Today, Holy Week begins, and by a quirk of liturgical history, we get the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem juxtaposed with St. Luke’s account of the Suffering of the Christ. For this reason, today is given two names in the prayer book: Palm Sunday and the Sunday of the Passion (or as we would say in modern English, “the Sunday of the Suffering”).
This dual nature of Palm Sunday bothers some people. They rightly point out that it is redundant to read one Passion narrative on Palm Sunday and another on Good Friday. A few churches have gone so far as to omit the reading of the Passion Gospel on this day. But this first, shorter reading of the Passion does serve a couple of useful purposes. First, it reminds us that we humans are fickle. For the very same crowds that acclaimed Jesus as their Messiah, later shouted for his crucifixion. Second, this first reading sets the tone for the week ahead; it serves as a sort of “preview of coming attractions,” if you will. And the coming attractions are many!
You may not know this, but Navy SEALs undergo something called Hell Week. They are forced to undergo rigorous training for five days and nights with only four hours of sleep. Well, Holy Week is kind of like that for us Christians! The entire week is jam-packed with worship services, one right after the other. And there’s so much to take in! At the Tuesday morning Eucharist, we will hear Jesus resolutely accept that he must be lifted up on the Cross in order to glorify his Father in Heaven. On Thursday evening, we will gather downstairs in the parish hall to commemorate the Last Supper, to share a simple meal, and then in total silence to prepare the church for the most difficult day of the Christian year, Good Friday. On that most solemn day of fasting and abstinence, we will gather at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, at the very hour of Jesus’ death, to hear St. John’s moving account of the Suffering of the Christ and to venerate “the wood of the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world.” Yes, indeed, it’s a very busy week. And we are all very busy people. So, we may be tempted to pick and choose among the various liturgies. But I would urge you, if you possibly can, to commit yourself to attending them all. (Oh, and did I mention that there are two Easter celebrations this year? The first is a candlelight vigil service on Easter Eve; the second is, of course, on Easter morning.)
But back to Holy Week! In case you haven’t already figured it out, the scripture readings this week will be disturbing. The music will be melancholy and mournful—lots of songs in a minor key! The appointed liturgical color is reminiscent of dried blood. The whole experience may be uncomfortable for you. You may feel deep sorrow, perhaps even desolation, at the recollection of Jesus’ death. You may feel a profound sense of guilt for your own sinfulness. You may feel righteous anger at the sad state of this nation and this world. And the dreadful stories of our Savior’s death might trigger traumatic memories from your own past. I fully expect you to leave the church after each of these Holy Week liturgies feeling unbalanced and out of kilter. My advice is this: let yourselves feel the emotions that arise. Don’t block them. Listen to them. Learn from them. Holy Week is a time to listen to the heart!
Now, ours is a historical faith, and the heart of our history is the fact that Jesus Christ died a horrible death for the sake of sinners. He gave himself up to death on a cross to free all humanity from its bondage to sin. He died that folks might be forgiven for the petty grudges that they hold onto just a little longer than they should; for the gossip that they spread without even thinking about it; for turning their heads when they pass a homeless person sleeping in a doorway, reeking of urine. He died that these people might be forgiven for closing their nation’s borders and their hearts to the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In short, Christ died for us!
Once upon a time, the Church wrongly condemned the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus. Well, folks, we are the ones who crucified Jesus. For it was our sins that made that awful sacrifice necessary. And it is only right that we should feel something profound this week. So, come to the Holy Week liturgies. Enter into the sacred drama. And allow yourself to feel uncomfortable feelings: sorrow, grief, contrition…. Come to the Holy Week liturgies, and acknowledge your sins and your guilt. Then, in the Name of the crucified Christ, offer up all your sins and all your guilt to God, that they may be blotted out and that your heart may be prepared to know the resurrection joy of Easter.