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In Search of a Holy Week

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 Rational people can obviously no longer be expected to believe the outdated and unbelievable story of miracles and dying for sins and actual coming-back-from-the-dead.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.

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Well if I remember our scripture correctly, God prefers us, “hot or cold”. He doesn’t seem to hold the “lukewarm” in any higher regard then your post does.

    You keep good company. :)…

    I to know too well the feelings of contempt for lightweight spirituality and shock at the cavalier attitudes we have toward sin. Paradoxically, to the point that my feelings towards unholiness take on the countenance of sin.

    Pride abounds in all things. Even good things.

    I take comfort that in the silence I have experienced God. I know Him to exist. It is the memory of that knowledge that gives me comfort when my fragile mind is overcome by the depth of my own depravity and/or that of others.

    I don’t mean to offend you but you may find praying the, “Divine Mercy Chaplet” a useful antidote as well. It is easily available on line, takes about 10 minutes to pray and has been incredibly helpful to me in orienting myself around the need for personal contrition and a belief that I am praying something useful in mediating against the sins of the world.

    God is with you, always.

    His peace be with you, Ryan. 🙂

    March 28, 2018
    • Thank you very much, Paul.

      March 29, 2018
  2. Ros #

    ‘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.’

    Yes, perhaps, on occasion, it should. However, I think maybe it’s worth remembering that no blog post or article is ever going to say everything that could be said about a person or their faith. Jennifer is trans. That means that she will, herself, have endured the mockery and the shouting of the ‘angry herd’. Indeed, I’d be very surprised if she hasn’t also heard the modern equivalent of ‘Crucify him!’ And if, on Good Friday, she is only allowed to identify with the crucifiers, then where is her ‘resurrection’ from the cruelty and shame that she has endured at the hands of others?

    In the light of that and especially taking into account the actions of Judas on Maundy Thursday, I would say that the celebration of life-long friendship takes on a whole different meaning. For those who know what it is to be hated and marginalised, friendship becomes all the more precious.

    So, no, I don’t need Jesus and his Holy Week to enjoy a sunrise. And, yes, there is much more to the Jesus story than Jennifer has told. But I think her story is an example not so much of ‘lightweight spirituality’ as of someone who has had the courage to push open the door despite her doubts… despite all the voices in her head telling her that this is ridiculous… despite all the trans/atheist voices telling her she is wasting her time…

    She’s started on a journey and not one of us can know where that journey will take her – or what stirrings her article might provoke in others. Thankfully, God is not restricted to the words and ideas you or I might think he ought to use…

    March 30, 2018
    • And if, on Good Friday, she is only allowed to identify with the crucifiers, then where is her ‘resurrection’ from the cruelty and shame that she has endured at the hands of others?

      Well, I would say her resurrection comes, like all the rest of us, on an Easter Sunday that is gloriously more than a metaphor.

      One of my convictions about human beings is that every one of us is both victim and perpetrator when it comes to sin. Not all to the same degree, of course. Not even close. To suggest so would be both ignorant and recklessly insensitive to the pain that real human beings are forced to endure. So, no, none of us are allowed to only identify with the crucifiers. But neither are we allowed to never identify with them—to see ourselves almost exclusively as victims for whom Christ’s death is, at best, an expression of solidarity. My sense is that the latter is much more of a temptation in our postmodern context than the former.

      You are right to say that it takes courage for someone who has been a victim of cruelty from the church to take a step toward faith. And you are right to point out that we don’t know where her journey might take her or what the steps she has taken might provoke in others. I, too, am thankful that God can use any and all means to draw human beings to lives of beauty, goodness, and truth.

      March 30, 2018
      • Paul Johnston #

        If a person of faith cannot identify as a crucifier on Good Friday, I believe that person is encountering a fictitious idea of their own design and not the Holy Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ.

        Before we rejoice over Jesus’ victory and claim our reward, we must weep over his death and acknowledge our guilt.

        Before salvation, comes repentance.

        April 3, 2018
  3. Paul Johnston #

    “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

    -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

    “Lightweight Spirituality” and what it means to me.

    If in my private prayer life if I only petition on behalf of my self-interest and cannot bring myself to reckon my contribution to my suffering (sin) and by extension the suffering of others, through the Holy Spirit, before the Father, adjudicated by Jesus Christ and in my public expression of service to God I am only concerned with issues that improve my well being and the well being of others like myself, this is, “lightweight spirituality”.

    Further, while it is true to say that at any given point in our faith journey we all, at one time or another, pass through or fall back into this type of faith expression, it is an unacceptable destination.

    It is dangerously arrogant to imply that our journeys and what it stirs up in ourselves or others default to the good. Very often the choices people make for themselves and others, make things worse.

    March 30, 2018
    • Very true, Paul. Well said. Solzhenitsyn knew the human heart far better than most of us, I think.

      April 2, 2018
  4. Ros #

    Thanks Ryan. Having thought about it some more, I think what I was trying to say was that we cannot expect others to tell our story. If we believe there is more to Easter than someone like Jennifer has either understood or communicated, then it is up to us, not her, to make that known. In doing so, we are not only doing something that she is unable to do, but also making the best possible use of the energy that is powering the strong feelings you describe. It’s like Peter. ‘Never mind him… *You* follow me.’ Which has to be one of the hardest things Jesus ever asked of his followers…

    Thanks, as always, for making me think 🙂

    March 30, 2018
    • No, we cannot expect others to tell our story. Each person encounters, accepts, rejects, ignores, or embraces (or some combination of the above) God through the lens of their own experiences. This is clearly true and it must be recognized.

      But to stop there is, I think, to collapse into a kind of relativism that it is incoherent and unsatisfying on so many levels. Saying, “I can’t tell your story” can quite easily dissolve into “I can’t even speak into your story” (or allow you to speak into mine). All we are left with is our own private narratives whose integrity is deemed ultimate. If we have decided as a culture that it is impermissible to say, “Yes, I respect that this is how you understand things and that your experiences have contributed to this in ways x, y, an z, but I think you are wrong in these ways,” then it’s hard to know how any kind of meaningful dialogue or shared pursuit of truth is even possible.

      Additionally, with respect to Easter, I think that we also have a responsibility to tell Jesus‘ story faithfully, and not just as extensions of our own. There will always be disagreements about what “faithfully” means, I know. But I think we have a duty to look honestly at the evidence, at the received testimony of two millennia of Christian witness, at the rise of the early church, and ask what could account for this. It seems to me that an Easter as conceived by twenty-first century liberal Western Christians could not possibly have given rise to anything as robust and transformative as the early church. But that’s probably another blog post 🙂

      At any rate, thanks for this dialogue. I wish you a very Happy Easter.

      March 31, 2018

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