by Kathleen Stephens
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the most important week of the church year. At the other end of Holy Week is Easter, the most important day of the church year. For Christians, this is the big event! And it’s all about the mystery that somehow Jesus Christ makes us one with God.
I love Easter with its all its pageantry and celebratory music. But Easter is only part of the Resurrection story. Holy Week calls us to look at what happened between giddy Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of palm-waving fans, and joyful Easter, when the incredulous disciples finally understood that the tomb was empty. In that time between, we find a lot of pain, humiliation, and suffering. And this too is a crucial part of the story.
It’s crucial because unless we walk through the darkness of Holy Week and Good Friday, unless we recognize the horror of sin and its consequence of Jesus dying on the cross, unless we experience the despair the disciples felt on Holy Saturday, we can’t fully understand the light and hope of Sunday morning.
When Easter, with its new clothes and candy, is all we know, it seems somehow too easy and cheap and not so satisfying. What’s so good about grace, unless we know how much we really need it? In The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was executed by the Nazis, cautions us to take seriously the gravity of sin and God’s radical call to servanthood. He writes: “When Jesus bids [us] come, he bids [us] come and die.” Holy Week reminds us of that.
My favorite church service of the whole year is Easter Vigil, which takes place on the Saturday night before Easter. The service is based on a liturgy that originated in the early centuries of Christianity. At the Vigil, there is darkness and light, fire, water, quiet readings, festive singing, and the Eucharist — it’s got everything!
It starts in darkness, then a single candle is lit, and from that flame each person lights his or her own candle and passes on the flame until the church fills with light. Readings and singing alternate, telling many of the great salvation stories from the Bible. People are baptized. The fragrant smell of incense fills the room. Somber dirges are sung, then give way to gloriously festive “Alleluias.” We partake of the first Eucharist of Easter. In that one service, we experience the whole emotional range of Holy Week — from the despair of the cross to the elation of the empty tomb.
Then, when we have sung, listened, watched, endured and hoped, it is over. We exchange Easter greetings: “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” as bells peal madly in the background. And we go out into the night, having once again participated in the mystery of the Resurrection.
Kathleen Stephens is a freelance editor and founding editor of MethodX.