The annual cycle of the church’s participation in the biblical drama keeps alive in our tradition the foundational experiences that make us who we are.
In that drama, we are invited to graft our story onto that story, making it our own.
Another implicit part of that invitation is to see the part of the drama we know as Holy Week in its context of the larger theme of the biblical testimony of God’s redemptive commitment to what the human family can become in response to the promise to Abraham.
If we give in to the tendency to separate and isolate Easter as a holiday or an event apart from its larger context, we risk changing the foundation of what it means to be an “Easter people.”
That context includes many acts and scenes in the drama, but three in particular seem to reflect a common theme. Each one begins with a sense of abandonment and loss.
Israel found itself in Egypt as a result of a famine, a natural peril common in the ancient world.
Rescued through the grace of a forgiving brother who showed mercy on the siblings who had rejected him, Israel opened a new chapter of their life (Genesis 43ff). But “there arose a king who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8), who reduced them to slavery.
Victims of a natural disaster and of the evolution of political life away from their well-being, the people of Israel were lost in their own plight with little hope of recovery.
In another time, centuries later, a once powerful and prosperous nation fell victim to a foreign power and lost everything that had represented their greatness. City, temple and a sense of specialness were gone as they were taken into exile.
The testimony suggests pretty clearly that their loss was a result of failure to keep the covenant that had been their original identity. Their exile was not only geographical, but also theological: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137:4).
Still centuries later, in the same Jerusalem that had once been Israel’s glory and later destroyed by the Babylonians, a teacher brought new, fresh and revolutionary insights to the application of the covenant promise and was the agent of transformed lives.
Yet, he became a victim of the unjust machinations of an alliance of political power and religious authority that took radical steps to eliminate him and his influence.
As Egypt’s slavery and Babylon’s exile represent Israel’s “lostness” and despair in a dark valley of the covenant journey, so the cross of Golgotha brings that feature of the life of covenant faith into clear focus.
In our efforts to underscore the supreme uniqueness of the cross in the drama of redemption, we might overlook its place in the recurring theme of what the biblical testimony seems to affirm.
Those who experienced, remembered and preserved what we observe and celebrate during Holy Week must have understood what happened in terms of the pattern that was central to their self-understanding as a community of God’s people. For them, it was not an isolated and unconnected event.
In the Passover ritual, they affirmed, “We were slaves in Pharaoh’s Egypt” (Deuteronomy 6:21 and 26:5-10) – clearly identifying with the experience of their ancestors. That story was their story.
In Babylon, “There we hanged up our harps on the willows and could no longer sing the songs of Zion” (Psalm 137:1-4).
As they remembered and relived the journey to the cross, it would hardly have been for them a disconnected pattern of experience. This story was that story.
Whether by natural disaster (the famine that led to Egypt), human abandonment of the way of covenant faithfulness (the moral decay that led to Babylon) or the kind of injustice that led to the cross, the covenant journey seems fraught with challenge and peril.
The darkness of that valley of loss is intensified by the sense of abandonment by God. We know that feeling, and we cry with the psalmist (Psalm 22:1) and with Jesus (Matthew 27:46), “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet, Easter reminds us that there is another stanza to this trilogy of redemption.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.