The Grit and Glory of Holy Week

Jim Tonkowich | Institute on Religion & Democracy | Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Grit and Glory of Holy Week

There is a grittiness to Holy Week. To be sure, the Gospels throughout point to the fact of the incarnation, but the incarnation, for me, takes on a particularly earthy and tactile quality in the Passion narratives.

Holy Week begins with a donkey ride. While it is some time ago, I rode bareback on a donkey. The feel of the ride—different from a horse—the smell of the animal, and the dust kicked up are reminiscent of Jesus' ride into Jerusalem.

I know the roar of a crowd and the feel of the palm branches that we bring home from church. I know the feeling of adulation that crowds have upon seeing their hero. And Jesus was their hero. After all, Jesus had raised the dead. What else might be in store? As he rode into Jerusalem, Jesus was surrounded by the pushing and jostling, the scents and sounds that are part of any crowd at a parade.

I have seen my unwashed feet after I take off sandals that I have worn on a dusty day. I can savor the texture and taste of bread, the bouquet and tang of wine.   I have fallen asleep in a garden when I was supposed to be praying. Like the apostles, I have felt fear in the pit of my stomach when threatened.

While, needless to say, I have never experienced the agony of scourging or the cross, I have been grabbed, shoved, hit, kicked, and made fun of. I have tasted blood dripping off my lip and into my mouth. Hot and sweaty, I have fallen face-first in the dirt. The residue is gritty.

I hear, see, smell, touch, and taste the Passion story much more intensely than the baptism of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount or even the Christmas story. Trying to image the Christmas story, all I get is a crèche and the smell of hay mingled with baby powder. 

By contrast, the sensations of Passion Week are so close at hand that they make me cringe. As James Martin recently wrote at Slate.com:

The Easter story is relentlessly disconcerting and, in a way, is the antithesis of the Christmas story. No matter how much you try to water down its particulars, Easter retains some of the shock it had for those who first participated in the events during the first century. The man who spent the final three years of his life preaching a message of love and forgiveness (and, along the way, healing the sick and raising the dead) is betrayed by one of his closest friends, turned over to the representatives of a brutal occupying power, and is tortured, mocked, and executed in the manner that Rome reserved for the worst of its criminals.

The travails of a child born in a stable because there was no room at the inn are pitiable. The agonies of Gethsemane, the Praetorium, and Golgotha are unthinkable. And yet they cling like gritty dirt on a sweaty face. Real flesh, real skin poked by real thorns. Real whips leaving real welts and gashes. Real nails piercing real hands and feet. Real suffering and pain. Real blood and water oozing from a real spear thrust into a cooling corpse. Real death on a real Friday afternoon. A real grave. 

And then the Sabbath.

Holy Saturday is the oddest day of the year. An unknown ancient preacher wrote about the day, "Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep." Before he died on Friday, Jesus said, "It is finished," and it was. On Easter morning, everything began again. On Saturday, we wait in a time between the times.

Regarding Easter, James Martin writes:

More shocking than the crucifixion is the resurrection. Two thousand years later, it's still impossible for humanity to grasp this event fully. …What does the world do with a person who has been raised from the dead? Christians have been meditating on that for two millenniums. But despite the eggs, the baskets, and the bunnies, one thing we haven't been able to do is to tame that person, tame his message, and, moreover, tame what happened to him in Jerusalem all those years ago.

The Christian Gospel is not about dreams and visions. It is not about mystical experiences that detach body from spirit. It is not otherworldly at all. No, the message of the incarnate Son of God living, suffering, dying, and rising again is almost embarrassingly this-worldly. As such, it challenges all spiritualities and worldviews that separate the spiritual from the physical thereby devaluing our bodies, our actions, and the material world.

All these things come into vivid focus in the grit and glory of Holy Week.

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