Thursday, April 5, 2007

Thoughts on Holy Week

"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another."

It's Holy Week, and FavoriteBoy has been in charge of planning the services for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. Essentially, he's been planning everything except the sermon. Service order, hymns, responsorial readings, Scripture readings, special music... it's all his job this year. And since church music is what he loves to do, he doesn't do it halfway. He's been carefully choosing each aspect of each service, and he's also been writing brass parts for all the hymns for our Easter Sunday service. He's been so busy planning these services that I'm not sure he remembers what I look like! He sits in front of his computer humming away as he puts all his compositional ideas into Finale, periodically jumping up and running to the piano to try out an idea. At all the appointed mealtime hours I put food in front of him and then take away his plate when he's finished. But the result of all his hard work is coming to fruition - tonight's Maundy Thursday service was beautiful and meaningful, and I know he's planned wonderful services for Good Friday and Easter as well.

Tonight's service began with this:

O God the Father, Creator of Heaven and earth, have mercy on us.
O God the Son, redeemer of the world, have mercy on us.
O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful, have mercy on us.
O holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on us.
Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins!
His mercy endures forever.

The sermon was on Judas's betrayal of Jesus.

Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" Jesus answered, "Yes, it is you."

Our pastor brought up an interesting point I had never before considered concerning why Judas is a pivotal part of the Passion of the Christ, and why the story could not have been completed in some other way. Judas holds the key to one of three aspects of the suffering of Christ. The suffering of Christ on the cross was not only physical and spiritual, but also relational. He was betrayed by Judas, denied by his own disciples, and forsaken by His own Father. The humanity of Christ suffered under this, as there is perhaps nothing so emotionally painful to humans as betrayal. Our pastor told a story of a man who suffered many cruelties under the Nazi regime of Germany for his opposition to Hitler. This man survived time in a concentration camp only to return home and commit suicide. The horrors of Naziism could not destroy his strength and determination of spirit, but when he returned home he discovered what he could not endure: that his own son had been his betrayer, had handed him over to the Nazis.

Having spent a good part of my childhood in non-traditional churches (through no fault of my parents - we did a great deal of church-hopping due to my father's allergies), I now believe that I missed out on a lot through not belonging to a church that celebrated many important days in the church calendar. Most notable among those are the days of Holy Week. For those evangelicals, Non-Denom's, and non-religious who read my blog, Holy Week is the week preceding Easter Sunday. It is the culmination of Lent, a time to remember the institution of the Eucharist or Communion, the New Commandment Jesus gave his disciples at that time, Judas's betrayal, and ultimately the suffering and death of Christ.

It is fitting that we remember these things before we get to celebrate His resurrection on Easter. Unfortunately, many evangelical churches tend to look on 'Holy Week' and other traditions with extreme suspicion as something 'Catholic' - practically a bad word if you are a Baptist! And while perhaps some evangelical churches will hold a Good Friday service, it would certainly be uncommon to find a Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday service.

I sometimes think that many evangelical churches risk being guilty of seeking or preaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "cheap grace" through the conspicuous absense Lent and Holy Week. Here is what Bonhoeffer writes in The Cost of Discipleship:

"Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is living for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace - for grace alone does everything. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!

That is what we mean by cheap grace, the grace which amounts to the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs. Cheap grace is not the kind of forgiveness of sin which frees us from the toils of sin. Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace, on the other hand, is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must the asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.

Costly grace is the Incarnation of God."

When a church fails to set aside time to remember the events of the days preceding the Resurrection, that church may fail to take seriously the gravity of sin. Lent and the observation of Holy Week call us to do more than celebrate the joy of Palm Sunday and Easter. It calls us to do something much harder: to focus on the betrayal, the suffering, and the humiliation of Christ and the part which each one of us ultimately plays in His crucifixion. Unpleasant? Distasteful? Certainly. But Christ's words to Judas: "Yes, it is you" ought to make each one of us sick to our stomachs with the realization that just as Christ loved Judas despite knowing exactly who he was and what he would do, so too He loved us enough to be pierced for our transgressions.

We cannot participate in a true celebration of the Resurrection and eternal life without the essential backdrop of the death that was Christ's and should have been ours were it not for the "vast, unmeasured, boundless" love of Jesus. Through Holy Week, we try to walk the path that Christ trod, from His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (or Passion Sunday) to the agonizing journey to the cross that followed. We remember His death before we celebrate His Resurrection. A church that omits the events of Holy Week is not unlike a family that attends church only on Christmas and Easter. It's like a literature class that reads Dante's Paradiso without first journeying through the Inferno and Purgatorio. It is only in walking through the darkness of Holy Week and Good Friday, only in remembering the magnitude of sin and the death awaiting each of us that we can truly celebrate the joy of the Ressurection on Sunday morning.

1 comment:

  1. Sarah, I swear I wrote my blog before your post showed up for me, but now I feel like I should just wipe out what I have and direct people to yours, it's so similar and very thoughtfully-said. Thanks for being awesome. May it be a special remembrance for you this year.