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Holy Week: When Everything is Not Okay

As we enter Holy Week this year, I find myself overwhelmed with the world around us. Our country is shrouded in intense political animosity. A migrant and refugee problem is upon us, with a scale of need so big it sometimes seems to blot out compassion and the ability to see the human frailty of others. Wars rage across the globe with profound human tragedy and suffering.

In the midst of the chaos, we enter the holiest time of year for Christians: Holy Week.

The collect that starts us out on Palm Sunday reads: “Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.”

Suffering is acknowledged this week; the liturgy acknowledges that everything is not okay.

There is something about suffering that is hard to put faith around. I remember being in seminary and shocked to hear of some Christian traditions for whom suffering is such a taboo topic that they removed the cross at the front of the church and replaced it with a teddy bear. Their point of view, I imagine, was something akin to what we might call ‘toxic positivity,’ an avoidance of facing suffering; and the cross too large a reminder that everything is not always ok.

And to be sure, opposite to the tendency of avoiding suffering, there can be a tendency to focus only on the horrors of the world: do you remember some of the controversial movies about Jesus in the past 20 years—movies that try and depict Jesus’ suffering with graphic detail and in prolonged scenes designed to instill guilt or feelings of worthlessness?

I don’t need anyone’s help to feel guilty or insufficient. I don’t imagine you do either.

One meaningful aspect of Holy Week is that our liturgy takes neither of these dualistic positions on suffering. And let’s face it—suffering is where our faith meets reality in most cases. I was a hospital chaplain for a number of years, a job that exists because suffering can tear the curtains back on beliefs that we build up in happy times, making us ask if the things we believe are true when things get hard.

No, Holy Week has a different view of suffering and our relationship to it, one that refuses to be compartmentalized into easy categories of “something to be avoided” and “a duty to suffer because Jesus did.”

Instead, this is the week that we see humanity at its essence: and that suffering is an unavoidable part of this human experience. We shout hosannas and have great joy. But then a moment later, we cry, “Crucify!” and realize that we really are not able, for whatever reason, to stay in the Hosanna moment forever. We both have joy and participate in pain.

Similarly, on Maundy Thursday, we gather, celebrate a meal together, and then perform one of the most intimate rituals in the church—washing each other’s feet. These are moments of real tenderness–moments when we face and acknowledge the humanity in each other, honoring the commandment to love one another. And yet, we close the service by reading Psalm 22 and facing the fact that even Jesus endured persecution and suffering.

On Good Friday, we sit for a time in the realization that the death of Jesus was no fluke: despite being capable of moments of great humanity, we are faced with the suffering that also exists in this world, and the toll it takes on Jesus, on us, and on all of creation.

It’s so easy to want to believe that Jesus came to take our suffering away. The disciples expected a messiah who would do just that.

But that is not what they got.

The end of the story is not that everything was rosy because Jesus had risen, although that is very good news!

No, the story we have is instead that Jesus came not to eliminate suffering but to transform it. The same cross at the center of suffering this week is also the sign of God’s hopeful and transformative love—a love that draws us not around but through the darkness and towards the light. May this Easter—and Holy Week—be a source of enriched faith for each of us and the world we live in, no matter how dark the night.

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Category: #Sundays

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6 replies to “Holy Week: When Everything is Not Okay

  1. Darryl Peralta | on March 27, 2024

    Thanks for this exploration of Christian reality. Just completed 10+ weeks concurrently suffering from COPD and an enlarged prostate, which required surgery to correct. Catheters, New meds, oxygen machines, and feeling not right all the time became a part of my daily life. This tested my faith, yet God would reveal himself to me in various ways to buoy me up on the darkest nights filled with pain and anxiety. I’m better now, but wonder how others can cope with the vagaries of life without Jesus. God bless!

    Darryl

    • Peter Sickels | on March 27, 2024

      Hello, Darryl- Sorry to hear of your trials the past many weeks and glad your faith and love from your faith community supported you. You have a direct access channel to the Lord for sure, and I can imagine your heart crying out in difficult moments. Now you enter Holy Week with an intimate connection to Jesus’ suffering as Jeff eloquently described above, and put suffering into perspective of what it is and what it isn’t.

      Thank=you for sharing this personal experience of theology in practice. May you return to full strength and functioning very soon. Keep the Faith!!

      Blessed Holy Week- Peter S.

  2. Debby Park | on March 27, 2024

    Thank you so much for this meditation and wonderful suggestions of how to meditate during Holy Week. It also reminded me of a quote I saw this morning that a friend found in a last year’s Give Us This Day…
    The cross is where
    the unstoppable goodness
    of God collides with the
    unbearable brutality of life.
    Have a blessed Holy Week!
    Debby

    • Jill Henderson | on March 27, 2024

      Debby….thank you so much for sharing that powerful quote!
      Holy Week blessings…
      Jill

  3. Jill Henderson | on March 27, 2024

    Thank you so very much, Jeff, for sharing your thoughts on this Holy Week. I appreciated the fact that you took the time to deeply consider suffering….Jesus’s and ours….and that you engaged me to stop what I was doing for awhile and sit with my own response. Because of my activism with Palestine-Israel issues, the horrific pain I see and read about daily has often brought feelings of deep despair. Then I thank God for my faith….and go back to praying for all who are suffering today. I will look forward to contemplating this further over the next few days…..especially “….God’s hopeful and transformative love—a love that draws us not around but through the darkness and towards the light.” God’s blessings. Jill

  4. Susan Jester | on March 28, 2024

    Thank you for this thought provoking letter. Blessings.
    Susan

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