Maybe the Eastern Orthodox have a better name for Holy Week. They call it Great and Holy Week.
It’s holy, sure, but lots of things are holy. “Great” emphasizes just how set apart Holy Week is, like the Passover observance it’s related to. In the ritual dialogue of the Seder meal, the youngest person at table asks why that night is different from all other nights. This week is different from all other weeks.
Because it is totally different, we should expect totally different challenges. We should be right there in Gethsemane, with no exit, wondering if it hurts to die and if we’ll feel it when we stop breathing. We should stand grim and tight-lipped with Joseph of Arimathea, incredulous that he has to politely ask his friend’s killers, of all people, for the body.
We should sit with Peter in Friday’s doomsday sun, asking why we’re only bold and loyal when it doesn’t mean anything–and hearing no answer but the wind in the olives. We should get violently nauseated with Judas when we suddenly understand, in a god-awful thunderclap, that we’ve all betrayed innocent blood.
Palm Sunday starts the immersion. We are shoved into the middle of the action. We are the “Crowd.” And no matter which Gospel is in the rotation this time, the “Crowd” always has to make the same shrill, embarrassing demand: “Crucify him!”
By participating in the Passion reading, we confront ourselves in the mirror. Our love for God and each other is brittle. We constantly fight our instinctive, reptilian-brain preference for the Barabbas of the moment. Our inescapable human condition is to live in the “Crowd,” which is no more civilized than it was two millennia ago. The ghastliness in the glass demands that we pause and stare.
So I was a bit disappointed at my church this Palm Sunday when, once the Passion according to Mark was finished, Father turned immediately to preaching about God’s love. Ordinarily I’m all about God’s love. But somehow the transition was just too awkward this time.
The homily went like this: Jesus died for us because God loves us, so we should spend the week meditating on metaphors for God’s overflowing love. Father suggested a blasting fire hose (“any of you ever try to drink from one of those?”), or maybe a dump truck (umm, God’s love is a whole bunch of dirt?). And Niagara Falls (“wow, that’s a lot of water”).
Let’s just say he lost me back at the dump truck.
These folksy images comfort us. They are expectations of abundance. They skip ahead a week. They evade the urgency of the now.
Let’s slow down, way down. Let’s stay, just for now, with the roosters that accuse us, the thirty silver pieces that feel so cold and greasy we can’t get rid of them fast enough.
For here and now, God is still lost in the crowd, lost with the excluded, the vulnerable, and the scapegoats. In them, God is still getting betrayed, crucified, and exchanged for Barabbas.
It’s never stopped.
On Easter Sunday, Jesus will comfort the afflicted. During the Great and Holy Week, let him afflict the comfortable.