Why Celebrate Holy Week?

Holy Week, the week that leads up to and includes Easter, is the most solemn week of the Christian year. It memorializes five key moments–Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter–that occurred during the last week of Jesus’ life. This week has been set apart (made ‘holy’) by the Church since at least the third and fourth centuries.

These days, many in American churches prefer to jump straight to Easter and the joy that it offers. I confess that I also did not understand why people would focus on the betrayal and public shame that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion. After all, why highlight the negative when you can emphasize the positive? Easter celebrates God’s victory over death; isn’t that where our focus should be?

It wasn’t until the death of our daughter in January 2001 that I began to understand the wisdom of acknowledging the full breadth of Jesus’ experience. Our loss of Elizabeth cut so deep that only the somber atmosphere of a Good Friday service spoke God’s love and faithfulness to me. During that service in 2001, a quote from Ann Weems’ book, “Psalms of Lament,” was read that I still have today (kept in her book which I ordered almost immediately). It reads:

There are no dances for dark days.

There is no music to bellow the pain.

The best we can do is to remain still and silent and try to remember the face of God…

and how to kneel

and how to pray.

Strangely enough, honoring those final moments of Jesus’ life in the midst of my own pain brought me great comfort. First, it reminded me that Jesus understands what it means to live a life that is more than celebration, a regular human life. During that last week alone, Jesus experienced public praise and euphoria (Palm Sunday); familial love, disappointment, and betrayal (Maundy Thursday); shame, isolation, pain, and social injustice (Good Friday); death (Holy Saturday); and vindication and victory (Easter). Even in my worst times, I haven’t faced that many emotions in such a short period of time.

But that Good Friday worship service opened my eyes to something else that I really needed to see right then. Because I believe that God is a perfect community of three persons–Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit–I realized that God knew what it was like to lose a loved one! THE GOD OF THE UNIVERSE experienced the crushing, heart-breaking blow of losing one dearer than life itself.

I cannot begin to describe how that realization changed my reality. I do know that it was the first time in months that I sensed God’s presence. Although Easter tells us that God is victorious in the end, Good Friday (and the other days of Holy Week) tell us that God understands and is with us in the pain and horror. Sometimes, that’s the message that we really need to hear.

If you’ve never read about those last days of Jesus’ life, I invite you to read the story for yourself. I particularly hope you’ll read it if you’re facing a hard time. Although the story is found four different times in the Christian Scriptures, here’s one of my favorites: Mark 14-16. May it speak to you as it still does me!