This guest post is by Jill Crainshaw.
Holy Week begins this Sunday, on Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, many Christians process into worship, colorful banners and streamers and emerald palm branches dancing in the air as they go.
I do not dance with ease on any day. I stumble even more on Palm Sunday. My uncooperative sense of rhythm is only part of the problem. I process with awkward reluctance because my heart and mind are reluctant to grapple yet again with the seven days Christians have marked as Holy Week.
What makes this particular version of Sunday through Saturday holier than other weeks of Sundays through Saturdays? Judging by recent news headlines, I think it is fair to say that human endeavors will not do much to create an ecology of particular or peculiar holiness during this week (though I suppose we can be on the lookout every week for those moments when human courage and faith ease or even transform some element of communal brokenness). How do our ritual actions during this week we call “holy” speak of God in and to communities crucified every day to appease the gods of discrimination or commerce or politics? What do our 21st century embodiments of Jesus’s story mean in a world where violence or racism or war destroy life and where too many of the wrong things and not enough of the right things are resurrected? These questions trouble my feet as I make my way in fits and starts along well-traveled Holy Week pathways.
But I am a liturgical theologian. So when my head and even my heart have no insight or energy with which to reckon with what Christian theology speaks, means or accomplishes, my bones take over. I do not understand with any precision the physiology or spirituality of why it is the case, but I am somehow able to believe in my bones that something about what we embody in Christian worship connects us to the on-the-ground realities of our neighborhoods and communities. And something about what we embody as community in Christian worship and in our neighborhoods connects us to God’s Spirit.
For me, worship — communal ritual practices — keep our feet on the ground when our thoughts roam without direction through complex ambiguities and when our feelings ebb and flow without rhyme or reason. When we cannot understand and face the barest bones of belief, our physical bones incarnate and carry out as best they can what we understand God to be in the midst of suffering. When we decide, in spite of our lack of rhythm, to keep on stumbling together along Holy Week pathways and let those pathways take us to streets where people are hungry or into neighborhoods where people have been forgotten, ignored, or cast out, then we at least stumble together on holy ground.
A Jesuit theologian, Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, is helping me to limp with more grace through Holy Week this year. Orobator writes that in the midst of our awkward liturgical actions, there remains a graceful Word. What we do during this week is more than theological abstraction or ritual legalism. What we do during this week is more than scripted rhetoric about Jesus’s crucified body and our redemption.
During Holy Week, we break bread on Maundy Thursday and lean with longing into the silence of a Friday that is anything but good. In that silence, says Orobator, in those moments when Jesus cries out to a God who does not answer, another holy Word is spoken. What Word? The Word that speaks in the lives of unacknowledged, marginalized, and ignored prophets who in their work in their cities and neighborhoods “show the ‘face of redemption turned visibly’ toward the sick, the poor, the refugees.”
These ones absent from word-centered religious, political, and economic institutional arenas? They are sacraments of a sort of God’s saving presence with God’s people. They believe with their bones — with their beaten down backs, their arthritic fingers, and their road weary feet — and in their believing they incarnate in despairing places the promises of God’s grace and love. By remembering and acknowledging their presence, we remember Jesus.
Last year on Palm Sunday I drove past a local church on my way to my own church’s Holy Week Sabbath celebration. That community’s triumphal entry was under way. I looked, and then I looked again. Two women, one in a wheelchair and the other using a walker, waved palm branches in the air as others helped them down the sidewalk and into the sanctuary. Then at my own church? We remembered Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then heard in word and music the story of Jesus’s passion, Jesus’s suffering. The choir sang the haunting laments of the season — “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” “Beneath the Cross of Jesus.” The pastor spoke about Jesus’s pain-wracked and broken body. The sacramental irony? I sat in worship just inches away from our community’s newest member, an infant a mere four weeks into this beautiful, joyful, terrifying thing we call human living. As those mournful songs washed over us, that infant yawned, slept, stretched, kicked the air with tiny feet, gurgled, and cooed.
They grounded me again on Palm Sunday, those aging ones who we too often forget and that tiny one who so needs our care. And as I waved my palm branch and smiled at that sleeping child, I felt it in my bones, the presence of Holy Week’s absent One.
So, I will do it one more time — limp through Holy Week, and give thanks to God that my bones, though aching for resurrected justice and hope as they make the journey, ground me in the same kind of human communities where Jesus’s own bones took him.
- ^ Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, “A Global Sign of Outward Grace: The Sacramentality of the World Church in the Era of Globalization,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America 67 (2012).
About Jill Crainshaw
Jill Crainshaw is a PCUSA minister and Blackburn Professor of Worship and Liturgical Theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. She is the author of several books on worship and ministry.