Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Make Time for Holy Week?

(This piece was originally written for The Dialogue, the weekly newsletter of the church where I serve, First Christian Church, Disciples of Christ of St. Joseph, MO.)

The date for Easter changes each year (according to a method of calculation I still cannot understand despite much time spent trying to do just that), but no matter when Easter comes in March or April people are busy.  The date of Easter and thus Holy Week prior to it changes, but the ordinary routines of life do not.  Children must still be cared for, taken to soccer games and play dates.  Elderly parents must be checked on and visited.  Doctor visits still must be kept.  If you are lucky, you may get Good Friday off, but most likely you are working at least some of the time during Holy Week and Easter weekend.  If you have time off, there is probably a voice in your head telling you in a very convincing manner that the thing you need most is to sleep.
            For all I know, some folks are at such a low place mentally and physically that they really do need to rest above all else, but I’m guessing the rest of us probably just need to readjust our attitudes, priorities and schedules.  So here’s my list of reasons you should make time for Holy Week this year.

1.      You’re a Christian, dummy.  This stuff is supposed to matter to you.  It should be obvious, but I think it needs to be said—in the Christian life Easter should be your most important holiday.  I know Easter doesn’t come in the middle of winter when we’re all in need of some cheering up.  I know thinking about a baby Jesus is a lot more fun than thinking about an adult Jesus who dies in a horrible manner.  I know that giving and getting presents is more exciting than thinking about an empty tomb.  Heck, I know that other holidays when you get to drink green beer or send valentines or eat turkey have their appeal.  BUT the heart of the Christian faith for each believer should be in some way a sense that Jesus Christ’s rejection, betrayal, suffering, death and eventual resurrection mean something significant.  At FCC, I know we have a wide spectrum of belief about who Jesus was/is and what his life/death/resurrection mean, but whoever Jesus is to you the most significant events of his life should be worth reflecting on.

2.      You’re part of a church and churches make time for Holy Week.  Yes, yes, I know each person can worship God in his or her own way and you can experience God in nature or on your living room sofa.  Yada, yada, blah, blah.  Every year somebody makes a wise crack to me about the people who only show up at church on Easter and Christmas.  Although I know where the frustration comes from, I reply, “Well at least they showed up on Christmas and Easter.  What’s everybody else’s excuse?” 

A church is about more than individual piety or concerns.  It is not about being a consumer of a product.  A church is a community of people that gather together in the sight of God, because somehow being together—with all our faults and hypocrisies—means more than being apart.  It matters that we are together, and this is especially true during Holy Week as we reflect together on the human capacity for rejecting the ways of God.

3.     Rituals are only empty when you choose to make them so.  Some long-time church goers may admit when pressed that they have done Holy Week so many times that it has lost its meaning.  My reply is to ask, “Whose fault is that?”  Sure pretty much every church could use a little freshening up of its Holy Week traditions, but the power of Christ’s last week does not lay in how well the tenebrae service readers do their parts, how well the choir sings or how well the preacher preaches.  The power of Holy Week is in the story itself and the difference it makes in the life of the believer.  If you walk away unmoved or indifferent or worse—unchallenged in your own complacency, then perhaps you were focusing upon the wrong things.

The rituals of Holy Week—waving palm branches, darkening the lights, partaking communion, celebrating on Easter morning—can be empty if we choose for them to be.  I believe, however, that even when we do not feel like doing them, rituals change us.  The Catholic writer Mary Margaret Nussbaum writes, “You become what you do.  We are shaped from the outside in . . . we bend and we kneel, even when our head is clouded and our spirit is grudging. We cross ourselves even as our faith fails. We light candles and sing "O Radiant Light, O Sun Divine," even when the world seems dark.”  As Protestants, our rituals may be different from Nussbaum’s, but her point remains true across traditions--our rituals have the power to transform us “from the outside in.”  The rituals of Holy Week certainly have that power.

If you’re reading this church newsletter, then you’re probably not the ideal audience for my thoughts on Holy Week.  After all, just the fact that you took time to read your church newsletter indicates that you are more committed than many.  However, perhaps even the kind of church member dedicated enough to read the newsletter needs a reminder of the importance of Holy Week.

Grace and Peace,

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