Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV)
It’s the day after Easter. We have spent the last month and half identifying with the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus during the season of Lent. The last week of this journey is the most intense and reflective of the entire journey toward the cross. This week is the entire Christian faith encapsulated. The Christian seasons have their meaning. The two most prominent, Advent and Lent are considered the most widely celebrated and deeply meaningful. Advent is characterized by innocence and expectation whereas Holy Week is filled with contradiction and conundrums. Advent has the promise and hope of God’s new movement in the world, while Holy Week is an emotional roller coaster with twist and turns that can challenge the faithful. Advent is significant but Holy Week is necessary. This is not a chicken or egg scenario: For it is the cross and resurrection of Jesus that inspires the narratives of the Gospels (which result in the telling of his miraculous birth).
The centrality of Holy Week to the Christian narrative warrants this week’s posting. Participating in the various services of Holy Week as a pastor and worship leader, I nearly always observe the same pattern in the way congregants connect with the story. From Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, there are as many as five different worship services that are offered to give opportunity for congregant’s theological exploration of the themes of the week. (Many churches have offered nightly services and as many as four or five services on Good Friday alone!) My experience of this week in several different settings observes Christians who either reluctantly participate in the worship for the week (often living in the midst of the theological tension) or more often, they are disengaged Christians who do not participate in the services during the week but are present at sunrise service to celebrate the resurrection.
Sure, an argument can be made that you can attend on Sundays and get the gaps in the story filled and be satisfied. You could say that weeknight services are not practical to the situation of many congregants and worshipers given their busy schedules. All true, but all those considerations do not account for my struggle with the failure of the average Christian to journey in wrestling with the contradictions, complexities and failures of Holy Week. Either in the privacy of the own ‘prayer closets’ or in communities of faith.
The purpose of Holy Week is to lead the faithful symbolically in the last week of the Jesus. The days of this week have themes and counter narratives that are intentionally at odds with one another. The week begins triumphantly and excitedly with Palm Sunday and the coming king into Jerusalem. It moves to an intimate scene of bonding and humility with Maundy Thursday’s foot washing and meal. The counter narratives of both these days are just a prominent. Palm Sunday has a hypocritically character as the entire city crowns a king who they do not know and would come to challenge everything they hold dear. Maundy Thursday is intimate and humble but ends with betrayal and disintegration. The narrative and counter-narrative run parallel with equal emphasis through the week and collide on Good Friday.
Both in name and in theme, Good Friday embodies the central contradiction of the Christian faith. How can the day in which an innocent man dies, be considered a ‘good’ day? A day filled with violence, destruction and disappointment is declared ‘good’. This is the central day and truth of the Christian religion and many Christians are unwilling to live in the tension of this day (let alone the entire week). This failure of comprehension exposes an existential thread in our society that unravels the fabric of our faith as American Christians. The thread is reflective of our unwillingness to think or be challenged in the various aspects of our lives; especially in our faith. Many Christians do not attend worship, nor do they engage in the paradoxes of Holy Week, because it forces us to deal with unanswerable questions. Holy week presses the exposure and examination of the oppressive systems of power and fear that are just a present today as they were two thousand years ago. I can only assume that we are just as willing to be blind to the suffering of two thousand years ago, because it justifies our blindness now.
Let me give you an example from contemporary experience…
I attended a Good Friday service one Holy Week. It was initially conducted in the style of any Protestant Good Friday service. Solemn and deeply reflective (mournful at times) the prayers, hymns and overall worship conveyed a central truth that Jesus, an innocent man, died an undignified and unwarranted death on a cross. The preacher got up and preached a message of victory, hope and prosperity. The sermon was not at all connected with the significance of the moment and instead of wrestling with the theological tension that death, disappointment and dying mean in the Christian experience, they chose to simply…..shout.
This failure of faithful wrestling extends to Resurrection Sunday morning. The celebrations and excitement of Christ’s resurrection can only be appreciated by the depth and sorrow of the Friday of his death. Many Christian communities do not even observe a Good Friday service. Let me just say here that Protestant Christians celebrate the resurrection every single Sunday. For every Sunday is a recognition of the resurrection and what it means for the people of faith. So if churches celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, why are we not willing to take one week to wrestling with its meaning? Or even one day to mourn the death of Jesus? How can you know the goodness of resurrection if you are not willing to know the depth and pain of death on a cross? What does it say sociologically and theologically about the church when it is so willing to only celebrate the victory and never reflect on the price of the battle? It leads to triumphalism and a lopsided perspective of the cross…
Living in the tension is something that we in our modern sensibilities and privileges don’t believe is necessary. If we can choose not to suffer, then we don’t. We live in fortresses built upon foundations of ignorance that we defend at all costs. Thinking and being challenged in our thinking is what makes societies great and filled with ingenuity. Wrestling with challenging existential truths like suffering, forgiveness and death means we are forced with how those truths manifest in our lives. When that challenge is absent, we no longer centered for moments of discord and disappointment that so often characterize life.
This absence of critical and reflective thinking leads to the development of people that do not identify with the suffering of others. Non-reflective people can blame the poor and oppressed for the struggles the impoverished experience, all the while hoarding the privilege that keeps poverty and oppression alive. It leads to the rise of a church that spends it days fighting over doctrine and who to keep out instead of ‘rolling the stone’ away to open the doors to infinite possibility. A church whose wealth and maintenance becomes the chief priority of governance over the need for ministry that changes lives. If you aren’t willing to include pain in your theology, then you can’t have it in your ontology.
If anyone is familiar with disappointment and failure; if anyone knows what it means to suffer and have heartbreak, it is Jesus. Paul’s admonition here seeks to get us to wrestle with the paradox of the Christian faith: Christ suffers death to sin so we do not. The glorification to which the later part of this famous hymn of Paul speaks cannot be understood without the first verses in context. In other words, it is Christ’s humility, suffering and death that leads to the glorification. You do not have the glorification without first having humility, suffering, humiliation and death ‘even on a cross’. If we really believed this credo (understanding is another animal), then we should at least live through all of Holy Week in order to proclaim “He Is Lord”. Knowing the price of salvation and the path toward resurrection is the vision of truth for all who are called to live in the Way.