Church is the last place Christians should be during Holy Week.
That’s right. On the highest of holy days of the Christian calendar, I don’t think the followers of Jesus should be anywhere near a Holy Week service. Not Maundy Thursday. Not Good Friday. Not any of them.
Of course there are great experiences to be had in the traditional beauty, solemnness and transcendent sacredness of the liturgies of Holy Week services: the washing of the feet, the stripping of the altar, the eager vigils welcoming Easter and finally, the trumpet blasts of Sunday’s resurrection celebration.
But, if we want to follow our Savior through Holy Week, if we want to experience Holy Week in a way that reflects our Savior’s own experiences during that first holy week, then we won’t find ourselves in a pew, in a church, in a service.
We would find ourselves in the streets. In anger. In protest. In search of justice.
Just like Jesus.
So what if this year we re-enacted Holy Week rather than merely remembering it?
What if this year we were to act like Jesus instead of simply worshipping him?
What if this year we renamed Holy Week for what it truly was and should be?
That is what Holy Week was to Jesus and that is the challenge of this week for comfortable American Christians such as ourselves.
Holy Week, for Jesus, began with a subversive, defiant public protest to Roman imperial power on Palm Sunday. During the Jewish celebration of Passover, there would typically be Roman military parade to remind the sometimes rowdy and rebellious peasants to know their place and the consequences of a zealous revolt. On horseback, through the front gate, the Roman officers or client rulers would ride and march.
During his misnamed “triumphal entry,” Jesus mocks their power, defiantly and humorously riding at the head of his one-man parade on a braying, stubborn ass. It was nonviolent, of course, but it was no mistake a protest and a threat. Any such public mockery of power is threat as it reveals the truth of the matter: that the emperor of this world has no clothes. Jesus’ parade on the donkey — the mocking triumphal entry — reveals the nakedness of the Roman Empire, of all empires, even our own.
Next, Jesus goes to the Temple — the center of religious life, of commerce, of taxation and Roman client oppression — and destroys it all. He overturns the tables, drives out the moneychangers, upsets the most important status quo centers of money, power and religion. He protests the exploitation of Rome carried out by the Temple, enforced by the military. And then he threatens to destroy the whole place — to tear it down all by himself.
And then there is Jesus, homeless and praying in the gardens — the park — at midnight with his friends when the authorities come to arrest him.
Protest. Disruption of a system of oppression. Arrest. Trial.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we do anything quite so extreme as our Savior. In fact, I think it would be quite a bad idea to walk into the halls of power and authority, overturn some tables, bust up some computers, assault some moneychangers. And an even worse idea to follow it up with a threat to destroy the whole building and the system it represents.
But, if we are to be in solidarity with our Savior during his last week, we cannot mark Holy Week as his followers without standing — publicly in protest — against oppression, even when and especially when it comes from the hands of our own governments.
So perhaps this year we Christians can inject a little of the original protest, justice and resistance into the safe and sterile week we now celebrate and laughingly call holy. For there is nothing holy about a week spent in church, hiding in the memory of our Savior’s actions instead of following his example.
On Palm Sunday, protest the imperial power of our day that exploits the poor, the earth and our humanity. Protest the imperial power that would strip us of rights, of our dignity, of our voice. Protest it with mockery and reveal its nakedness for all to see. Laugh in the face of those who seriously think they can own humanity’s future.
On Monday of Holy Week, protest corruption and the whoring of democracy to wealth. Make a holy mess of things and show others that the system feeds on the souls of humankind. Live in park if you have to. In a tent. Occupy a space that isn’t intended to be owned: a tree, a blanket of grass, earth.
On Wednesday of Holy Week, cook a meal and share it with the miracle of friends. Do this and remember all that is good in this world of suffering. Do this and remember that this world is still worth the fight. Do this and remember.
On Thursday of Holy Week, wash the feet of the homeless. Stay awake with them, as Jesus asked his friends to stay awake with him. Learn what it is like to sleep out of doors, to sleep in a doorway. Learn what it is like when where you make your bed with a pillow of stone is against the law.
On Friday of Holy Week, visit the captives and prisoners and remember the innocent. Protest the injustice of the prison state in America. Protest the death penalty and the unbroken line of state-sanctioned murder that killed our Savior.
On Saturday of Holy Week, grieve. Because when we see the world as Jesus saw it, when we experience the passion of Holy Week as Jesus did, we will need to grieve at how things have not changed, at how things have remained, at how, if he were to be born today, Jesus would be executed just as swiftly, just as unjustly, with a needle instead of nails.
Then, and only then, can we understand what Easter is really about.
It is not about sin and the saving blood of a sacrificial lamb. It is not about God needing a pure and unblemished offering for all the sins we have committed.
It is God, at long last, standing up in solidarity with the cries and groans of humanity to shout, “No! No more! There will be life, life to be lived eternally!”
On Easter, God said no.
This Holy Week, I pray that we say it too and, as a result, make the week holy again.