Living the legacy of the first Holy Week journey

Dear colleagues,

I’m going to be honest with you – I’ve never really been a fan of Palm Sunday. I know it’s an integral part of the great journey through the wilderness, to Golgotha, and, ultimately, to the resurrection. As a liturgist, however, and as someone who takes great delight in the nuance and beauty of the ways in which different church seasons progress and morph into one another, to me there seems to be a certain disingenuity about the way in which this almost forced celebration disrupts the Lenten journey into Holy Week, and the immense emotion that accompanies that spiritual trajectory. There is, of course, the ironic fact that the same crowd (well, we assume the same crowd) that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem would be crying out for his execution just days later. But, if that’s the case, you sort of wonder what they thought they were celebrating when he arrived. Or is this just a more literary illustration of the fickle nature of crowd mentality that sways us all in its own manner? Maybe I’ve never really been drawn to Palm Sunday because I’ve never been especially enamoured with any of the music that has been written to mark the feast, but that’s probably missing the point entirely.

Of course, Palm Sunday is really the overture to the epic drama of Holy Week that we, as a Christian community, re-enact every year. Re-enact, however, is probably the wrong word to use, even though there is a theatrical and dramatic aspect to the ways in which all of our liturgies unfold, and especially in this week. We retell the stories we all probably know by heart, and, spiritually if not literally, we follow in Christ’s footsteps to the cross. Luckily, we know there’s a happy ending on the other side, and yet how many of us have probably still been brought close to tears as we hear that story over and over again?

A few years ago I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem, somewhat last-minute and only for such a short trip that I only had an afternoon to explore the city. Nevertheless, it was just long enough for my mother and I to walk the Via Dolorosa and to trace the stations of the cross in the actual places they originally occurred. I think we might have struggled to find one of them, and it was a bizarre journey through a city that was both ancient and modern all at once, and which teemed with such a juxtaposition of individuals and groups that it was as much a comic farce as it was anything else. Some might think that, having had the opportunity to retrace Jesus’ literal last steps through Jerusalem to his death, his tomb, and to his eventual resurrection, that Holy Week would, thereafter, always take on a new identity, or be imbued with greater significance than it had before. I’m sure for many that this is the case, but I don’t think I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that my approach to this most holy of weeks has changed. 

Perhaps, though, the point of retracing this journey isn’t just to remember what Jesus did for us, but to remind ourselves that we continue to live the legacy of that journey, and it is in carving our own path that is as important as recalling that which Jesus laid before us. Every year on Remembrance Sunday, when the crowds (there they are again) religiously recite with pride ‘We will remember them’, I cannot help but think ‘don’t forget what they are supposed to have died for’. When I look around a world that is rife with so many prejudices and where nationalist, almost fascist, politics are on the rise, I feel there is a complete hollowness in obsessing over the fact that millions were unwillingly marched to their deaths when we don’t live our lives in a way that honours that ‘sacrifice’. 

This time last year, Holy Week was the first major challenge for the church as we still struggled to comprehend the pandemic that has now just become part and parcel of our everyday lives. Our experiences of walking that Holy Week path were probably more panic and concern that we made it to the end, than retracing that journey, while reimagining it for the world in which we live today. We’ve learned a lot over the last year. We’ve also failed to learn much that perhaps we should as well. Holy Week is designed to be a sad week. It’s a week in which the liturgy gives us an opportunity to connect with the divine at the closest level, in a way that allows us to process our griefs and struggles. It’s also a week that allows us to remember – to remember those we have lost; to remember what we have lost; but also, and most importantly, to remember that Jesus died to make the world a better place. If we wish to be true to that legacy, let us remember that our earthly path, unlike Jesus’, doesn’t end on Golgotha, but continues through to the resurrection, to the positive knowledge that we live in the light, no matter how dark it feels. As we walk this path as a global society, slowly and cautiously, out of this pandemic, let us ensure that, like Jesus’ death, we honour what the last 12 months has been about, and we continue to live our lives as an honourable, living legacy.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Dr. Jonathan White, Director of Chapel, for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.

An image used to illustrate this post is by Petar Milošević – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.