We have all watched films or seen plays or read books more than once. Even though we know what happens at the end, there is a still a pleasure in retracing the stages of story. We maybe notice things we hadn’t seen before – or want to identify with a scene that is well described or acted. And that is what Holy Week invites us to do.
Of course, this is an adult story, even though we find ways of introducing it to children. Because it is a story about how we view life and not just what we do in the next seven days.
Firstly, this week, we are invited to face the reality of what happens. I don’t just mean what happens to Jesus. There is the fact that popular opinion cheers him today, believing that he can bring hope and defeat for their occupiers. But when he fails to live up to their expectations of what God should be, the crowd is remarkably able to turn against him and call for his death. Of course, in the case of Jesus, public opinion doesn’t just swing automatically. On Good Friday the charge is led by powerful people who resent this Jesus because he threatens their power base. In every age, those who ask awkward questions of the powerful – whether in politics, business or the criminal world – have to be side-lined. While heroic people dedicate their lives and imagination to dealing with the illness, there are those who are looking to benefit from the tragedy of others. Hunger for power and lack of moral courage appear in every age. In these next days, Jesus asks us not to be blind to the human capacity for evil or to canonise personal preference and what benefits me.
Secondly, Holy Week tells of Jesus who faces the reality of human malice, even though he is horrified at the price he will have to pay in his human body. Facing what we call sin – individual and structural – is not easy. It is often easier to assume that my pleasure decides what is right for me here and now. And the culture suggests that life should be easy and that I shouldn’t have to do anything difficult – and if things go wrong, I should moan about it messing up my plans. But in Holy Week Jesus says that life is difficult and that we grow, not by avoiding challenges, but by facing evil, whatever the cost to ourselves. Evil will be overcome by generous love, not by pampering me rather than doing the right thing. Holiness is not merely about avoiding sins in a tick-box exercise but about developing a Christ-like heart that faces evil with trust that there is a God who makes sense of everything. That vision has inspired heroes, martyrs and saints in every generation. Holy Week is a call to greatness. Jesus leads the way, calls us out of ourselves and offers a challenge to those who believe that evil will never have the upper hand when there are those who have hearts for heroism. That is why he told his followers to make disciples of all nations.
And thirdly, we cannot make sense of Good Friday without Easter Sunday, but there is no Resurrection without Calvary. Love costs. But, in Jesus, love will always be victorious. Sin, greed and arrogance will not have the last laugh. The short span of years that we have is not the whole story. There are things that we value that we can’t measure or put a price on – generosity, sacrifice, loyalty, faithfulness. They are never wasted. There is meaning at the end of a life well lived in grace. Life is not a joke, nor a hollow laugh into the vastness of time and space. Celebrity status is not the measure of importance. Power can so often lead to abuse of the weak – as Jesus discovered. Holy Week is a statement of God’s faith in us and in what we can become through the foolishness of Calvary. The story frees us from the limited horizons of the market and entertainment and gives us hearts to soar.
Do not be afraid of going through Holy Week. Trust the apparently crazy wisdom of Jesus. Walk with Jesus on each day of the week. Pray for your heart to be moulded by his. After Spy Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday will come for all of those who walk with Jesus. With him there are no shortcuts – but there is a guaranteed end to the story.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry.
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