Everyone looks forward to Easter morning, but how should we spend our time waiting for the Sunday celebrations?
A pastor stood up before his church and stated, “Christ has come to us through Adolph Hitler.”
The year was 1933.
The next year, a group of church leaders issued the Barmen Declaration in which they pledged their allegiances first to the actual Christ, Jesus. A young man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among their numbers.
A few years later, he would write a little book called The Cost of Discipleship in which he would lay out fundamental truths that believers dare not lose sight of in the face of cultural pressures to conform. He would be imprisoned several times by the Nazis for refusing to compromise or capitulate his beliefs. Eventually, he would end up in the Flossenbürg concentration camp where he would be executed mere weeks before World War II’s finale.
In his radical reflections, Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
“Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.
“Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son…”
The Stations of Holy Week
We enter Holy Week as an opportunity to be mindful of the cross’s great weight and the heavy cost of God’s grace.
“Increasingly, evangelical churches that have tended to look with suspicion on traditional ‘High-Church’ observances of Holy Week are now realizing the value of Holy Week services, especially on Good Friday,” wrote Dennis Bratcher in his resources for Christians. “This has a solid theological basis both in Scripture and in the traditions of the Faith.”
This week is one of the busiest of the Christian calendar. Palm Sunday kicks off the week. Sometimes Passover lands on this week, depending on the Hebrew calendar. This year, Passover begins Wednesday and ends on the evening of Holy Thursday when Christ would’ve eaten his last Seder meal. This is the day that Lent ends as people celebrate Jesus’ institution of communion and the transition from animal sacrifice to an eternal sacrifice.
Holy Thursday is occasionally also called Maundy Thursday. “The term Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum (from which we get our English word mandate), from a verb that means ‘to give,’ ‘to entrust,’ or ‘to order.’ The term is usually translated ‘commandment,’ from John's account of this Thursday night.”
Following Jesus’ example in John 13:1-35, some Christians wash one another’s feet on Maundy Thursday or volunteer at charitable organizations for the poor.
After this comes Good Friday. Church services almost universally focus on the significance of Christ’s sacrifice this night. Some explore the seven last words of Jesus in the gospels; others observe the stations of the cross, an examination of Jesus’ last hours and actions before his death.
Candles were systematically extinguished throughout the service to symbolize the disciples’ extinguishing hopes as they watched Christ march to his death. Some places may even dim the sanctuary lights until the final reading of scripture.
Traditionally, the service has no communion, no closing song, no final benediction. In near complete darkness, everyone quietly and somberly leaves the church.
After this is the silent, waiting Saturday where some church traditions hold an Easter vigil to honor the generations of God-followers who lived and died waiting for the promised Son. It’s also a time to remind believers of how we are now awaiting Christ’s second coming.
However it’s celebrated, Saturday is a day of reflection on our lives, meditation on God’s promises in scripture and waiting. Although we’re all looking forward to Easter, the time of feasting and joy has not yet arrived.
The world and church are both still holding their breath in anticipation.
Becoming Weekday Believers
Unlike Christmas or Easter Sunday itself, the days of Holy Week are not nearly as popular to celebrate. These days are the ones where we stare into the dark and acknowledge how badly both we and our world are wrecked.
Holy Week is for those who have witnessed suffering, who are in pain, who are desperately clutching God’s promises with dirty hands and splitting, bleeding nails.
Holy Week is for the broken and battered.
Church leader Emily Heath wrote in Huffpost, “As more churches cancel mid-week services due to low attendance and over-scheduled members, and instead roll all the stories into a Passion Sunday service on Palm Sunday, I wonder if we are losing that time we once had to sit with Christ in his own human struggles? And I wonder if when we lose that time, do we then lose our ability to learn to sit with others in their struggle, and with ourselves in our own?
“But what would Christian life look like if we took that time? What if we became known not just as the people who knew what to do on Sundays, but the ones who knew how to stay with you when your life was falling apart….
“What would happen if we weren’t just know for our Easter Sunday celebrations, but for our Thursday night solidarity? Our Friday afternoon compassion? The world has plenty of Sunday morning Christians. It needs a few more of the weekday ones.”
As we walk through the Bible’s account of Christ’s death, we are assured of his compassion for our own pains and fears. As we dwell on the suffering of Christ, we learn to be patient with others’ sufferings. As we sit in the shadow of the cross, we build an enduring hope for redemption even in the middle of tragedy and horror.
We can become Christians of celebration but also patience in our own troubles and compassion for others in their suffering.
The cost and weight of God’s work gives us a ballast in the worst of life’s storms.
Travelers in a Troubled Land
As we settle beneath the knowledge of Christ’s burden, we will be less moved by life’s turbulence and political upheavals and cultural demands.
Like Pastor Bonhoeffer, we can stand with steely assurance despite some of the worst nightmares that humanity can concoct if our attention is trained on the gritty truth of Jesus’ work on earth, his reasons for his death, his willingness to sacrifice himself for us and the call he left for us to live in the same Spirit.
“All around us today, we see our society and government dethroning Christ,” David Wilkerson mused, “refusing to acknowledge his authority and kingship. God is being removed from our schools and courts and is being ignored in making our laws.
“Those who submit to Christ’s lordship will walk in peace. Submitted Christians don’t live in fear, turmoil or anxiety. They’re clothed in peace. ‘Grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear …to give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1:74, 79 NKJV).
“What a wonderful promise! If we yield our lives to him, he will shine his light into our darkness, remove the shadow of death, and guide us into peace and rest.”
Holy Week is a reminder that in the dark, we have a steadfast light. Like the wise men of old, we have a guiding star that does not keep us from troubled lands or corrupt kings, but it does lead us to worship at the feet of the world’s Lord and Savior.