we consider the journey’s end – “Jerusalem which is above”, the city of spiritual freedom from the burdens of self-justification, guilt, and fear; a freedom which is ours through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ both for us and in us.
But the closer we get to Easter, the more intense the observance becomes. Every day of Holy Week has its own proper observance, centered on the reading of the Passion narratives of all four gospels beginning with St. Matthew on Palm Sunday; and it concludes in the “triduum” (the holy three days) of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Eve, which commemorate respectively the last supper, his condemnation and death, and his sabbath rest in the tomb.
To observe Holy Week in full is therefore a rather demanding exercise; and to fulfill it we must set aside much otherworldly business and pleasure (though that, of course, is intended.) The collect for Palm Sunday indicates the purpose of the week’s observances: God has “sent [his] Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility”. Holy Week is not simply a theological instruction, but an ethical imitation: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus”. We, therefore, pray for grace “that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection”. It is only through sharing by faith in his death for us and in us, that we come to share in his resurrection, for us and in us.
Here then the briefest of guides to the four passion narratives. Man made in the likeness of God, is called to divine sonship, a vocation shirked by all but Christ, who accepts it fully, in our place. In divine Sonship, Jesus consciously and freely wills the purpose of God both in what he does and in what he suffers. The keynote of dedicated sonship is struck in the prayer of Gethsemane: “Father… thy will be done”; and it does not falter to the very end: “it is finished” (the mission is accomplished), and “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit”. In everyone else, we see the multiple failures to be human, which follow from this refusal of divine sonship: from those who fail to understand what it means to follow Jesus, to those who know all too well what it means, and are determined not to. On the one side, boastful incomprehension, cowardly flight, denial, betrayal, cynical malice and ignorance, cruelty, irreligion and injustice, in a word, disobedience; on the other side, a conscious, freely-willed, determined obedience unto death, even the death of the cross.
It’s Jesus who is apparently on trial, in a court-room drama familiar from the psalms, the story of the Lord’s righteous servant, condemned by enemies, but justified (pronounced righteous, vindicated) by God. It’s Jesus who is on trial – and yet in his trial the whole world is put on trial before God. The thief on the cross in Luke’s account supplies a model for us all: acknowledging the justice of our condemnation, turning to Jesus in the hope-filled prayer of repentance, and faith, that we may be freely forgiven, fully justified for his sake, and fully reconciled to the Father.
Now some particular comments. Matthew and Mark both focus on the dereliction of Christ, who is rejected and forsaken of his enemies, his friends, and even his God, in order that we who believe in him should never be forsaken of God. In the darkness of his dereliction he drinks the bitter cup he accepted in Gethsemane – the separation from God which is the substance of our sin and death. “My God, my god, why hast thou forsaken me”.
In Luke the theme of dereliction is softened by a focus on the healing, forgiving, and saving power already at work in Christ’s passion, and moving sinners to saving repentance: “Father, forgive them…”; “Today shalt thou be with me in paradise”; the overcoming of the separation imposed by sin: “Father, into thy hands, I commend my spirit”.
In John these themes are gathered into the royal freedom of the Son of God. “My kingdom is not of [i.e. from] this world”, it is a kingdom established in witness to the truth. In that royal freedom “he bearing his cross went forth”; provides for his mother’s care (“Woman, behold thy son”); fulfils the scripture of his dereliction (“I thirst”), and declares his mission accomplished: “It is finished” – a cry of victory. “Every-one that is of the truth heareth my voice”: may we hear his voice, and respond in faith and obedience.
This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021. The illustration of the thorn of crowns is courtesy of our talented parishioner, Mick McCay. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.