When I think back on my years of working as a pastor, I remember this time in the church calendar with the most affection and, frankly, the most tiredness. Holy Week was, by far, the busiest week of my year—even more so than the weeks in which I presided over two funerals. There was the Palm Sunday service with its cantata, the Maundy Thursday service of darkness, the Good Friday prayer breakfast, and the Easter Sunday celebration of resurrection accompanied by professional musicians and a roaring rendition of Handel’s Messiah. The house was packed for these services, pointing to the meaningful rituals that had a shaped a congregation for decades and, of course, pointing to the centrality of this week in the Christian faith.
Typically I preached on Maundy Thursday, and alongside funeral services (yes, there’s a theme here) it was my favorite sermon to prepare. It encompassed some of the most meaningful liturgical moments of my pastoral ministry. Why? Because Jesus’ agony in the garden, his betrayal, his humiliation, his death on the cross, and his descent into nothingness all reveal the astonishing depths of suffering endured by the second person of the Trinity on our behalf.
No form of human suffering escapes God. God in Jesus Christ has endured it all, including what the creeds describe as the descent into hell (that is, nothingness or nonbeing) so that we do not have to. Jesus assumes non-being so that we can be connected to God and one another eternally. Jesus’ death puts to death every enemy of human life—suffering, sin, death, and hell. It is the basis for fellowship between God and humans. Yet this is more than rescue; it is transformation. Jesus plants eternal life within death. He absorbs the very antithesis of life into his own being and transforms it so that our communion with God, each other, and the cosmos is secure. Death yields to life; sin yields to goodness; and, suffering yields to wholeness. In place of annihilation, we receive reconciliation.
Of course, in the here-and-now, in the time between Jesus’ death and the final consummation, we know this by faith much more than sight. We see glimpses of healing and reconciliation in a sea of hurt and violence. When suffering comes to us, as it inevitably does in this life, the message of Holy Week buoys us up. Where is God in the midst of our suffering? The cross trains us to see God suffering with us and for us. God is in the midst of the most devastating experiences of oppression, violence, and trauma. God is there, speaking a powerful “NO” to that which seeks to annihilate us, especially to those destructive powers and principalities instantiated in our structures and systems. God is there, speaking a powerful “YES” to us as beloved children intimately and securely attached to divine life.
As we head into next week, I’ll be remembering Holy Week again, reflecting especially on Jesus’ continued fellowship with us in our suffering. As Karl Barth wrote, “[I]n the whole of the New Testament [Jesus] is the Crucified. . . . Faith in Him is faith in the Crucified. Love for Him is love for the crucified. Hope in Him is hope in the Crucified.”