I drove by a church last week, a few days before Palm Sunday, and read their sign: CHRIST HAS RISEN!
Um, no. No he hasn’t. In the Christian calendar he hasn’t even died yet. But this is an all-too-common phenomenon in Christian churches.
It’s especially surprising that so many conservative evangelicals avoid it, particularly when the blood and suffering of Jesus seem to be so central to their theology. After all, how to we get to substitutionary blood atonement (the idea that Jesus’ death and spilled blood made right the guilt of sin we owed to God) without violence, right? And even though evangelical protestants flocked to such gore porn cloaked in Christian piety as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, the harder parts of Holy Week – which includes Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, along with Easter – are largely overlooked.
Granted, we celebrate Palm Sunday with the palm branches and choruses of “Hosanna, save us,” but then we jump straight to “He is Risen.” Or in the case of some churches, we announce resurrection prior to death itself, which, among other things, is just bad theology.
There are a couple of reasons for this. The easiest and most obvious reason is that the liturgy – from which the order of holy days comes, as well as a suggested three-year path through Scripture – is “too Catholic” for some. For those who have labeled (erroneously) Catholicism as cultish or otherwise un-Christian, the liturgy is just too close to the history we tried to break from after Martin Luther started what ended up turning into the Protestant Reformation. I have even lived in several places where it’s commonplace to ask one another, “Are you Catholic or Christian?”
But the term “Catholic” actually means “universal church.” We can only live into a truer sense of what the ancient church had set out to inhere in its DNA by knowing, and staying somewhat connected to, our history. Otherwise we risk doing what so many conservative Christians accuse progressives of all the time: biblical and theological cherry picking and relativism.
But there’s another subtler and more complex reason: It’s because most of us prefer to come to a celebration, but few want to do the hard work of getting to the very reason we have to celebrate to begin with. Going through a challenging service in which we visit all of the Stations of the Cross on the way to crucifixion is dark, hard, and kind of depressing. And we have to face our own inner darkness, which none of us gets particularly excited about doing.
And at the risk of sounding cynical, for churches more intent on increasing numbers and catering to the stylistic likes and creature comforts of “religious consumers” rather than challenging people to grow personally and spiritually, Holy Week is, by and large, a hard sell.
But it’s important.
A friend who had grown up in one of those very religious environments in which Holy Week was overlooked, got at the essence of why it’s so necessary in a message he shared with my wife, Amy (pastor of our church) after attending a Stations of the Cross contemplative service Sunday evening:
Sitting silently in the pew, holding the collective weight of the stones, praying and listening, helped me make room for the sorrow and shadow. And I love this.
I’ve always been drawn to this portion of Holy Week. I think because growing up I learned to deny and ignore the negative and broken. But each time I manage to walk through struggle or grief as opposed to trying to go around it, I feel this deep release, like the fullness of God’s love in my exposed brokenness. Experiences like worship yesterday, a dark Maundy Thursday or Taize service, a good meeting, reconnect me to this place of wholeness.
The only path to the hope of Easter is through the struggle of Holy Week. Like the assurance offered in the 23rd Psalm, we’re not given a shortcut around the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The only way out is through.