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No Easter Without Holy Week

The Rev. Sara Warfield

I used to think that Palm/Passion Sunday was a confusing day liturgically and theologically. We go from the people of Jerusalem celebrating the arrival of Jesus, potentially the Messiah who would save them all from the oppression of Rome, and then suddenly turn to the heaviness and fear and sadness of betrayal and pain and death.

But I’ve realized in my few years of being a preacher and priest that the day means to slow us down. Wait a minute, it says. Yes, we’re celebrating hope and, yes, I know Easter is just around the corner, but if you don’t slow down to experience Jesus’ suffering, you’ll miss the whole point of Easter, the whole point of redemption, the whole point of resurrection.

Rabbi and Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel wrote, “Suffering does not redeem, it only makes one worthy of redemption.” He continues, “For the purpose of redemption is to initiate an age in which [according to Isaiah] ‘those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction.’”

Rabbi Heschel is telling us that there is nothing meaningful about suffering in and of itself. You’ve heard me say this many times before also. No one deserves to suffer, though we all do sometimes, some more than others. No one deserves to be betrayed, beaten, mocked, and killed. The horrifying things that happen to us, that happened to Jesus, have no meaning in and of themselves except, perhaps, to show us that all humans have the capacity to hurt one another, and we do. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not.

“Suffering does not redeem, it only makes one worthy of redemption.”

The only thing that makes suffering meaningful is how we respond to it. How we engage it. How we allow it to redeem us, which is, according to Rabbi Heschel and Isaiah, “to come to understanding, to accept instruction.” I interpret redemption as, “What can I learn about God’s love through this experience?”

We see Jesus wrestling with suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. His first response is to beg God to take away the suffering that is to come. But then you can almost see him take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and say, “Yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Which is to say, “I don’t understand why all this is happening, but I trust that there is something to come of this, I trust that your love can somehow be revealed through this.” He understood that there can be no redemption without suffering.

But there can be suffering without redemption. We can allow suffering to remain meaningless if we want to. It’s what happens when we choose to refuse what it might have to show us, what it might have to teach us. We can try to race through our suffering, or pretend that it’s not happening. “Don’t think about the negative, focus on the positive,” we’re often told. Which often means, just pretend like the suffering isn’t there until it goes away. That advice usually comes from someone who’s also trying to avoid the feelings that suffering brings.

It’s the same impulse that causes us to skip over Holy Week straight into Easter. To skip straight from the joy of Palm Sunday into the joy of resurrection.

But the joy of resurrection is hollow, even meaningless, without the pain of Jesus’ suffering.

And I want to be clear: I don’t think Jesus had to die for our sins. I preached about this earlier in Lent. I think Jesus died because of human sin. And the resurrection shows us that nothing can defeat God’s love, not even our sin. It shows us God’s amazing grace, which is unending forgiveness—if we choose to accept it and if we choose to let it change how we live. What God does by resurrecting Jesus, God’s only child, is forgiving the human sin that killed him. It is a stunning act of love.

But the grace that God offers through Jesus’ resurrection is hollow, even meaningless, without acknowledging that we have sins to be forgiven. Without acknowledging that there is suffering to be redeemed.

We are now Christ’s body in the world. So God’s love in this world is only as great as we are able to manifest it. If we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge the suffering around us, to acknowledge the ways we sin and hurt one another and ourselves, we cannot experience and understand the magnitude of God’s love demonstrated on Easter. Which means we won’t learn from it, which means we won’t let it change how we live, how we manifest God’s love in the world.

“Suffering does not redeem, it only makes one worthy of redemption.”

This is why we drop into the Passion today, and why we stay with it throughout the week. Because there is no resurrection without the silent goodbyes of Maundy Thursday, the horror and devastation of Good Friday, and the deep grief of Holy Saturday. There is no Easter without Holy Week.

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