One author famously wrote: "The way to the future runs through the past."(1) In our contemporary ears, this may not ring true. We seem to live with a suffocating sense of immediacy, where demands and events come at as fast and furious pace, and where the "past" for many of us means two days ago.
Within such a sense of time, the historical emphasis of the church may seem obsolete, irrational even. Growing up in Scotland in a home that was not focused on religious or spiritual things, I had little sense of time holding much weight beyond the moment or any sort of transcendent continuity. Time simply came and went. There were, of course, special times loosely connected to an earlier age, such as Christmas and Easter. But these came to primarily symbolize time off from school, special food, and presents. If they were tied to any bigger or wider story or meaning, my attitude was: Who cares?
After moving to Austria, I recall a very different scenario. I had by then become a Christian and we were living in a predominantly catholic country. What the church calls holy week was taken much more seriously there, and the sense of reverence, of something special, of consecrated time, all made an impact on me. Holy week was mentioned on the national news; preparations for the Easter service in the Stephansdom were highlighted. Something was in the air. This was also seen in people's behavior. I was struck that events so long in the past, centered on the ancient Jesus of Nazareth and his death, were seen to have lasting and important impact on modern life in a modern nation.
Here in America, there is less of a national focus on holy week itself, which begins this Sunday. We, of course, know of holy week and many churches walk toward the vast and important events of Gethsemane, the upper room, and Golgotha. But outside the church, even inside some churches, it is simply one more thing in a list of occurrences. For some, holy week carries no more or even less weight than Valentine’s Day. For others, it may be simply a routine that has lost its import due to a trite familiarity. So what do you think of when you think of holy week?
Crucifixion detail from the cathedral of St. Stephens, Vienna, Austria.
The gospel is unflinching in its declaration that the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us, that God was on a mission and it culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to accomplish the Father's work of restoration and his face was set like a flint to see that work all accomplished. In each of the gospel narratives, the passion of Christ, his wrestling in Gethsemane, his trial and torture, are a major portion of the narratives themselves. The gospel is simply not the gospel without this focused portion of history—the death of Christ and all that surrounded it. It was a significant death, a voluntary death, a purpose-filled death. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. If this is true, if this really happened, if indeed normal time was interrupted by an invasion of the healing, forgiving, loving, and self-giving God, then time itself was altered, history changed, life redirected.
Surely, surely, if such is the case, then some serious and dedicated time and space should indeed be given to it all. This is, I think, the meaning of holy week. It is inherently holy, because it centers us on the actions of God for us. In a fast-paced, moment-central world, this is the countercultural message of the church for the world. Holy week reminds us that the crucifixion of Jesus took place in real space and time, and therefore all of time—past, present, and future—is both important and impacted. And thus, our acts of remembrance, worship, penitence, and hope are also holy moments, moments which invite an eternal God to overshadow the immediacy of life and other lesser stories of time. Great things are indeed available: the love of God, the sacrificial death of Christ for the world, the forgiveness of sins, and the offer of new life.
The events the church remembers next week actually happened. They took place in a real city, in real time, with real people, and mercifully, real results. The crucifixion is not a story designed to make us feel good or guilty and guide the morals of culture and society. It was God's redemptive initiative to heal the broken heart, strike the heart of evil, conquer death and sorrow, and open a way to a new kind of life and the restoration of all things. Holy week invites us to respond to who God is and what God has done, to celebrate the mercy, grace, and love of Christ in the gift of so great a salvation, to discover life in the cross for the glory of God.
It could be just another week for us, governed by speed, demand, shopping, news, politics, and entertainment. Or paying attention and setting our faces like flint toward the cross, it could be time touched and fulfilled by the Holy One in our very midst.
Stuart McAllister is global support specialist at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 20.