Holy Week: Journeying Into the Risk of Faith

For most Christians, other than the Eastern Orthodox, this week is Holy Week. Beginning with Palm Sunday, which recalls Jesus' entry into Jerusalem to the great acclaim of the people, this week retells the story of Jesus' final earthly days. On Maundy Thursday, we'll recount Jesus' "last supper" with his disciples, a meal that became the basis for the central Christian sacrament of Holy Communion (or the Lord's Supper, or Eucharist). It is also the memorial of his betrayal and arrest. Good Friday will commemorate Jesus' trial before the religious authorities and his execution by crucifixion that same day at the hands of Jerusalem's Roman occupiers. Holy Saturday, a day of quiet reflection, will recall the grief of Jesus' followers over the death of their leader and the apparent dashing of all their hopes in him. Easter, welcomed by some Christians following a lengthy candlelit vigil on Saturday night and by others with festive services on Sunday morning, will recall the joy of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Easter marks the end of Holy Week, and the close of the annual ritual observance of Jesus' story, of his journey from life through suffering and death to new life.

Christians know how this story ends. Given the intensity of Jesus' terror and agony leading up to and experienced on the cross, this is the only reason we are able to call Good Friday "good"! We know that Jesus' suffering is not the last word. We know that new life awaits on the other side of that horror, and that this new life is available to us through him. That is what makes the events of Good Friday "good." They are not good in themselves -- suffering is never good for its own sake -- but only in an ultimate or final sense.

But knowing the end of the story can cause us to forget an important lesson embedded in the Holy Week journey: the fact that life lived in accordance with faith in God is a risk, a tremendous risk, a risk that can lead us to come directly face-to-face with the terror of our own suffering and annihilation, often metaphorically, but sometimes literally.

Sometimes, Christians who know how the story ends forget that Jesus did not seek death and did not desire to die. Jesus, it is said, prayed fervently -- in "anguish," shedding drops of sweat "like blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44) -- that he might be able to avoid the death he had seen only too clearly was coming. But the only thing that could save him from such a death would have been to turn away from his mission and his message. And that he could not do.

Jesus' mission was to proclaim what he called the Kingdom or Reign of God. His ministry of healing, his preaching, and his day-to-day interactions with those around him constituted an invitation to a new life in God represented by this "kingdom." In this new way of life, this "kingdom," the "normal" way of doing things was to be turned upside-down. In Jesus' kingdom, the puffed up authorities lose power and the meek gain it. In the kingdom, there is no one—no matter how "sinful" or "evil" or "worthless"—who falls outside the love of God. Justice takes the place of oppressing the poor. Peace replaces the unleashing of violence on the powerless. Each person comes to love their neighbor as themselves and, partially by loving others this way, also comes to love God with all their heart, soul and mind (Matthew 22:36-40).

All one needed to do to enter this kingdom, Jesus taught, was to "repent," by which he meant one needed to turn away from the supposed "common sense" of the world toward God's way of doing things, toward loving enemies and away from killing or even defeating them, toward caring for the poor and vulnerable and away from questions about their "deserving" such care, toward the demands of love and away from the injustices of the state, toward truly honoring God and God's requirements and away from unquestioning obedience to religious authorities.

Not exactly a list of small things. Accordingly, we find in the Christian scriptures story after story of people's failure to accept Jesus' invitation to turn toward the kingdom of love and peace. Even Jesus' own disciples, committed to Jesus and his vision, fell far short of these ideals, time after time. Only Jesus was completely faithful to it.

And this, ultimately, is what got him killed on Good Friday. Challenging "common sense," seeking to question "the way things are," confronting the injustices of those in power, championing the outsider or the foreigner or the socially, politically, or religiously condemned, and asking people who think they are "right with God" to examine themselves more carefully was not tolerated any better back in Jesus' day than it is in ours.

But this is part of the risk of faith represented in the Holy Week journey. Jesus travels deeper into his commitment to God and toward the inevitability of conflict with those able to make him suffer on account of it. This should not be surprising. God took a tremendous risk in becoming human in Jesus in the first place! God "empties" Godself of power and privilege (Philippians 2) to become a baby born to unmarried peasants in a barn in a Palestinian backwater, subject to the human joys and sufferings we all are. Prior to that, God takes the risk of creating a cosmos independent of the Creator, with its own autonomy and laws, and populates it with creatures -- above all, human beings, made in God's own "image" -- with free will, able to make choices, able to accept God or to reject God. God takes the risk of creating a creation that can utterly turn away from God -- and that does so. Humanity rejects God and so God becomes incarnate in order to turn humanity back to God. And then humanity puts God on a cross. Thankfully, God has the last word. This total rejection of God is overruled by God in the resurrection, the guarantee that, no matter what we do, including making God suffer and die, our backwardness—our sin—will not have the last word.

But this in no way reduces the risk of the faith. Thanks to Jesus' death and resurrection, we can go boldly into the world knowing that no matter what we suffer, it will not be the last word. However, this does not make suffering any less painful nor the risks associated with faith any less real.

Every day, people of faith find themselves facing crises and challenges. They doubt. They question. They fear. But they also go forward. In the name of the Kingdom of God, Ukrainian Orthodox clergy use themselves as human shields to protect protesters from riot police. To love their neighbors, Christians in North Carolina offer themselves for mass arrest by protesting that state's stripping of economic protections from the poorest and most vulnerable. Because we cannot serve both God and money, as Jesus said, Pope Francis reminds us that unregulated markets can and do wreak havoc on the impoverished around the globe and on the environment. Following Jesus' command to take care of his vulnerable sheep, Catholic sisters travel the United States to call attention to a budget proposal that would further enrich the wealthy by taking food from the mouths of those unable to provide adequately for their families. And all such people are called foolish and ignorant and idealistic and irreligious on account of it, just as Jesus was, in his risky mission of faith.

At our best, we follow Jesus all year long on this Holy Week journey into the risk of faith. We are empowered to suffer through the pain of our spiritual doubts, or our self-hatred, or our deep-seated anger, and carry on despite it. We stand up to a family member or a friend who, in God's name, demeans us or someone we love. We expose practices in our workplace that are unethical, that harm our colleagues, our economy, or our planet. We question our church and its leaders because we think its priorities have fallen out of sync with Jesus' command to love and serve the poor and marginalized. And so on.

These things can get us into deep trouble. They can make us look like fools to more "sophisticated" or more powerful people. They can have various kinds of repercussions on a range of levels: economic, political, social, emotional, physical, spiritual. But, if we are as serious about taking up the risk of faith as Jesus was, we have no choice but to accept the consequences for doing what is right, for living out our faith in God and in God's kingdom, just as Jesus did. After all, as a good friend's email signature says, quoting Terry Eagleton, "If you follow Jesus and don't end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do"!

Holy Week is a time to reflect on the real suffering and death that can come as a result of the risk of faith. But it is also a time to celebrate the victory that ultimately comes whenever we say "No!" with our minds, bodies, and souls to injustice, violence, oppression, and rejection of God's kingdom, despite the personal cost -- sometimes the very high personal cost -- of doing so.