Holy Week is, as suggested, the holiest week of the Christian year. It's also the busiest. The week starts on Palm Sunday with the commemoration of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It continues on Maundy Thursday with a retelling of the story of the Last Supper, and Jesus' betrayal by a disciple. On Good Friday the church gathers to remember Jesus' death on the cross. And on Easter we proclaim the Resurrection, and celebrate the assurance that not even death could separate us from God's grace.
It's a long week with added church services that leave even those who gain renewed energy from worship tired at times. Clergy often take one of their vacation weeks the following week in order to recover. And we pastors, regardless if we admit it or not, know that when we announce the additional Holy Week services some people are groaning a little inside.
I get it. We're all busy. Sunday morning feels hard enough for many good Christians. Thursday night, after a long day at work, is even tougher. You just want to go home, have dinner, and either tackle the pile of laundry or have a few precious hours to yourself. You probably don't want to take the car out one more time, drive to church, and sit through another service.
No one will blame you if you don't. No pastor I know takes attendance, and, truth be told, we clergy all have our own Netflix queue and stack of unfinished novels that we might longingly look at on our way out of our own doors. But the occupational hazard of being clergy means we can't call out on Holy Week. Which means the messages of the stories we hear on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can't go unheard by us.
That's good because what we hear about Jesus on those two nights is the same as what we hear every day in our offices. We don't talk about that much. That's too bad. Most churches are good at doing Sundays. But sometimes we are not so good at acknowledging what comes between Sundays.
On Sunday mornings we often focus on the joy. We sing uplifting hymns. We hear hopeful sermons. We smile. We shake hands. We dress up. We talk about grace and blessings and gratitude. That's not a bad thing.
But when many of our parishioners leave on Sunday, they step into a different world. Between Sundays I visit with people who are facing a struggle that few in their lives understand. They're sick or injured. Dying or bereaved. Depressed, heart-broken, betrayed, alone, or wrestling with doubt. And if you come to church on Palm Sunday and Easter, you might not think we in the church know anything about that.
But if you come between Sundays, you'll find a faith that knows what that is like. More than that, you'll find a God who knows what that is like. To me, the most comforting part of Holy Week is not the waving of triumphal palms on one Sunday morning, or the flowers and joyous hymns on the next. It's what happens in between.
It's Jesus on Maundy Thursday sharing a table with the people he loved the most. It's him washing their feet, and showing that the mark of a true leader is whether they can serve others. It's Jesus still loving those disciples even though he knew that, at best, they would abandon him, and at worst, they would betray him. And it's Jesus in the garden, alone, heart-broken, and struggling between what he wanted to do and what he knew he had to do.
And on Good Friday, it continues. The world turns against him, and the ones who cheered his entry in Jerusalem instead cheer his death. He suffers. He calls out to a God who does not seem to answer. He doubts. He feels pain, and loss, and grief. And in the end he loses the life he knew.
I'm sometimes asked by those who are going through a difficult time whether God is angry when they have doubts, or when they wonder why God doesn't seem to be answering prayers. They ask if God understands when we suffer, or when we feel alone.
When they do, I point first not to the Christ of Palm Sunday or Easter, but to the Christ of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. The one who lived as one of us. Who loved as one of us. Who doubted as one of us. Who suffered as one of us. And who died as one of us.
And only then do I point to the Christ who rose again, and overcame the worst that the world could throw at him.
I sometimes worry that we are forgetting the lessons of Holy Week. As more churches cancel mid-week services due to low attendance and over-scheduled members, and instead roll all the stories into a Passion Sunday service on Palm Sunday, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, do we then lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?
But what would Christian life look like if we took that time? What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart, just as Christ asks us to do on Maundy Thursday? Or the ones who could stand by and still love and respect you even when you call out your doubts, as Jesus did on the cross? What would happen if we weren't just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion?
We have the capacity to be those people. We have it because Christ has called us to be those people. All we have to do is be willing to make the journey with him. Not just on Sundays, but on the days between. The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilycheath