We have come now to the beginning of the Great Week in our faith, the stripping away of all that is secondary and the entrance into the Mystery of our salvation. And today we have taken our first steps on that journey—one where we know the ending, the destination. Perhaps, though, we are so familiar with that destination we have forgotten something very precious about it.
So, I am going to tell you a familiar story, but in an edited way.
Once there was a man named Jesus who was also God’s only Son—the Savior known as the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus taught, healed, and preached Good News to his people. Many people looked upon him with great hope. While in his ministry, he told his closest followers a number of times that he would eventually have to confront the religious and political authorities, be tried and executed in the cruelest possible way, and then would rise again. They did not understand this. Eventually, he and his disciples came to the Great City that was the seat of political and religious power. On a certain day, Jesus entered into that city with much pomp and acclaim, being hailed as king and savior by many.
Then, he appeared to his closest followers and said: “I am risen from the dead.” And they were all amazed, confused, and joyful.
And that’s all you need to know. The End.
You might be thinking: there is something wrong with this story, it leaves out some very important things! Where is the Last Supper? The foot-washing? The agony in the garden? Christ’s arrest, his trial and sufferings, his crucifixion, death, and burial? How can you say this is “all you need to know?” It is only part of the story.
But this is exactly what one takes away from Holy Week if one participates in Palm Sunday and Easter only. And that is my message to you.
The Episcopal Church is not normally a church of extremes. We do not require adherence to a complicated set of fasting rules. We do not forbid dancing or playing cards because of their potential for sinfulness. We do not make members sign lengthy documents stating exactly what they believe on an ever-increasing number of doctrinal and “hot-button” issues. Our tradition does not make membership contingent on shunning society and socializing only with other Episcopalians. In many things, we are a tradition that emphasizes the mean, the balance between extremes, the moderation that allows for discernment, wisdom, wholeness.
This balance and discernment must never degenerate into tepidness or lukewarmness, for there is nothing tepid or lukewarm about Christ’s love for us, and our response must be fitted to what we have received: love for love, faithfulness for faithfulness.
What we have begun today is an encounter, one which will change us if we allow it. But we must be willing to share all of Christ’s journey—not only the parts we enjoy or find easy. Beginning with the words of the Passion Gospel today, we must descend into the struggle, betrayal, fear, pain, loss, abandonment, and—yes—the catastrophe of death and the tragedy of humanity itself if we are to greet the Paschal light of Resurrection.
And so we share in the liturgies of Holy Week…long, tiring, schedule-altering and often emotional times of worship where there is more personal participation and sacrifice than at any other time of the year.
We do this not so we can say: “I have fulfilled my obligation.” We can never do that. Besides, what would that mean beside the vastness of God’s love for us this week? Instead, we journey along with Christ in this holy encounter so that we might be able to encounter him in the life of others, and in our own journey through joys, sorrows, and even through death itself. We make this pilgrimage because without it we may not know how to be Christ to another when it most counts.
Many years ago there was a member of the parish I served who became very ill. His children lived far away, and reluctantly, he called them to tell them he was dying. When his older daughter came to the hospital, I met her. She had a great deal to say about her father: he had not been a loving father to his family and, she felt, especially to her. He had broken up the family through divorce and had gone on to live apart from them. Coming back to be with him as he died was very hard. There was much to be mended.
She spent time with her father each day as he gradually withdrew from the world. They came to speak freely and with great affection and tears. He asked for her forgiveness, and she gave it to him. Finally, when he was near death, she decided there was only one thing left to do: she climbed into the hospital bed and nestled close to her father—imperfect, at times deeply selfish, yet the father she loved and desired to have peace with—and she sang to him. She was the parent to him that he had not been to her. As he passed from this life, she embraced him with the affection of a young child. Their lives had been mended through mercy, compassion, truth, and love. The final barrier was broken.
St. Paul tells us in the lesson from Philippians always read on this day that Christ, though in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be exploited, or as another translation of the Greek text says, “grasped” like a jealously-guarded private possession. Instead of holding his divinity to himself, Christ offers his divine love to all, to the point of emptying himself completely for us, dying with us, “even death on a cross.” In his death, he annihilates the barrier that divides God from humanity and person from person.
By walking through this week together, Christ’s total identification with us in all of our struggles and pains will be revealed. We will find not only that Christ has broken the barriers between God and us, climbing into our own bed of suffering so that we may never be alone, but that he will give us the courage to break down the barriers between us and the others in our life, and between the false self we have developed, the mask we wear, and the true self, the child of God that he has loved and for which given his life.
But this knowledge, this courage and love cannot be had if we skip over what frightens us or we find inconvenient this week. Without the foot-washing, the stripping of the altar, the veneration of the Cross, the weeping at the tomb…we remain unchanged, still pretending that we can live as always. For us, Christ will have remained a distant figure, not one who has climbed into the mess and confusion of our life and loved us, embraced us, sung to us, to the end.
And so the Church invites her members to be at every step in the journey not because Christ needs us to be there, but because we need it. The burning love of Christ for us made him go through this week of tragedy and trial so that we might live in him and share in his victorious love when we face our own passion, our own Gethsemane, our own Golgotha—as well as our Resurrection with our Risen Lord.
The time ahead is precious; every moment of this encounter is reconciling us to God, our neighbor, and our destiny in the Kingdom. Christ chose this way and no other. None of it may be “edited out.” Let us walk these steps together with him.