For Christians, Holy Week truly is the most holy week of the year. Or at least it should be. The only period of comparable significance is Christmas, which the secular culture celebrates as one day but is really a season of 12 days. Holy Week, starting with Palm Sunday and ending with Easter Sunday, is actually the consummation of what began with the birth of Christ — a birth only and ultimately fulfilled through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The life of Jesus Christ starts with Christmas but finds eternal birth (and hope) in the resurrection.
As Fulton Sheen put it in his majestic The Life of Christ, Jesus Christ was the only person whose birth and death were pre-announced. He was the one person brought into the world to die. It’s in the Garden of Gethsemane, the dark pivot point between the hosannas of Palm Sunday and the sorrows of Good Friday, that Christ in agony accepts that difficult fate — that is, the will of the Father: “Thy will be done.”
Holy Week every year retakes Christians through the path of that agonizing journey, the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, but finishing in the hope of the Resurrection. (I wrote here last spring about the Via Crucis reenacted every year by the pope outside the Roman Colosseum.)
For those of us Christians who are Catholic — the Roman Catholic Church has done this longer and more fully — the Church carefully stakes out through the daily Masses and daily readings in the Lectionary the moments of Christ’s passion throughout Holy Week. (The Lectionary is a collection of daily Old and New Testament readings; the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary is also the basis for many Protestant lectionaries.)
And so, it starts with Palm Sunday, as Christ is greeted like a hero as he enters Jerusalem to cheers of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Within mere days, the crowd turns completely, mocking him, spitting on him, pleading instead to exchange a murderer for Christ (“Give us Barabbas!”), shouting “Crucify him!” as he is scourged and fitted with a crown of thorns. By Good Friday, as darkness comes over the whole land, the erstwhile hero expires in an ignominious death on a cross between two thieves.
Even as we share in Christ’s agony, including that cold Saturday when he was placed in the tomb, Holy Week ends with hope.
In the Roman Catholic Church, the Masses throughout Holy Week include Thursday’s Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, interpreted by some as the beginning of the Church because of the establishment of the Holy Eucharist that evening among the Apostles, followed by Friday’s Celebration of the Passion of the Lord, and then the most solemn Mass of the year — the Saturday evening Easter Vigil, which includes seven readings from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament, as well as the lengthy Litany of the Saints. The pervasive feeling of sadness is redeemed by the joy of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. (On Thursday, my family is not unique among Christians in doing an annual Seder meal, learning about our Jewish brothers and sisters and their traditional Passover.)
The readings throughout the week are profound, from the prophetic Old Testament selections from Isaiah and the Psalms to the extended Passion narratives of the New Testament covered on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. In these, the faithful observe their Redeemer consistently subjected to great injustices (all the greater given who He truly is): by the Sanhedrin, by the high priest, by Pontius Pilate, by false witnesses and testimonies, by Judas’ betrayal and even by Peter (the “Rock” on which Christ chooses to build his Church) denying him three times. The son of God even feels abandoned by his Father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Each year, these readings during Mass never cease to stir the soul. My kids will attest to their embarrassment as I shake my head in the pew and express out loud (probably too loud) my astonishment at the grave injustices that Christ went through in the hours leading to him being nailed to the cross and lanced by the Roman soldiers. “This is the son of God,” I’ll say, “ and look at how human beings treated him!” I tell my kids, “If humans would do this to the son of God, do not expect to be treated any better.”
Think of the long line of awful things human beings have done to one another since the day Christ was nailed to the cross. Think about it, from feeding Christians to lions in the Colosseum to the horrors of the Holocaust to the Holodomor to the killing fields of Cambodia to the collapse of the Twin Towers, to every rape, lynching, Gulag, Laogai, Pitesti, Camp 22, Auschwitz, to the countless children abused and abandoned, to the scourge of abortion, etc., etc. We could go on and on with man’s inhumanity to man. But again, if they’d do it to the son of God, don’t expect any better.
The entire Passion experience is a morality tale that speaks to us at so many levels, from the personal to the cultural.
One of my favorite assessments of this dramatic period is Pope Benedict XVI’s take on Judas in his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. Quoting from the Gospels of John and Luke, Benedict notes of Judas at the Last Supper: “After receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night.” But Judas went out in a deeper sense, as Benedict notes. He moved away from the Light and into the darkness, where the “power of darkness” overtook him. Of Judas’ betrayal, Benedict says, “Judas is neither a master of evil nor the figure of a demoniacal power of darkness but rather a sycophant who bows down before the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashion. But it is precisely this anonymous power that crucified Jesus, for it was anonymous voices that cried, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ ”
Judas was a mere sycophant to what Benedict dubbed “the anonymous power.” What was this power? It was the power of “changing moods and current fashion.” That’s a hugely influential hidden power, one that you can’t always get a handle on, but it’s always there, and with a tremendous persuasive power upon the crowd, the culture. It was indeed that same anonymous power, manifest in the form of anonymous voices, which yelled, “Away with him! Crucify him.” We know not their voices or faces. But we know they handed Christ over. They instead demanded Barabbas.
Mere days earlier, the same people had been hailing Christ, begging him to heal them, watching in awe as he did miracles, welcoming him into their homes. And just like that, the mood of the crowd turned. Our culture, too, is filled with mere sycophants to the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashion.
All of this preceded the epic moment of the expiration of Christ, the long-awaited “One” whom John the Baptist foretold and identified as “the Lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world. As Pope Benedict noted, “Jesus died at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple. That Christians later saw this as no coincidence, that they recognized Jesus as the true Lamb, that in this way they came to see the true meaning of the ritual of the lambs — all this seems to follow naturally.” The son of God was the purest and most undefiled Lamb, sacrificed to death without a bone broken, pouring out of his side blood and water as the Roman soldier pierced him.
Again, so many of the events in the narrative of this week of Christ’s Passion offer a morality tale that speaks to us at so many levels. “Holy Week,” said the late Cardinal John O’Connor, “represents for us the holiest week in the history of the human race.” And yet, it’s “not a pageant … not a stage show … not simply a memorial of something that happened 2,000 years ago.” Rather, its purpose is “to make present those same events that occurred historically once but are now living here among us…. All of our Holy Week observances must be relived together with Christ if we are to find meaning in his suffering, death, and Resurrection.”
As for that meaning, Jesus Christ had a tough message for his followers for the ages to come: To follow Him, they must pick up the cross daily. They, too, cannot avoid suffering in this world. As Pope John Paul II said, the Christian life is a cross; it is a sacrifice. No week better reminds us than Holy Week.
Unfortunately, not all modern Christians experience the depths that Holy Week offers. Many at best mark half of it. A casualty of Christianity’s splintering into countless tens of thousands of denominations is a lack of acknowledgment by many Christians of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday (called “Maundy Thursday” by many Protestants), Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. This has gotten worse with the ever-proliferating number of non-denominational churches. To be sure, so many of these churches are wonderful. But as newer and newer churches become, well, newer and newer, many lack the historic practices and traditions and creeds that have carried Christianity for 2,000 years. A casualty often is a lack of full acknowledgment of Holy Week and even the entire season of Lent. Just last week I had a student in my office, from an orthodox Presbyterian denomination, whose church does in fact honor Holy Week and Lent. He lamented the lack of awareness by many evangelical friends of the Lenten season, one of whom said to him, “Isn’t Lent a Roman Catholic thing?”
No, it’s supposed to be a Christian thing. And likewise for Holy Week. For Christians everywhere, it should be your holiest week.
Alas, though the week is filled with sorrow, we must above all remember how it ends. Even as we share in Christ’s agony, including that cold Saturday when he was placed in the tomb, the week ends with hope. It’s a hope harder to find in our secular culture today, as we look at how sin has so saturated everything that God’s people don’t even seem to know what sin is anymore. As the Scriptures lament, people will “call evil good, and good evil.” That’s absolutely where we are for Holy Week 2021.
And yet, as G. K. Chesterton said, hope is about having hope when things seem hopeless. The hope of the Resurrection, the culmination of Holy Week, is what this week is all about.