Holy Week is not holy because of the palms Catholics wave on Palm Sunday. Nor is it holy because of the songs we sing on Holy Thursday, the quiet we keep on Good Friday, or the cleaning, cooking and ironing we do on Holy Saturday, as we prepare for guests on Easter Sunday.
The palms, the songs, the work of hospitality — each, in a different way, is holy. So, too, are the fasts we make and the silence we keep during Holy Week. These things are important. They matter. But they aren’t essential. Not one of them is what makes Holy Week holy. You can take them all away, and the week remains, as always, sacred. And this year, they have been taken away.
The liturgies continue, but they take place in silent churches, with empty pews. Come Sunday, there will be no Easter bonnets or Easter dresses. Easter baskets are likely to be in short supply, too. If you can scrounge up a ham or a lamb, consider yourself lucky. Consider yourself even luckier if you have someone with whom to share it. This Easter, many won’t.
It’s a painful winnowing. All the extras of Holy Week and Easter have been blown away, leaving only the essentials: the liturgy and the remembrance of what makes the week holy — the loving sacrifice of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The First Holy Week
Two thousand years ago, Jesus, like Solomon, rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, surrounded by crowds blessing his name. Four days later, he instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood in the Upper Room, wrestled with his human will in the Garden of Gethsemane, and was betrayed by one of his closest friends. The next day, he was publicly beaten, mocked and tortured. But before the sun set, in an act of perfect love and obedience, he offered himself for fallen humanity. The Father accepted that offering, and as the week drew to a close, the Son of God’s body lay breathless in a tomb, while his soul descended to the dead.
Those events forever stamped this week as holy. No matter what we do or don’t do, have or don’t have, every minute of every hour during this week is sacred. Jesus marked it with his love, his mercy, his obedience, his selflessness and his suffering. Time, somehow, still holds it all. It’s not about us and our actions. It’s about him and his actions. And nothing, not even a society-destroying virus, can diminish the holiness of these days. They are drenched, from first to last, with divine love, holding within them not just the memory of his sacrifice, but the hope for which that sacrifice was made: resurrection.
It’s that hope that sustained our spiritual mothers and fathers of the faith in the past, in times of war and plague and devastation. When death was everywhere, when its quick approach seemed certain, they hoped for life. They trusted that if they held fast to Jesus, life would come again for them. There would be death, but there also would be resurrection. And that resurrection wouldn’t just be to another life, but to an everlasting life of everlasting joy and everlasting peace.
Writing in the fourth century, St. Athanasius argued that Christians’ hope in that resurrection was so great that it had taken away their fear of death.
“But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to die rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed and become incorruptible through the resurrection. … Even children hasten to die, and not men only, but women train themselves by bodily discipline to meet it. So weak has death become that even women, who used to be taken in by it, mock at it now as a dead thing robbed of all its strength.”
Our Holy Week
If you’re not yet ready to “hasten to die,” that’s okay. Plenty of those “weak” women (and men), of whom St. Athanasius wrote, probably wrestled with their share of anxiety, too. Even knowing they wouldn’t perish forever, more than a few also likely struggled to let go of their attachment to this life and race toward the next. Hope in the Resurrection doesn’t automatically take away our very human fear of death or our equally human love of this world.
It can, however, transform that fear and love into a gift for others. Filled with hope for the life to come, we can walk with Jesus through this Holy Week to Calvary, taking with us all our fear, all our anxiety, all our pain or anger or confusion, and, as we walk, joining it all to Jesus’ own pain, offering it to God for the salvation of souls.
As St. Paul wrote long ago, we are Christ’s “co-workers,” called to “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1 Corinthians 3:9; Colossians 1:24). This is how we do that. We do the things that made the first Holy Week holy. We don’t run from our fear of death … or poverty … or loneliness … or loss. Rather, we accept them and allow ourselves to be nailed to the cross with those fears. There, on the cross, we keep Christ company. We comfort him with our presence and find ourselves infinitely more comforted by his presence.
This Holy Week isn’t what we expected. It’s not what we wanted. It’s missing so many of the things — and people — we love. But if God has permitted it, it means he can use it to bring about an even greater good. If he did that with the first Holy Week — bringing the greatest imaginable good out of the greatest imaginable evil — than he can do that with this Holy Week, too.
That makes being alive during this particular Holy Week a privilege. It makes it a gift — to be able to enter into the spirit of Holy Week, to live it in a way we never have before, but knowing all the while that this week will eventually end and Easter morning will dawn. That is God’s promise. That is our hope.
By Emily Stimpson Chapman