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Reflections for Holy Week

*This is a manuscripted adaptation (summary!) of a sermon I gave on Palm Sunday that might help guide us on the journey with Jesus this week. It would make a great resource to share with your teams this week as we lean into all its significance.

Holy week is the most important week in the Christian calendar. Beginning with Palm Sunday – Jesus’ final arrival in Jerusalem – we follow Jesus as he journeys through the city gates and eventually back outside them to be crucified. Of course we recognize the importance of the Resurrection, and we mostly remember the horror of his Crucifixion, but it’s easy to gloss over the rest of it as a dramatic prelude. John, in his Gospel, resists such a proclivity by giving 45% of his account to this single week – 45% of John’s Gospel is dedicated to less than .1% of Jesus’ life! What if we slowed down to fully enter into the story?

What if we let Holy Week speak on its own terms rather than rushing to the end because it’s hopeful?

I know that for most of us working in ministry the pressure, not only for this week but for the past month, has been on one day: Easter Sunday. What I’m suggesting is hard to do in our streams of vocational ministry. But I have found a true gift in trying to be more present to the whole story of this week. You might be wondering, “Why? I mean, sure the rest of the details matter, but ultimately Jesus is resurrected and that’s most important.” Well, kinda. The early Church Fathers had a saying that is credited to St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “What is not assumed is not healed.” Meaning, that the entirety of the human experience was “assumed” – lived – by Jesus so that it might be healed for us. This is why Jesus doesn’t come to earth as a fully grown adult and live for a week going straight to his death. His mission wasn’t just to die, but to assume the fullness of a human life in order to redeem it for us. So it’s important for us that Jesus is misunderstood, betrayed, disowned, abandoned, falsely accused, mocked, etc. Jesus not only models for us how to respond when we’re confronted with similar circumstances, but he lives as the Son of God and Man so that we might live those things differently. 

Holy Week is about learning to walk in step with Jesus as he walks out his final and most important days. As Rowan Williams has said, “Change in the world cannot come except at a human pace.” We walk with Jesus to learn how to be his presence within the world in a way that changes the world. Here are three things we learn from John’s telling of the “Triumphal Entry” that guide our journey with Jesus through Holy Week. 

1. Jesus is already on his way. 

The Palm Sunday story is primarily told in three words: Hosanna!, Palms, and a Donkey. Hosanna is the cry – God save us! – from Psalm 118 that the crowds cheered upon his entering the city. They waved and paved the ground with palm branches as a symbol of their cry. Palms equated national independence and pride, and had been used by previous false “messiahs” to garner unity in their revolts and uprisings. The donkey was a contrast to a chariot or white stallion that would have been common for powerful rulers, but more importantly it fulfilled the prophecy from Zechariah 9 by indicating what kind of work the Messiah came to do: take away the chariots, break the battle bow, and proclaim peace. These, of course, all play an integral part of the story, but what’s so obviously before us that we fail to see it is that Jesus is on his way before the people cry out for him. God has always initiated his plan to save before the people even cry out. Jesus is a faithful Jew on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, which is not a coincidence. God has always proactively worked to save his people. He doesn’t wait for us to recognize our dire situation and pray before he devises a plan! No.

God always initiates. God is never passive. And it’s good news to everyone that when we find ourselves in a place of desperation, Jesus is already on his way.

2. Jesus’ mission is bigger than anyone could comprehend. 

We’ve all heard some iteration of the sermon that says, “It was the same ones crying out ‘Hosanna!’ who then shouted ‘Crucify Him!’” In some Gospel readings that’s a plausible theory, but have you thought about why? The Jewish people were being oppressed and exploited and all of Jesus’ signs had pointed to the fact that he was the Messiah, the deliverer! And so Jesus enters the city and they’re bursting at the seams with anticipation. Then Sunday passes to Monday, which turns into Tuesday, Wednesday… and eventually the people realize Jesus isn’t going to overthrow Rome and turn Israel back into a national superpower. Their anger was fueled by deep disappointment and fear that God might never come through on his promises. But what they couldn’t see was that Jesus was doing exactly what God had promised. Neither the disciples, nor the Pharisees, Pilate, or the Roman soldiers knew that Jesus’ opposition was actually death and his evil comrades. Rome wasn’t the real enemy. Rome was a pawn of the powers of darkness.

Jesus came to allow those evil powers to sow their fullness into his body so that when he went into the grave they went with him… in him. Jesus’ mission wasn’t to overthrow Rome and make Israel a superpower. It was to swallow death, redeem what it is to be human, and establish the Kingdom of God.

No wonder they were confused and disappointed. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him.” 

3. Jesus is the King we need, not the King we want. 

When they cried out “Hosanna!” what they really meant was “God come do to Rome what they’ve been doing to us!” God knew not only that it wouldn’t work, but that even if it did it wouldn’t last. Remember, Israel has been here before. A millennia prior they were crying out for a king “like all the other nations have,” and God pleaded with them because he knew that they would end up poor and in bondage (1 Sam. 8). Though 1,000 years had passed, the people still wanted what God knew wouldn’t work. The first time, God relents and gives them Saul, which leads to David, who produces Solomon, and it’s mostly downhill from there. The people end up in exile and God rescues them, yet again. It’s not wrong for the people to want liberation – Rome is a real oppressor and God hates oppression of any kind. But…

It is wrong to think that God’s Kingdom is built on the same kind of power that Rome uses, just an infinite amount of it.

The whole life of Jesus has revealed that the Kingdom of God is born of love and spreads through humble service, faith, and compassion. And God knows that when his own people see this they’ll be threatened by it (see the Pharisees in all four gospels). This time God doesn’t relent. He’s pushed all His cosmic chips in the middle of the table.

God knows that his own will collaborate to kill his Own, but in the end it will be what saves them.

Thank God he doesn’t always give us what we want.

Holy Week is a gift given to us, first from the life of Jesus through the texts of Scripture, but preserved and handed down in the wisdom of the Church. What if we choose to read the stories slowly? What if we give extra time this week to walk alongside Jesus on the donkey, sit with him at the Table, pray with him in the Garden, and follow him down the via Dolorosa? I wonder what might be transformed within us. And I wonder what Jesus might share with us.