Without fail, whenever Holy Week arrives, I'm brought back to every other Holy Week I've gone through before, every time I've watched the Jesus of Nazareth Miniseries, every passion play I've witnessed, or mass, or ritual, or stations of the cross.
It all begins, of course, with humility. On what we now call Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey. Hardly a bells-and-whistles entrance, I think you'd agree, but enough people know who he is now after he's been teaching and preaching for three years across the region. So here he comes moseying along--I always think of Eeyore--and just like his ride, he smiles sadly and says, "Thanks for noticing me."
Okay, so maybe that's not what he said, but you understand what I mean? He wasn't exactly screaming out for people to notice him. Still, they did notice him. They did know who he was, and they did recognize the beauty of the moment. They laid down palm fronds before him in tribute to both him and his ministry. It was beautiful.
He spends the week with his disciples, and he tells them to prepare the Passover meal later in the week. This will be the day we now call Holy Thursday. He dines with his friends, and starts to tell them what will happen next. And they're riveted, absolutely riveted. "Wait, what is he saying? This is all going to happen now? This weekend?" Imagine you're out to dinner with friends, and someone tells you they're about to be arrested, tried for treason, and killed the next day. You'd stop eating and stare at him with wild eyes, too. "No," you'd say, "that can't be true."
"No joke," he says, "In fact, the person who reaches for that yummy basket of breadsticks at the same time as me will betray me this very night." And by the time they're out in the olive garden, full from dinner, they forget. They fall asleep. He shakes his head at them and looks up in prayer. "Dear God, for Passover this year, won't you please let this cup pass over me? Can't we do this some other way?" He pleads to God for intercession, but nothing happens.
"In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not. After that, the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed." - C. S. LewisGood Friday arrives, and within just a few hours that morning, he's tried and sentenced to death. The disciples seem to have slept in that morning, because most of them weren't even aware this was happening. In his darkest moments the night before, they slept, and in his final hours, they slept in. As they woke up late and had breakfast, maybe an egg sandwich or bagel, he was being whipped. Someone even cut out a bunch of thorns from a rose bush and crushed it on his head. "Here's your crown, king!" they laughed. By noon, his body was nailed to two pieces of wood, and he was left to die...slowly.
Holy Saturday's the day when nothing happens, and there's a supreme holiness in that. When you've spent the last two days thinking and praying about the awful end to Jesus's life, you're suddenly faced with this empty hole in your life. Tears may come, just as they do when you're a day apart from a loved one's death, but at the same time, you're left feeling empty. Robbed. Uncertain of anything.
But then Easter Sunday arrives. You've finally convinced yourself your loved one is gone. The awful hours of the previous two or three days are behind you, but now you reach the tomb and find it empty. Impossible, you think. How could this be true? The resurrection is at the core of Christian theology, but even if you have trouble believing that Jesus rose from the dead, body and soul, there's still the truth as shared by so many in the years afterward.
"We saw him appear before us." "We touched the holes in his hands and feet." "He walked with us on the road to Emmaus."
These were people who Jesus told to their faces what would happen, and even they didn't believe him. Peter, his closest disciple, denied even knowing him! They fell asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane when he needed them most. They slept in the next morning while he was beaten and crucified. And when the women of their group ran to them and said they saw him alive, risen from the dead, risen from the tomb, they made fun of them. "You silly women don't know anything," they mocked, "Why should we believe you?"
So when we read about all of this, including their amazing stories about finally seeing him themselves, talking to him, touching his hands and dining with him, we see real people telling their real stories without sugarcoating anything. "We didn't believe either," they're telling us, "and we know it all sounds crazy, but it's true!"
Holy Week comes just once a year, but we go through it over and over again in our lives. Every time someone close to us dies, we experience all the pain and doubt, lethargy and hopelessness the disciples felt. Our faith is tested, and we may even scoff at those who try to tell us they've seen the resurrected spirit of a loved one in person. But it's true--all of it!
All theology aside--and I personally don't believe a whole lot of things traditional religion has taught me--the soul does survive death! Holy Week is an opportunity to reflect on all of it: the death and the life, the empty hole and the empty tomb, the darkness of this world, and the light of the next. "We didn't believe either, and we know it all sounds crazy, but it's true!"