I have a suspicion about why so few of us go to church between Palm Sunday and Easter. It is not just that weeknight services are tricky in our schedules.
For centuries, Christians have observed Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but fewer and fewer of us voluntarily gather for the somber truth-telling of those difficult days. Easter Sunday will arrive and with it the good news that God’s love for Christ and for us triumphs over death. But Thursday, Friday, and even the silence of Saturday (before the Easter Vigil) tell the truth about us, and we do not want to face it. The self-preservation responses of the disciples as Jesus is arrested and condemned are both convicting and repellent.
Sadness over the suffering of Jesus, the tragedy and injustice of it all, is not really the problem. Instead, I find myself trying to avoid taking in what his “followers” are doing, as the creeping feeling of familiarity touches the corners of my memory.
The betrayal of Judas is the most blatant sin, such that we rarely identify with him. I’m much more often in the camp of everybody else around the Maundy Thursday table wondering if or arguing that it couldn’t possibly be me who will betray Jesus (knowing full well that any one of us is indeed capable of it). It is that constant, low-level denial of how low I might actually sink, when my neglect to stop injustice could turn into a death sentence itself. I do not want to think about it. But that does not mean it isn’t there.
Somewhere between my joyful hosannas at God’s presence among us and the empty tomb there is also my significant potential to betray — not only to not prevent death of God’s beloved, but to let it happen by underestimating the impact of my actions or inaction. I know I deny my own power to prevent or impact climate change, mass incarceration, inhumane immigration policies and so many more injustices. But as long as I am not Judas initiating the betrayal, I’m good, right?
I identify with the napping disciples, the ones so weary that they physically shut down and go to sleep while Jesus is praying for his life in the Garden of Gethsemane. I do not want to examine all the times I have shut down from compassion fatigue. What impending violence — to the earth or humankind — have I ignored in order to be able to sleep at night? About whom have I told myself: Their problems are not mine, so I cannot do anything about it?
Then sometimes when I am jolted back to reality, I react like the disciple who cuts off the ear of one of the ones that came to arrest Jesus. The question he asks: “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” is more for the speaker’s benefit than actually seeking permission. What he is actually saying is, “Look at me, how responsive I am (now that I’m awake, overcompensating for earlier) and ready to enter the fray on your behalf. Aren’t I so loyal, so responsive?”
I cringe, but I recognize that guy, and feel the sting of Jesus’ rebuke: “No more of this!”
I used to feel a little smug at Peter’s three denials in the courtyard outside the high priest’s house. Was he really not that self-aware — to promise one thing to Jesus when they were among friends and another among strangers? Without the accountability of those who knew him for sure, did he not still have a sense of responsibility? Or was it just self-preservation we all do, thinking we can be whoever we need to be to get by, and switch back when the crowd shifts? This, too, is uncomfortably familiar.
Yet the thing the disciples do that cuts most deeply is standing at a distance as Jesus dies. “But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:49). I do not want to identify with that sense of watching from a distance, not doing anything — either because I cannot or I am choosing not to. But sometimes going to church during Holy Week or at other times feels like exactly that.
If I am reading the stories, praying, singing, discussing, but not also organizing against the powers that execute God’s beloved ones, then what am I doing? I do not want to see myself there. Holy Week can be convicting in the best possible way, enough for us to emerge from it determined to insist on the good news of resurrection for all God’s beloved.