The Holy Week Drama: Will We be in the Cast This Year?

A Reflection on Holy Week

by David Somerville

            Pennsylvania rector, Samuel Shoemaker  (1893-1963) is best remembered for his leadership of the Oxford Group, originally founded by the Christian missionary Dr. Frank Buchman.   (This community of believers in personal transformation through fellowship and action is not to be confused with the theological, anglo-catholic Oxford Movement).  The Group was a movement of Christianity that valued the sharing experiences of friends in conversation toward “group consensus”  rather than any kind of “official” organization to support its values.  Later called “Moral Rearmament”, the movement significantly effected the social ethics of the Lutheran churches of Denmark and Norway, which contributed significantly to the Scandinavian resistance to the German Nazi ideology that spawned World War II.  The group also provided the foundational guidance on which two of its early members, Dr. Bob Smith, and Bill Wilson were able to create  a spiritual program that made sobriety possible for the millions who struggled with alcoholism. Capturing the intent of Holy Week worship, Dr. Shoemaker wrote

“Not to the gates of Jerusalem alone does Jesus ride today, but to the gates of our hearts. There he waits knocking, knocking. His knuckles must be raw by now….”

The question begged by Dr. Shoemaker’s homily is this:  What is my responsibility, and yours, Dear Reader, for the rawness in the knuckles of Jesus, the Incarnation of God?

Holy week has all the elements — and more — of what constitutes classic drama:  It permanently affects the soul of the audience, and then brings the audience onto the stage to discover that they are integral participants in the cast.  As we anticipate next week’s coming seven-day sacrament of God’s passage in love for humanity’s exodus from sin, we would do well to ask if we recognize ourselves in this drama because, like it or not, we are there.  We are in it.

We might surely recognize  Jim Caviazel playing Jesus or Mala Morgenstern as Mary in the Mel Gibson production, The Passion of the Christ.  But do we recognize ourselves in our canonical passion narratives as we, as we experience Holy Week worship, roil in the stew of our emotions,  ranging from intimate conviviality, dull witted confusion, stark terror, deep shame, and hopeless despair over betrayal?   I believe that if we catch glimpses of ourselves in the scenes of the events we are about to live through, then we will have succeeded in taking on Holy Week.  And that is the right thing to do. It is a chalice to behold not on a museum shelf, but with its rim at our lips, having been passed to us by the bloodied hand of our neighbor, whoever that might be.

Where,  then, shall we find ourselves in these passages?  There are a lot of places to look.  Here are just a few:  Are we among the cheering fans with the palm leaves? Do we see ourselves in the background thinking, “Hey Jesus, I certainly sympathize with you.  All that commercializing out there in the Temple precincts is tacky, and yes, Maybe it is blasphemous. But is it worth getting so worked up about?  After all, this money-changing is a necessary function, and it’s only going on in the court of the Gentiles, so that doesn’t really count, does it?  And besides, all this attention you’re bringing on yourself could lead to some really bad press!”

Or do you see yourself in the  quieter place, Simon’s house in Bethany, watching the anointing, saying to yourself as your eyes roll,  “This woman’s extravagance is so dramatic, and such a wasteful exaggeration of what’s really going on! Our beloved is not going to really be killed.  Judas, our business manager, is a prudent advisor and observer.  He knows the influential people of the Sanhedrin. In addition to managing our funds, he’ll give us practical advice to get our movement funded and launched before the Romans really get wind of our plan to bring in the new order of God.”

I, myself, tend to be the introvert among those of Jesus’ friends who say, “We’re just going to have a quiet Passover gathering over at Mark’s place in that upstairs room we like so much — for old time’s sake; then  go home with our dreams that one day we’ll see the Kingdom come, but none of us, and none of our loved ones will get hurt in the process.”

Here is another possibility where some of us might see ourselves — feeling uncomfortable with Jesus’ extravagant predictions about Peter.  I could easily see myself saying, “Oh yes, I know Peter tends to be a little impulsive, but after all this, he will stand by you, Jesus.  He has the convictions of a rock.  Yes, he may have his foolish moments, but Peter isn’t a liar, and he is certainly no chicken!”

Another place we might see ourselves are the times when we have to struggle through the night over a tough decision which will affect our loved ones profoundly.  I just want to doze off and sleep until the crisis in my midst — just goes away.

There are few places where the Gospel is not about us, and as far as the first day of Holy Week is concerned, we may find ourselves playing multiple parts at once in this special drama.  We have a responsibility.  If it were a play there would be lines to memorize. But on this stage they need to be more than memorized.  they need to be  “marked, and inwardly digested” once we discern which lines are ours.

How then do we prepare for Holy Week without being overwhelmed, or shall we just show up at Church for the services scheduled, sit, and listen?  Is it inevitable that we will be  overwhelmed? Perhaps.  A good way to engage Holy Week, though, is to accept being overwhelmed as a very real possibility.  Engage with it anyway.  We are not God, but the beloved of God.

One way to engage with Holy Week is  to look at something in the narrative that does not actually appear in the Sunday lectionary.  It is one part of the Gospel that is really, I believe, not about us at all.  But it may be forgotten this year.  It is something we read about only once every other year in the Daily Office for Monday in Holy Week:  Jesus’ cursing the fig tree.  Check it out in Mark 11:12-25.

A secular humanist friend of mine, once said to me, “David, I do not believe Jesus is the ‘eternal word of the Father, begotten, not made’. He was a great human being like several others in our humanist pantheon like the Buddha, Socrates, Francis of Assisi, or Henry David Thoreau.” He went on, sounding a little like Startrek’s Mr. Spock.  “Look at this fig tree incident.  The Nazarene was obviously under a lot of stress. He cursed the fig tree like the way I was tempted to curse my car last month because its battery was dead (suddenly my friend looked a little less like Mr. Spock); it caused me to be late for the opening scenes to my favorite opera, The Barber of Seville”.

I do not know to what extent the fig tree incident is historical in some literal sense.  The point of the fig tree incident is that when something symbolized by the fig tree, namely the temple priesthood, becomes a fruitless burden to the people who support it, then the tree carries a new message:  the wrath of God is real.  As I noted, the cursing of the fig tree is not about us — unless, of course, our Easter is nothing but a Fifth Avenue fashion show while our responsibilities to the Body that loves us and our neighbor continues to be neglected.

We are an “Easter People” as Augustine of Hippo taught us — with or without the bonnets and other customs of local culture, all of which we may enjoy — so long as we keep them in their proper perspective.  But a brief pause to note the cursing of the fig tree reminds us again of Sam Shoemaker’s poignant thought that bears repeating as a conclusion to this reflection:  Not to the gates of Jerusalem alone does Jesus ride today, but to the gates of our hearts. There he waits knocking, knocking. His knuckles must be raw by now.

Shoemaker adds something that rings true  to us today

 “The gentle rap has been so long smothered by contemporary rivals that some of us can barely hear it”  (like all the social media technology Dr. Shoemaker never got to see.)  “And yet, nevertheless Jesus goes on standing there”.

I like to think our real presence to the sacrament of Holy Week will make us sibling ministers to the woman who appeared at Simon’s house in Bethany. Maybe we ourselves can be some of the oil she uses to ease the knuckle pain of our dying God.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

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