Life can be like a precious gem. Its many facets reveal a breadth and depth of experiences and perspectives.
Life can be like a precious gem. Its many facets reveal a breadth and depth of experiences and perspectives. Look at a diamond one way and you will notice a particular facet. Turn it ever so slightly and you will look at the same facet differently. Take a moment in your life – a birth, a death, a welcome transition, an unwelcome one – and that same moment can be viewed in a myriad of ways.
I often use a party as an example. Four people attend a party. When they tell of their experience the next morning, a listener might get the impression that there were actually four different parties. It’s all a matter of perspective, and what one brings to the party – their mood, their expectations, their relationships, their history.
I am not an expert on faith, especially faith traditions other than my own. I am a leader and practitioner of the Christian faith, but, again, only a portion within it. And yet, even with the small sample size of mainstream, mainline American Protestant Christianity of the Presbyterian brand, the gem imagery holds out. We bring our backgrounds, our experiences, our perspectives to the big questions of faith. And we play those questions out in communities, communities that we call congregations. Congregations, like families, are not static. They live and breathe, grow and diminish. They reflect what goes on around them. Most recently, they reflect the realities of twin pandemics – the COVID pandemic and the pandemic made most pointed by the protests following the murder of George Floyd. Those global experiences bring a significant impact on how we look at faith, and how congregations practice faith.
If life is a gem, and faith is a gem – complex and multi-faceted – then Holy Week certainly is. Christmas may get all of the social and cultural attention, but for Christians, Holy Week and its culmination on Easter is the source of every other aspect of our faith.
Even so, the events of this week – starting with Palm Sunday (what some traditions call Passion Sunday), and moving through Maundy Thursday to Good Friday to Easter Sunday – reflect deep levels of diversity and nuance.
On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters the city of a Jerusalem on a donkey, to fulfill a biblical prophecy. Adoring crowds shout “Hosanna” and wave palm branches. I often wonder about the expectations of the crowd, their hopes and dreams, and how they envisioned Jesus addressing them. Each of the gospel writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – portray this event (and all of the Holy Week events) slightly differently. What we do know is that the crowd who acclaimed Jesus would quickly move to abandon him.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus shared a final meal with his friends. Different Christian traditions understand this meal in different ways, but all take it seriously. What stands out for me is the notion of service and humility. It was likely a simple meal. Some traditions add foot-washing to the gathering, per the gospel of John. (Presbyterians typically don’t.) This underscores what we understand to be Jesus’ humility and his commitment to service. “Maundy” means something like mandate, and so followers of Jesus are mandated to serve others, as Jesus did. Also that night, the seeds of betrayal have been planted, making the meal all the more poignant.
On Good Friday, the narrative seems to move to its conclusion. Following the betrayal and abandonment the night before, Jesus stands trial. It is a mockery. The Presbyterian Brief Statement of Faith speaks of Jesus being “unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition.” That means both religious and political authorities were threatened by what he represented. Crucifixion was an agonizing form of execution, and here Jesus is tortured, mocked, abandoned by his followers (except for his mother and a few women). Christian theology is at a current inflection point about why Jesus had to die, but one thing is certain. He did die, with multiple causes as the reason.
On Easter, the narrative of death is fully and finally reversed, Again, this is faith at its most multifaceted. The gospel writers portray it in varied forms, notwithstanding the very 21st century questions of how it happened. What we do know is that the tomb is empty and that Jesus appears to his followers. Death does not have the final word.
If you are a practitioner, or even a curious inquirer, look at the gem of Holy Week for yourself. Hold it in your hands, Turn it over in your fingers, letting light refract in different ways. You will see a variety of perspectives. But you will also see some core affirmations: Love wins. Life wins. Hope wins. And in that set of core affirmations, Christians find meaning for their lives, and a deeper sense of calling to serve our hurting world with a sense of justice and joy.
The Rev. Dr. John Wilkinson is pastor of The Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill, and serves on the board of McCormick Theological Seminary and the Presbyterian Historical Society.