A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
The Longest Week
April 17, 2014
Pastors and worship committees testify that no week of the year is more filled with worship demands than Holy Week. Our Book of Common Worship devotes 65 pages to Holy Week services, not including Easter Sunday. By comparison, the next busiest week of the church year, Christmas Week, occupies all of 12 pages. Measured just by the sheer quantity of time spent in church, this is far and away the longest week of the year.
Yet that pales compared to the Gospel story itself. Except for brief birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, the Gospels cover a three-year period from Jesus’ Baptism through his Ascension – and about one-third of their pages focus on the week from Palm Sunday to his burial.
Everything seems to go into slow motion in that final week. It may be taken as a slowing-down rooted in love, as Jesus’ followers seek to cling to every word as his days draw to a close. Or it may be felt as a slowing-down derived from agony, where the intensity of pain stretches every moment into an eternity. Either way, it’s the longest week of Jesus’ brief life.
“Lent” is shorthand for “lengthening,” a reference to the days getting longer as springtime emerges. But paradoxically, as daylight grows longer, the skies get darker in that awful week. During his ministry, Jesus’ stories usually unfold during the day-time, but most of the action in Holy Week takes place amid the darkness of night. Finally as Jesus hangs on the cross, darkness takes over at midday, until Jesus breathes his last. Holy Week marks the culmination of Lent as a lengthening of darkness, rather than of light.
Under the darkness of the grave time stops altogether, it seems. Many have speculated about what happened to Jesus when after his burial “he descended into hell,” in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Some have held that while his body lay in the grave he made “proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.” (1 Peter 3:19-20) Others have claimed that it was on Holy Saturday that Jesus “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:9) in order to raise captives to glory. For many it is enough to say that he was “asleep,” just as he described Lazarus’ state in the grave.
When a loved one dies, time loses all ordinary cadence. There is a rush of making arrangements for services and burial, in which there is never enough time to get it all done. At the same time, time slows nearly to a standstill as life without the presence of our beloved seems almost impossible to imagine, let alone to embrace.
I grew up in a generation in which many Protestants scarcely noted Holy Week. They went straight from the Hosannas of Palm Sunday to the Hallelujahs of Easter, with the week between feeling pretty much like any other week. Over the past fifty years many Protestants have rediscovered the observance of Holy Week, and the immense slow-down it entails. Most churches now stop to observe Maundy Thursday, Tenebrae services on Good Friday are becoming more common, and Easter Vigil is being increasingly embraced.
There is a time to speed up and increase productivity, and there is a time to slow down and let things go. We live much more in the former than we do in the latter. Holy Week is a gift, an annual opportunity to do something truly counter-cultural in our task-oriented, success-driven world. It reminds us that Easter’s new life cannot spring forth in its glory until we walk the halting steps of grief that attend Holy Week. Not until we believe all is lost are we ready to be Easter people.
This is why I am not discouraged by those who proclaim that the church is dying, that denominations are losing, and that there is no hope for our fellowship’s future. Naysayers may wish to hasten the death of institutions and enterprises in which they have lost faith, and thereby to confirm the superiority of their own agendas. But the long story of the church is just like the story of Jesus – it is a story in which embracing the cross is as integral to our identity as is the victory of resurrection. It is a story in which pruning is as much a part of being prepared for harvest as is growth. It is a story that calls us to slow down as well as to press forward. It is an invitation that bids us come and die so that we may live.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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