Every year when Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday roll around, I always am curious about the people that show up out of the blue at church. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they’ve come, but I’m curious as to what made them show up. Why come to church for these Sundays when you haven’t made the effort before now? The simple answer is because it’s Holy Week, but I want to ask so what? If you have not been an active part of a worshiping community of Christians in any real sense for some time—since your kids grew up? since childhood? since never?—why come at all?
It’s not as if our cultural depictions of Easter inspire much interest in it. Despite the best efforts of advertisers and corporations, no one announces how many shopping days are left until Easter. Other than marshmallow chicks and some chocolate eggs, most retailers see little profit from the Easter season. Christmas has its heartwarming nativity scenes, carols and the glut of gift giving to engender interest. Easter gives us some leftover images of fertility from our pagan roots—eggs, rabbits, chicks, etc.—to decorate our front lawns; they’re just not the same as Christmas lights. Besides, marketing has always had trouble packaging an essential part of the Christian Easter story—the whole death of Jesus thing. Talk about a bummer. He may have risen on Sunday, but that Good Friday thing just doesn’t move merchandise like the baby Jesus.
I’m fascinated by the prospect that there is some sort of religious memory in our culture that can still inspire people to get out of the house on a Sunday morning and make an effort to come to church when they fail to do so the rest of the year. The cultural expectations of attending church on Easter have long passed away, but maybe there is a dim shadow of it still hanging on. Perhaps some come out of a dim sense of obligation based upon memories from childhood when more devout parents took them to church. Perhaps others come out of a sense that they should expose their children to at least a dose of religion. Do they come looking for something they once had or for something new? Do they come at the prompting of the Spirit or a need for ritual or for meaning or for. . . ?
In spite of the loss of its cultural cache and the failure of marketers to commercialize it and the failure of the church to make it relevant in a more secular and pluralistic world, they still come on Palm Sunday and Easter. They are looking for something. Why do you come—assuming of course that you are coming the next two Sundays—what are you looking for?
Sure, I’m coming because it’s my job, but even if it weren’t my job, I would still come. Here’s what I’m looking for. Like most middle class Americans I lead a busy life. It’s full of work, family, events for the kids, favorite television shows, work around the house and yard, e-mail and Facebook, doctor appointments, taking the cars to the shop, etc. etc. etc. Even though my job is about helping other people to experience the sacred in their everyday lives, I have as much trouble as the next person doing it myself. Holy Week interrupts that never-ending flow of “stuff I’ve got to do” and forces me to confront some important questions:
· I say I am a Christian, but what does that really mean and what difference does it make in my life?
· Am I like the crowds who cheered Jesus on Palm Sunday when times were good but abandoned and rejected Jesus when I was asked to sacrifice my own comfort and safety?
· In a culture obsessed with status, am I really willing to serve others in the way Jesus took the form of a slave and washed his disciples’ feet on that first Holy Thursday?
· I hear everywhere I go exhortations to do things my way, but am I willing to follow Jesus’ example and do things God’s way? What if God’s way means giving up something I want or already have?
· Our society lives by the ethics of getting even with those who hurt us, so how can I be like Jesus and forgive those who hurt me? Is it possible for me to resist repaying violence with more violence?
· Our culture fears death and so do I; do I really believe that God is more powerful than death?
These are not easy questions and because they are not easy, I don’t really want to make
time to think about them. Perhaps you can identify with that feeling. Yet, these are essential questions for anyone wishing to follow Jesus. Holy Week does not let us off the hook for considering them.
Whether or not they realize it, the strangers who show up on Palm Sunday and Easter are asking similar questions. They may not phrase them in the same religious language or even know the stories from Jesus’ last week, but they are asking questions about identity, meaning, sacrifice, life, death and love. What questions do you have? Are you willing to face them this Holy Week?
Grace and Peace,