03 Apr An Introduction to Holy Week
For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.
The Cross is the guardian of the whole earth.
‘O Cross of Christ’, A Hymn for
The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
The Scottish theologian P. T. Forsyth liked to say that at the heart of Christian faith is not a word or an idea, but a deed—something done. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God does not simply provide us with information about himself. He does something. He reconciles the world to himself, overcoming our unfaithfulness. The Church is a community of people that exists in the world to bear witness to this divine action, and to the one who undertakes it. Christians bear such witness not however as mere spectators, pointing to something that happens over their heads, but as people whose lives have been caught up in the self-offering of Jesus to the Father. They have been made sons and daughters in the Son, who find the secret of their lives in the Son’s abandonment of himself into the hands of the Father.
Our lives are hidden, are carried and sustained, in and by this particular life. The meaning that our lives have is not then one that we fashion for ourselves. It is not something we simply posit, but something we are invited to receive. We may think we know who we are and what we do. Yet in the discipline of faith we are asked not to abandon the self-knowledge we may have painfully won for ourselves, so much as to allow the Lord to reframe it. Here is a way to think about what is going on in liturgy, and in particular, the liturgy of Holy Week. The liturgy is not a source of more or less interesting ideas; it is a means by which we are drawn into the life of Christ. As we follow Jesus on the way to the cross, we encounter the one who is the source and context of our own lives, the one in whom we live and move and have our being, the one who bears our lives as he gives his life to the Father. It is in this encounter that we come to see ourselves, and indeed others, in a new light.
Traditionally Holy Week involves a series of services over the course of the eight days from Palm Sunday until the following Easter Sunday. On each day, the church inhabits an episode along Jesus’ journey to the cross. This is done through prayer, the reading of Scripture, and what we might call dramatic actions—the washing of feet, the lighting and extinguishing of candles, the veneration (in some traditions) of the cross, the procession of Jesus along the Via Dolorosa (the way of suffering). Some of these actions may prove difficult while we live in our bubbles during the time of the virus. But we can still participate in the liturgy through the reading of Scripture and prayer. The Revised Common Lectionary, which is used by a number of different churches, sets out the readings for each day of Holy Week. A list of these can be found, along with prayers for each day at the Anglican Church’s resource page. I would suggest not trying to read all of the readings, but to meditate on a gospel passage and a psalm. The following, taken from lectionary, is one suggestion:
Palm Sunday: ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out’
(Lk. 19.28-40; Ps. 118.1-2, 19-29)
Monday: ‘Jesus came to Bethlehem, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead’
(Jn. 12.1-11; Ps. 36.5-11)
Tuesday: ‘Whoever serves me must follow me’
(Jn. 12.20-36; Ps. 71.1-14)
Wednesday: ‘One of you will betray me’
(Jn. 13.21-32; Ps. 70)
Maundy Thursday: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’
(Jn. 13.1-17, 31b-35; Ps. 116.1-2, 12-19)
Good Friday: ‘Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?’
(Jn. 18.1-19.42; Ps. 22)
Holy Saturday: ‘They laid Jesus there’
(Jn. 19.38-42; Ps. 31.1-4)
Easter Sunday: ‘She turned around and saw Jesus standing there’
(Jn. 20.1-18; Ps. 118.1-2, 14-24)
On the evening of Holy Saturday, the church traditionally keeps vigil, reading a great many scriptural passages, particularly from the Old Testament. Here we are brought into the very high point of the drama of redemption. Here Jesus is bringing everything with him as he passes through the waters of the Red Sea to the promised land. This action is at the very heart of the liturgy, of, indeed, the Christian faith. I said above that Christians are people who find their lives hidden in the life of Christ. In handing over his life to the Father, he takes us with him. The liturgy of Holy Week is a gift that God has given the church, through which we are brought deeper into a reality which though we have not made for ourselves, is nevertheless the source and context of our lives. But we would be wrong to think that this reality is a reality only for believers. The whole world is caught up in the Lord’s movement from Galilee to Jerusalem, and then again to Galilee. What might it mean to say that the world itself depends upon Christ? What might it mean to say that even this time, the time of the virus, has been set in relation to the hour upon which all other hours depend? During the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, the Orthodox churches sing that “The Cross is the guardian of the whole earth”. This is what believers profess. But they only come to know what they mean by being drawn themselves ever deeper into the life of Christ, into the pattern of his dying and rising. To allow oneself to be so drawn is not an act of isolation, even under the present conditions. It is rather to encounter reality, a reality so expansive that it frames and gives meaning to everything.