Growing up I didn’t often think about Holy Week or Passion Week as a whole. Yes, my church taught about Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday and especially Easter/Resurrection Sunday. I took in the pieces and parts, however I never quite connected it all together.
That should be expected. I grew up in a Baptist church. We did not follow the liturgical calendar. This is not a critique. Our primary focus was squarely on the Jesus’ death and resurrection and the need of every person — salvation. And that is a great place to camp out … the resurrection is the central event of the New Testament and all of human history.
As I read the Bible in high school and college, I often gravitated to the Gospel of John. Still, I never noticed exactly how much attention John devotes to Jesus’ final week. Eight of the Gospel’s 21 chapters focus on Holy Week. This was the most valuable thing I discovered during a Bible course at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. The other two things I learned: don’t take a Bible course at a state university and don’t expect the title of the course to be binding (the course was called “The 23rd Psalm,” but our major writing project was on the Gospel of John).
It wasn’t until I moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., that I began to see the value in viewing Holy Week as a unit. During my three years as a campus minister at Pitt, I often had a chance to fellowship with other campus ministers who were much better acquainted with Holy Week – conservative Presbyterians, Baptists of other stripes, and a Catholic priest who had a dynamic, growing relationship with Christ.
My first year, I watched, asked questions and learned. Most of these campus ministers participated in numerous religious (ritual) events during Holy Week. I do not mean to imply that all ritual is bad or negative. I am convinced that the value of any ritual depends on what an individual brings to that ritual. If an individual uses a ritual to focus on Jesus Christ, then that ritual takes on a deep personal meaning.
Even with all the activity, Each of these men took time to focus on his own spiritual walk in a very personal way – almost separate from or in spite of all the religious ritual. Now I did not want more religious activity, but I did want a deeper relationship with Christ.
My second year at Pitt, I read through the accounts of Jesus’ last week. I tried to match the events day for day. On Palm Sunday, I read about the Triumphal Entry and so forth. Taking in Holy Week in this way was very helpful. The Resurrection has always inspired me, but I learned to dwell a little longer on the ugliness of the cross. One is meaningless without the other. I grew in knowledge, understanding and faith.
Moving to the Gulf Coast and then on to New Orleans added another layer of focus around the Easter event. It is difficult to miss the beginning of the Lenten season here. For Catholics, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday when they receive a cross-shaped smudge of ashes on their foreheads. My understanding is that the ashes symbolize confession of and repentance from sin. Common practice during the 46 days of Lent involves prayer, repentance and self-denial (giving something up).
Again, though I am not seeking additional religious activity, I do find value in Lent – at least my own version of Lent. So this year I gave something up, something that is not wrong or harmful. However, each time I think about this thing, it reminds me to focus attention on God and what Jesus did on my behalf.
Certainly there are other ways to grow closer to Christ while focusing on the meaning and purpose of Easter. However, taking in Holy Week as a whole, reading through the final week of Jesus’ life each Easter and fasting during Lent has helped me grow. Doing so helps me:
- realize the humanity and the divinity of Jesus,
- grieve over the weight of my sin and continue a practice of self-examination,
- contemplate the price of our salvation,
- rejoice and worship the risen Savior,
- remember my first love,
- identify with a wider Christian Community and experience ancient Christian practice.
Suggested Holy Week Reading Plan
Sunday, April 17 – John 12:1-11
Monday, April 18 – John 12:12-19
Tuesday, April 19 – John 12:20-36
Wednesday, April 20 – John 15:1-27; 16:1-16
Thursday, April 21 – John 13:1-35; 17:1-25
Friday, April 22 – John 18:1-40; 19:1-37
Saturday, April 23 – John 19:38-42
Sunday, April 24 – John 20:1-23; 21:1-25