If things were normal, we would be amid what is generally considered the holiest of weeks in the Christian calendar.
We would have celebrated Palm Sunday, perhaps with children waving palm branches in a reenactment of that scene of Jesus approaching Jerusalem on a donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Easter Sunday would lie close ahead, with its anticipation of a good crowd at church and perhaps a specially enhanced worship experience with a stirring theme, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
Holy Week – that sacred period between the triumphal parade of Palm Sunday and the joyous discovery of an empty tomb on Easter morning – is a time when attention is drawn to this foundational experience of the Christian faith.
For many, perhaps most of us, we normally let its themes and pageantry remind us and renew in us the significance of what it points to in our faith pilgrimage.
But things are not normal this year.
Church facilities are closed, programs and services are canceled or shifted to “virtual” formats, and church leaders are working valiantly to create contexts for affirming the message of the season in radically different ways.
Easter will still happen. We have long known that its reality is not dependent on the forms we have developed to express it.
It’s not like the old joke that made the rounds when I was in seminary about the early archaeologist who frantically cabled the Vatican, “Cancel Easter! We found the body!”
The radical adjustments caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly upended much of what we have come to expect and find meaningful.
Along with that has come a rethinking of many things that have become so normal that we scarcely give them any thought.
A few weeks ago, who would have thought that an important decision would be when to get in line at the grocery store?
I have wondered if a rethinking of the “holy” of Holy Week might also be a helpful exercise as a response to the disruption that is affecting so much else in our lives.
Many often see this week as the relatively pleasant, albeit somber, period between the celebrations of Palm Sunday and Easter, and thereby the “holy” link between the two.
Perhaps some thought about the actual content of that week as portrayed in the gospel testimony might reorient our thinking about the character of “holy” itself.
The scenes are familiar from abundant portrayals in passion plays and Hollywood films, so awareness of that week’s experiences is not new.
A quick review reveals that Jesus began that week with, among other things, weeping over Jerusalem and its history of dealing with the prophets who sought to keep the covenant community faithful and radically confronting the commercializing of worship in the Temple.
Confrontations led to challenges and plots to eliminate the threat he represented to those in power.
Questions and doubts among his followers showed their lack of understanding of his mission.
Jesus’ own struggle with the nature of his mission and its consequences is vividly portrayed; the looming rejection and consequent trial signaled the final verdict on what was about to happen. See Mitch Randall’s column of April 2 for a fuller review of these experiences.
By any measure, it was not a pretty week – this “Holy Week” – and we might wonder how this mix of tension, challenge, confrontation, hostility, rejection, misunderstanding, doubt, uncertainty, even betrayal and defeat became a part of what is holy.
Is it possible that, in this profile of experiences, the things we might consider “anti-holy” are really some profoundly theological temperings of what the “holy” actually is?
The bookends of Palm Sunday and Easter make it easy, under normal circumstances, to overlook the content of the books on the shelf.
In those books, we see a different picture from the pep rally before the game and the victory celebration after the archrival has been defeated.
What we see there is the hard work, the committed courage and the faithful exercise, often struggle, of keeping the purpose of the effort in the forefront.
But we are not in normal circumstances, and our present context seems to be encouraging us to see the holy as much in the struggle between the celebrations as in the joyous outcomes that are affirmed.
My images of the holy this year are those who waver in fatigue after a long day of helping victims to breathe, those who perform the necessary services to protect the rest of us and to provide us with needed services, and even those of us who can only avoid being additional transmitters of the disease.
As we proclaim, “Alleluia! He is risen!” on Sunday, let’s recognize he is at work in many corners of our world in response to this crisis.
A different kind of Holy Week, but holy nonetheless.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).