Season 5 - Holy Week meditations

by Tim Isbell, posted May 2020 (written a year earlier)

These Holy Week meditations are the fifth of the seven-part collection for every season of the Christian calendar. Unless you read it earlier, please read the introductory material at Responsive Prayer Meditations

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday and its last day is Holy Saturday (the day before Easter).

In deep forms of prayer, we move from God being a part of our life to us being a part of God’s life. To be effective pray-ers, we must become effective lovers. – unknown

Solidarity with Mary

Holy Week - Pilgrim Year Series (PYS) Holy Week, John 19.26-27

Palm Sunday always seems hollow to me. I have difficulty celebrating your (Jesus’) triumphal entry into Jerusalem, knowing the cross looms just five days hence. As Steve Bell writes, “Holy Week is a descent into darkness.”

So this year, I’m taking Steve’s advice to suspend the foreknowledge of the resurrection and spend the week in solidarity with Mary. She must have had grave apprehensions as the days progressed, and the future darkened. There was nothing she could do to save you or even alleviate your suffering. She could only courageously walk in solidarity with you through the week and up the crucifixion hill.

Holy Week brings to mind a riddle of contrasts. You say to your disciples, “I am the truth and the life” -- then you show up in Jerusalem where you know you will get yourself killed and devastate their hopes. After three years of active ministry, calming the seas, healing people, casting out demons, challenging religious leaders, and raucously entering Jerusalem – suddenly, you turn passive, absorbing the world’s evil without complaint.

On the surface, this seems crazy. It’s no wonder Saint Paul writes that you are “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.”

I’m sure Mary, John, and all the rest of your close followers were confused, devastated. I would have been, too. A few of them remained present and in solidarity with you throughout the week anyway, and even remained present until they sealed your tomb.

Sometimes that’s all we can do. We see people as they traverse difficult times and even descend into the darkness of death. We know we cannot alleviate their suffering, let alone save them from a bad outcome. Feeling sorry for them offers no benefit. The only thing we can offer is our presence in their pain. I’m sure that’s what your mother offered you, along with John the Apostle. Maybe other disciples, also. This week I will join them.

Could use a little mercy now

Holy Week - PYS Holy Week, ch 3, John 11.33-44

Humans are capable of feeling deep compassion, meaning we can share with and share in the suffering of another person. I don’t think we develop this capacity on our own; I think it comes from being created in your (God) image.

Steve Bell points out that compassion robs suffering of the power to isolate. He explains how this is separate from fixing or altering a situation. So in your (Jesus) passion at the cross, you come alongside us, share our vulnerability, and absorb the evil of our sin.

While compassion is separate from action, it often leads to action. After you wept over Mary and Martha’s response to Lazarus’ death, you raised him back to life. At the cross, you passively remained in the hands of your father, who took action to resurrect you to new life.

Still, in our lives, we find ourselves in situations where we feel compassion but don’t have the power to help. Remaining present in the suffering of another is challenging.

Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” touches my heart. The first verse starts with, “My father could use a little mercy now…” The second begins with, “My mother could use a little mercy now...” The third starts with, “My church and my country...” And the last two verses begin with, “Every living thing... “ Those first two verses touch me because I lost my parents over the past four years, and my wife lost her remaining parent. The rest of the verses continue to weigh on me. The whole song is about situations that we can do little about, except be present.

After several times of listening to this song, I remembered that your heart is more compassionate than mine and that you do have the power to act. Thank you for your solidarity with me, with all of us. I will continue to trust in your compassion and power for acts of mercy.

(Readers: I hope you will listen to Mary Gauthier’s song “Mercy Now.” You can find it at Pilgrim Year Songs, then click on the Holy Week album. then go to Chapter 3 and click on “Mercy Now.”)

There’s no way out of here

Holy Week - PYS Holy Week, ch 9, Lamentations 3.7-9, 19-24

On the night after burial, your (Jesus) followers must have felt trapped, expecting soldiers to come and round them up for a trip to their crosses. Even if they escaped, their futures were deeply compromised. Surely you didn't blame them for thinking that there was no way out? Perhaps they identified with my paraphrase of Jeremiah in Lamentations 3.7-9:

You have walled me in, and I cannot escape. You have bound me in heavy chains.

And though I cry out to you, you have shut out my prayers.

You have blocked my way with a high stone wall.

Alana Levandoski has a song that puts me in the room with your followers that night. It’s titled “Easter Eve,” and it begins like this:

It’s over now and we are lost in a desert without tears

Guess it wasn’t what we thought. Wish we could turn back the years

But there’s no way out of here (x3)...

I cannot imagine how trapped I would have felt in the room with your followers.

Even though Jeremiah died centuries before your resurrection, he offers hope in Lamentations 3.21-24. Here’s my paraphrase:

Yet we still dare to hope when we remember this:

Your faithful love never ends!

Your mercies never cease.

Great is your faithfulness; your mercies begin afresh each morning.

I say to myself, “You are my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in you!”

Alana Levandoski, who lives on our side of your reservation, also sings “Behold I make All Things New.”

Behold I make all things new.

Let there be light.

God unseen, is taking form.

Let there be light.

The First and Last is surging forth.

Becoming life.

Behold I make all things new.

Let there be light.

Now, I’m ready for Easter morning.

Jesus’ passive Holy Week

Holy Week - PYS - Holy Week, ch 1; Philippians 2.5-11

I noticed something early in Steve Bell’s Holy Week writings that bothered me all week: For three years, your (Jesus) ministry was remarkably active. You healed sick people, cast out demons, drew and spoke to large crowds, did miracles, developed a team, confronted religious leaders, and traveled constantly. Then, somewhere during your triumphal entry into Jerusalem, you flipped. You became passive through the crucifixion. But why?

Last night I went to sleep thinking about this, and by morning you cleared it up.

There’s plenty of evidence in the gospels that you could have saved yourself from the cross. You not only did not become defensive, but you absorbed the world’s evil by passively submitting to death. The best I can explain is that you put the world’s redemption above your right to justice, and you trusted your Father with the outcome. Your vulnerable submission in the presence of mortal danger defies human logic. It’s such an unconventional act!

You call a few of us who follow you to this extreme, like Jim Elliot and his other missionary friends who submitted to death in Ecuador in 1956 (Gates of Splender by Elizabeth Elliot).1 I don’t expect ever to face such a life-threatening decision, but you have taught me to absorb lesser evils without retaliation. Sometimes such instances lead to spiritual conversations - sometimes even with an aggressor.

Just as you traversed a week of passivity before your death, I expect that such a time may lie ahead for me. That’s not easy to think about, but thank you for showing me the attitude to have. Please help me remember to trust your Spirit to do what I can’t, or what I haven't ever been able to do, in just such times.

1 For the story, read Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliot (Jim’s wife)

End Notes

1. You can print this webpage by going to the very bottom of this page and clicking on Print. Or, if you prefer a Google Doc version, complete with a Table of Contents and live links, just CLICK HERE or type into the address bar of any browser.)

2. For news from this site, including notifications of new content, please subscribe to the RSS or email feeds or email feeds.