Holy Week begins Sunday. Many people will go to places of worship this Sunday as crowds of people wave palm branches in the air, commemorating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem to cheers and shouts of acclamation worthy of a king. Many more people will gather the following Sunday, dressed in their best clothes, celebrating the empty tomb and the living Christ. For many people, the week will begin and end with tremulous energy and excitement. It will be a week bookended by parties.
The people who only come to church on Sunday may miss some significant milestones that set this week apart. Between the shouts of Hosanna on Palm Sunday and the cries of Hallelujah on Easter Sunday, Jesus and his followers experienced the depth of cruelty, pain, anguish, sorrow, and despair.
On Thursday, we gather to remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. Jesus, fully aware of the fate awaiting him, transforms the familiar Passover meal from a backward-looking event (memorializing the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt) into a forward-looking event (our salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice). He serves this meal to his friends—those who have doubted him, misunderstood him, rebuked him, and even betrayed him. Then he gave them a new commandment to follow (a mandate, which in Latin is mandatum, and which later became Maundy) – to love one another as he had loved them.
Later that evening, Jesus and his disciples went outside to pray. Jesus felt tremendous agony, sweating blood as he cried out to God. Over the course of the last night of his life, Jesus would be unjustly arrested, his disciples would disobey him, attempt to commit violence on his behalf, abandon him, and deny him. Dragged before the religious elite, tortured by state officials, and sentenced to death, Jesus suffered humiliation, excruciating pain, and the misery of loneliness. It all ended on the cross. His friends and family thought that was the end and continued to live in their grief for three days.
While God’s victory over death is cause for every person to rejoice, Easter morning’s Hallelujahs ring a little more exuberantly and the empty tomb glows a little brighter when we have made the journey to the cross with Jesus and shared in the anguish of his first followers, for we need each of the seven days to make up our Holy Week.