By Sarah Puryear
Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most concentrated time in the church calendar, when we focus intently upon the stories of the week before Jesus’ death. Through the advantage of hindsight, we know where this story is bound. But have you ever found that knowing the end of a story ruins the unfolding of it? I think of the avid Harry Potter readers who gathered at bookstores across the country for the release of the sixth book.
In a few places, a mischievous fan opened the copy, flipped to the end, scanned a few key lines of text, and then ran past the line of waiting fans shouting, “Dumbledore dies!” To say the least, those waiting fans were not happy to have this information about the end of the story forced upon them. Sometimes knowing the end can dampen the sense of thrill that comes from unexpected plot twists.
This is the case with the story about Jesus during Holy Week; knowing the end of the story can breed a certain familiarity and boredom about it. Yeah, so Jesus suffered, but then he rose again; he was fine in the end. Skipping ahead, however, robs us of the opportunity to steep in the deep and powerful truths that each step of the story contains.
I used to attend churches that in some ways “skipped ahead” during Holy Week. I had grown up in churches that did not observe Holy Week. I think we paid some tribute to Palm Sunday, but then we skipped right ahead to Easter Sunday. Growing up in these churches, I had been taught at length about the Last Supper and the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I had never walked through these events in a worship setting.
My first experience of Holy Week, 10 years ago, was what brought me into the Anglican fold. In college, I attended a church that used our Book of Common Prayer, and after Palm Sunday my friends and I decided to attend the first special service of the week: Maundy Thursday. We not only remembered the Last Supper; we watched as the worship space was stripped of all color and texture, as the altar was stripped and washed, and we heard Jesus’ request, “Stay with me … watch and pray” as he entered the garden of Gethsemane with his disciples.
At the end of that evening, we were hooked on Holy Week, and I was on my way to becoming an Anglican. The next night we came back for Good Friday, and the power of what Christ had done for me hit me in a new way, as we wrote down confessions of sin on slips of paper and took them forward to place before the cross.
The next night, the high drama of the Easter Vigil absolutely blew us away, with its gradual transition from the darkness of the tomb, to a visceral sense of joy as the lights came up, the white linens were brought out, and the priest announced, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” Our liturgy doesn’t allow us to skip ahead; it walks us through each day, asking us to stop and reflect on each step that Jesus took on his way to the cross and to let the power of those events transform us.
I’ve been reflecting on some of the hymns of Holy Week, and I’ve noticed a trend in the titles. See if you notice it too, based on these song titles: “Where You There When They Crucified My Lord?” “Go to Dark Gethsemane.” “Lead Me to Calvary.” Each title calls us to find ourselves there at those events, as though we are there. They remind us that we do not just mechanically remember these events like we would any other historical events.
We do not keep ourselves several arms’ lengths removed from them due to the distance of time. We are to imagine ourselves there, be transported by our meditation on these events, and in doing so to remember what our Savior has undergone for us. This rehearsal of events is one of the richest treasures of our tradition. If we pay close attention to the events of this week, if we are willing to go there with Jesus ourselves, we will see more clearly who Jesus is and what he has done for us.
If we are going to walk with Jesus during Holy Week, it will not be easy. It requires being his companion through some major ups and downs. As we just heard, the contrast between the crowd’s shouts of “Hosanna!” and the later cries of “Crucify him!” could not be greater. The crowds enthusiastically welcome Jesus to Jerusalem; but within the course of a few days, he is being condemned to a shameful and ignoble death. And as we walk with Jesus, we will go with him from the procession of Palm Sunday to the upper room, where he eats the Passover meal with his disciples and tells them that he will become the bread and wine, broken and poured out for them.
We will go with him that evening to the Garden of Gethsemane, where we will see just how human Jesus was. We see his inner struggle to accept the suffering that he is about to undergo. I find myself touched by this scene in particular, because it reveals just how truly human Jesus was and is. Jesus was not, as some movies about him suggest, a heavenly minded fellow who floated an inch off the ground everywhere he went and stared off into space as though he was constantly receiving telepathic messages from his Father.
Neither did he cruise through Holy Week with bravado, laughing off the depth of suffering he had to endure. Rather, like any human being would, he felt great fear and aversion to what was ahead of him, so much so that he asked God to spare him. And yet through that night of prayer he managed to come to a place of surrender, where he chose to trust that God knew what was best.
And as we read about his struggle, we know that we are part of this story, because we too struggle at times to trust that God knows best, especially when the way he directs us seems to be filled with suffering or loneliness. As we go to Gethsemane with Jesus, we will learn to say alongside him, “Not my will but your will be done.” From Gethsemane, we will go with Jesus to his trial, and from there to another procession through the city, one that will end at the place of crucifixion.
Walking with Jesus through these events will reveal to us who Jesus is and what he has done for us. If you go to Gethsemane today, you will find an image there that captures who Jesus is and what he has done for us. If you go to Gethsemane today, you will find a garden there still, and you will also find a church. It is called the Church of all Nations and the Church of the Agony. It was built in the 1920s, so it’s fairly recent. It is called the Church of the Agony because when you go inside, you find a piece of bedrock where Jesus may have sweated out his struggle the night before his death.
It is called the Church of all Nations for at least two reasons: First, and most practically, because churches from many different countries financed the building, which was telling after World War I. Second, because of the depiction of Christ above the church doors as the mediator for humanity. In the center of the image, Christ is clothed in red, kneeling, and to Jesus’ left and right are people gathered in groups. Those to his left are the poor and troubled — a woman weeping and carrying the body of her dead child is the most striking figure in this group.
Those to his right are the powerful — a soldier, a philosopher, a rich man, all kneeling and bowing their heads. Jesus kneels between these two groups and looks up to his Father, who is above him in heaven. He holds his hands out toward these two groups as though he is lifting up their requests and asking his Father to see them and answer their prayers. Jesus is lifting up the sorrows of all nations — both the sorrows that come through power and success and those that come through weakness and poverty.
There is a verse from Hebrews inscribed in Latin across the front of the church, which in English means, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” I think of another verse from Hebrews when I see this mosaic: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
As we go through Holy Week, we are invited to remember the story in all its detail — to not skip ahead to the end but to walk through each step, in which we can remember afresh that Jesus is our High Priest, our Savior, our Mediator, who took our sorrows and our sins upon him, loving us to the end, even laying down his life for us at the cross. As those hymn titles suggested, we are to go with him to the upper room, to Gethsemane, and even to Golgotha, trusting that walking the way of the cross will become for us none other than the way of life and peace.
Today I’d like to close in prayer with the words of one of those hymns.
King of my life, I crown thee now, thine shall the glory be
Lest I forget thy thorn-crowned brow, lead me to Calvary
Lest I forget Gethsemane, lest I forget Thine agony
Lest I forget Thy love for me, lead me to Calvary
The Rev. Sarah Puryear is priest associate at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee.