And so the journey of Holy Week begins. It is the ultimate rollercoaster, spiritually and emotionally. This year, it will have an even deeper meaning for so many people, given that our church buildings are shut and we cannot gather together in prayer or worship, except in virtual online communities.
Today is Palm Sunday, and the readings take us from the jubilant shouts of Hosanna, as Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, to the despair and darkness, as the sun sets, of Good Friday. From being hailed as King, to being taken down dead from a cross reserved for criminals and traitors.
Each day of Holy Week the story unfolds further. The bible readings take us deeper into the story. I sometimes wonder, what must those days have been like for Jesus’s disciples. None of them had truly grasped his message that the Messiah must suffer and die, that it was his role to take upon himself all the pain and suffering and agony of humankind upon the cross, absorbing it all into himself and thus ending our perpetual cycle of violence. The death of Jesus opens up new possibilities for us all, whoever we are, wherever we are from or are going. Death is indeed a transformation, and not an end.
The Palm Sunday story is also a visceral reminder of the fleeting nature of human success and fame. The same crowd that joyously and exuberantly welcomes Jesus on the Sunday is likely more or less the same crowd who are like hounds baying, demanding his death only a few days later.
And in all this, there is the deeply human experience not only of Jesus himself but also of his followers, as they struggle to make sense of all they see and experience. Sometimes things can just seem too much, it is overload, and we cannot process it all at the time. It takes quiet and reflection after the storm before any kind of clarity comes. St Peter is perhaps the clearest example of this when he says that he will follow Jesus anywhere, even to death. And yet mere hours after he speaks these words he is the one who three times denies knowing Jesus in order to save his own life.
I write all this to try to show that whilst we might be tempted to see the bible narratives as cut and dried and fixed somehow, when we enter into them they are as dynamic and visceral as our own experiences today. These may be events that happened (give or take) two millenia ago; but it would not be hard to imagine ourselves into the scene. How would we feel? How would we respond? The characters of the gospels are the same characters we encounter in our daily lives, perhaps even at times the character we encounter in the mirror!!
I wonder if, in times of chaos and upheaval such as we are living through now, we may have the gift of a greater understanding and engagement with the earth-shattering events (for those who experienced them) of Holy Week. Maybe this year, we can take the time to make that journey, step by slow step, day by day, through the bible readings and prayers, with Jesus and his disciples from the palm-strewn road and shouts of Hosanna, to the cries of ‘Crucify him’, and on, through the dark gate of Death, to the Resurrection hope of transformation and renewal that lies beyond.