This is the week that invites us to enter deeply into all that makes us human. The week that dares us to risk resurrection by walking – with eyes wide open – into the countless deaths that precede the possibility of something new coming to life. To search for the hosanna buried beneath every hurt. To roll away the intractable stones of fear that keep us enclosed in suffocating tombs of our own design.
Death and resurrection. The yin and yang of human existence. As I often remind my students, you can’t have one without the other. To see only the dead places in ourselves and in the world leads to paralysis and despair. To demand resurrection without crucifixion, however, is to settle for what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a superficial stance that keeps our hands clean and our hearts intact, oblivious to our own pain and the pain of others.
No, the two are inextricably linked, and our task is to find a way to grow souls big enough to hold them both simultaneously. If we are open to it, Holy Week hits us like a Zen master’s stick that awakens us to this mystery. And sometimes this hurts.
Holy Week today is so far away from my childhood experiences of purple-draped crosses, stiff pastel dresses, chocolate bunnies, and Sunday School handouts that had us coloring our way through the crucifixion.
As a kid, I would spend hours alone in my room thinking and writing poetry about a war that hung over my generation like a heavy coat. As my friends’ older brothers came home from Vietnam in flag-draped boxes, I questioned religion. Here we were making burlap banners and singing hymns while napalm was being dropped on people halfway around the world.
During this time, I recall seeing a photo of a couple of priests in handcuffs and momentarily feeling the breath of Jesus on my back. A fleeting sense that to follow this One is a righteous and dangerous thing.
Not knowing what to do with this insight, I chose the cowardly road of cynicism for the next several years. My response to a reflection like this would have been something like “There is no holy week or holy anything. It’s all going to hell, so I may as well go along for the ride.”
As I said, I simply did not know what to do with all the suffering I observed.
Fast forward to a sunny Palm Sunday years later when I hit a personal bottom that threw me into Holy Week with a vengeance.
I will never forget the searing pain that Good Friday of sitting among a group of strangers and having to talk. Or saying good-bye after a short, bittersweet visit with family on that brilliant Easter morning.
During that grim and graced time, I had to dig deeply – very deeply – to search for some semblance of life within myself, for something salvageable, beneath the soil. As I clawed through the hard ground of my heart, I searched for a few seeds of hope, for some sign of resurrection.
For the first time in my life, I learned what the hard walk of Holy Week is all about.
Since that time, life has taken me to other fields, but I have never stopped digging. Like a child tearing up her Easter basket in search of the red jelly bean at the bottom or the woman in the parable earnestly sweeping her house in her search for a lost coin, we have to look and look closely.
As Simone Weil said, “By looking we are saved.” Saved from missing the message that we are part of a wounded world that needs our voice, our presence, our love. A world that needs us to enter into its suffering with the knowledge that love will carry the day. Saved from our own indifference and despair. Saved from an easy optimism that relies on “cheap grace.”
Holy Week happens, and once we march to the beat of its annual rhythm and open ourselves to its many lessons, we are overcome by the paradox of the Paschal Mystery – a mystery that expresses itself in creation, in archetypal stories that span cultures and centuries, and in our own lives.
Like Peter who was told by Jesus to let go of violence and put up his sword, we are invited to let go of our cynicism, our desire for control, our pesky egos. And – make no mistake about it – this feels like dying.
Acquiescing to these little deaths on the personal level is hard enough, but we are asked to take the good news into a world that has not yet learned to put up its sword. To announce the good news that love overcomes violence, compassion overcomes complacency, and that the moral arc of the universe does indeed “bend toward justice.”
In years past I have experienced Holy Week in places as faraway as Israel-Palestine where the reality of death is palpable and where hope resides in a place so deep that one has to enter the innermost tabernacle of the heart to find it.
When I arrived in the Old City of Jerusalem as part of a peace team on Good Friday afternoon, I knew immediately that the messiness, the tension, the truth of Holy Week could be found in the people living there today and not in old churches and dead shrines.
Likewise, there was the Holy Week in Detroit when it was announced by the archdiocese, with uncanny timing, that it was closing all of its high schools in Detroit, including the small, inner-city high school where I taught. Holy Week grabbed us by the neck that year in a visceral way that gave us all a taste of death that was impossible to swallow.
Searching among the shards of our crushed communities that week, the only glint of resurrection was the love we had for one another and our resolve to speak out. It was a rich, wretched week that contained strange and perplexing graces.
Tonight, we will wade into the deep waters of the week as we gather at church to wash feet, share food, and sit in silence before the terrible truth that we live in a world which “has not yet learned to bear the beams of love.” Tonight we ponder the awful news that to love is to die – in one way or another.
Tomorrow we will walk the Stations of the Cross through the streets of Detroit as we do each year, stopping to pray in the places where Jesus continues to be crucified as a result of a war economy that leaves little for the poor. While elders and children go without water, there is always money for weapons.
We carry the cross through the city with the assurance that where there is this much crucifixion, there must be resurrection. A resurrection rooted in resistance to the powers of death in our own lives, our city, our world.
As death dances through Detroit with shutoff notices in one hand and big corporate money in the other, Holy Week invites us to become wholly human. Holy Week demands that we turn over a few tables for the sake of love and, despite all odds, bet our very lives on the audacity of Easter.