No Easter Without Holy Week
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Last Tuesday at both the in-person and Zoom Bible Studies, we read this Passion Gospel in full together. We each had a different translation of the Bible in front of us, and we went around the group, each of us reading a section at a time. As the story progressed, the shift in energy was palpable. From the Last Supper to Gethsemane to the trial to the crucifixion, it became heavier and heavier.
When we finished, a hush descended on us. A quiet that seemed to acknowledge that there are no words to hold what happened to Jesus. Betrayals, false accusations, unimaginable pain.
Of course there are words. We just heard many of them. But this Passion Gospel is a report. It’s almost journalistic. Just the facts. They went to this place. Jesus said this. The chief priests plotted. Judas betrayed. The Romans beat and crucified Jesus. There are few adverbs or adjectives. The word brutal doesn’t appear once. This could have been the article in the Jerusalem newspaper. Simply an account of what happened.
And yet, that account of so many words moves us to silence.
Of course we did end up talking about this Passion Gospel and the other readings. But it was different than usual. There were long pauses between shares, and our voices were low.
It reminds me of Little Gidding, a T.S. Eliot poem I’ve mentioned before.
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel.
The liturgies of Holy Week—Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Great Vigil—are new additions to our 1979 Book of Common Prayer. They weren’t in the 1928 version. In fact, no officially sanctioned Prayer Book of The Episcopal Church included these services until our current one.
This is because over the past few centuries Holy Week had become a stale and forgotten tradition in both the Roman Catholic and our Anglican traditions. This is because Christianity had become an institution that had gotten used to being dominant, used to holding cultural power. It became the backdrop in people’s lives, something you didn’t choose, something that everyone was just expected to do. Even Sunday worship had become a rote tradition for many, a social obligation where people went to be seen doing what they were supposed to rather than to be spiritually nurtured.
Now you know this is a huge generalization. There were deeply faithful people throughout these centuries whose worship was profound and sincere.
But there’s a reason Holy Week services slowly disappeared from the formal liturgies of our Church. No one was going to them anymore. As Christianity became more and more taken for granted in our culture, its seasons and feast days lost their meaning, their power.
And even in our current Prayer Book, there’s still the tacit understanding that not many people will go to the Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services. That’s why this Palm Sunday is jam-packed. We sprint through Jesus’ story today, marking Palm Sunday when Jesus enters Jerusalem at the beginning and then making a kind of jarring transition into the anguish of the Passion. This Sunday assumes that we need to get it all in today before Easter arrives.
I want us to change that. Not because I think you should feel obligated to attend Holy Week services. Faith is sometimes about discipline, but I don’t think it should ever be about rote obligation. I would like us to drop into this Holy Week because we need to pause, we need to quiet ourselves, we need time to really understand what Jesus went through. To even come close to fathoming just how human Jesus became.
For Lent, I invited us into attention and intention, and those things require slowing down. When we don’t slow down, we miss the power of the moment. Of any moment, but particularly this moment in our faith.
As T.S. Eliot says, I think sometimes we verify, instruct, inform curiosity or carry report simply because it’s so much quicker than stopping to kneel, to wonder, to sit in the mystery, in the emotion, in the depth of this moment.
So this coming week, I invite you to slow down. Because that’s what Holy Week does: it slows us down. On Maundy Thursday, we remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his friends, when he invited his friends into vulnerability and care by washing their feet, when we have one final meal together before Easter and wash one another’s feet.
Our Gethsemane Watch overnight brings us into the garden with Jesus when he does the most human of things: he prays that God take away the suffering he knows is coming. And then comes to peace with the fact that there is no avoiding suffering. And we, his disciples, are invited to stay awake with him.
On Good Friday, we sit in the desolation of Jesus’ death. If we ever have any question if God knows what we go through, if God knows the devastation of injustice and oppression, if God knows what it’s like to experience physical pain, then we only need to let ourselves drop into Good Friday.
And today is the first day of Holy Week. Today is both Palm and Passion Sunday. The word passion derives from the Latin passio: to suffer. Compassion means to suffer with. This Holy Week, we are invited into the depth of Jesus’ compassion, how he came into this world and suffered with us. And we take this week to cultivate that compassion in ourselves. To suffer with Jesus.
Because there’s no meaningful resurrection, no meaningful Easter, without Holy Week. Just as there’s no meaningful joy in our lives without acknowledging and sitting with our own inevitable grief, our own inevitable suffering.
And there is resurrection. There is joy. Just not yet.