Holy Week is upon us, and with it the usual wearisome parade of articles and blog posts and podcasts offering more palatable understandings of Christian faith and crosses and empty tombs than dreary orthodox fare. Rational people can obviously no longer be expected to believe the outdated and unbelievable story of miracles and dying for sins and actual coming-back-from-the-dead. But the narrative of Holy Week is still deemed to have a few residual nuggets of potential worth mining for our personal spiritual journeys. You’ll be relieved to know.
The latest turgid entry in this broad category of “rewriting Easter” comes via a piece by Jennifer Finney Boylan in today’s New York Times called “The Agony of Faith.” The script is almost so predictable as to write itself. Middle aged person who abandoned faith in childhood as so much superstitious nonsense wanders into a liberal-ish church in mid-life and hears a social-justice-ish sermon, finds heart strangely warmed by the love-ish-ness of God, is inspired by a painting of Jesus in Gethsemane that is faithfully interpreted as a prototype of the postmodern experience of doubt, is doubly inspired by a Jesus who followed his heart despite his doubts, and ends with some friends on a beach who couldn’t possibly say if Jesus rose from the dead, but the rising sun on the water and the warm glow of human friendship is enough Easter for them.
I had a number of unholy reactions after reading this piece (chief among them was a reminder that I really should spend more time praying before opening my computer in the morning), but at the end of all my grousing and grumbling was a rather simple conclusion. If that is all that faith really is, if that is all that Holy Week and Easter ultimately point to, if this represents the possibilities for faith two thousand years or so after Jesus stumbled and groaned up Golgotha’s hill, then I will take atheism, thank you very much.
I can quite easily think inspiring and self-congratulatory thoughts about myself and my friends on a beach without Jesus and his Holy Week. I don’t need a pain-drenched story about a wild rabbi ostensibly executed for blasphemy and sedition, yes, but also—incredibly—for my sins, whose followers claimed—against all odds and against their own expectations—that he had risen from the dead a few days later, who a few decades later had inspired a movement that would change the world and was being worshiped as God himself, whose entire career represented a collective summons to all of humanity to lives of forgiveness and mercy and holiness and self-denial and costly love. I don’t need the blood and the guilt, the terror and the violent injustice, the sorrow and the shattering holiness of Holy Week as mere ornamentation for a spiritual journey that proceeds mostly on my terms. I don’t even want it, truth be told.
Indeed, I think that an atheist who looks at the Christian story in general and the story of Holy Week in particular and writes it off as a fanciful and offensive nonsense has actually understood the story better than a vaguely spiritual postmodern who finds pleasant springtime metaphors for new life and possibility and being heroically true to our mostly admirable selves. At least they’ve understood what the story demands of us. We fuss endlessly over whether we can believe that the resurrection “really happened.” And the story of Easter does demand this of us. But I sometimes wonder if in our day it’s at least as hard for us to believe that we are the sort of people and the world is the sort of place that could make the story of Holy Week inevitable or, God forbid, necessary. A dead guy coming back to life is nothing compared to convincing twenty-first century postmoderns that we have sins that require bearing.
Whatever else we might say about Holy Week, it should at least be a reminder that the world is an ugly place and that we are very often enthusiastic contributors to the ugliness. It should make us reckon with the world as it really is, with us as we really are, and with God as God really is. If ever there was a week that demanded that we set aside our private agendas and self-serving doubts and flattering illusions, this would be the one.
Palm Sunday ought to line us up street side with glad hosannas that had no idea what was coming.
Maundy Thursday should sit us at the table alongside the bewildered and the frightened and the betrayers. It should make us squirm as creation’s king descends to wash our faithless feet.
Good Friday should march us out with the ignorant and angry herd, should pry open our lips forcing us to add our “Crucify him’s” to the guilty crescendo. It should locate us with the spitters and the mockers and the cursers, jeering at the pathetic king who couldn’t even save himself.
Holy Saturday ought to drive our souls down into the deep shafts of darkness that is a world where God is absent.
And Easter Sunday should find us stumbling, bewildered, from an empty tomb that has shocked us into silence at how horribly earth received her King, and stunned into joyful worship at the lengths God has gone to reconcile us to himself.
The image above was created by Szei Oi Lau and is called, simply, “Jesus Was Nailed to the Cross.” It is taken from the 2017-18 Christian Seasons Calendar.