Holy Week – the week leading up to Easter – is full of named days and church services. It starts with Palm Sunday, with loud Hosannas and praises and donkey-riding-reeactments. Then there’s Maundy Thursday – the day we celebrate the Last Supper. This is followed by the ironically named Good Friday, the day on which Jesus died. Then everyone comes out in their finery to celebrate the resurrection on Sunday, even those who only come to church once or twice a year.
If you know a church musician or a pastor, this week is something of a marathon. There’s usually a huge push… Palm Sunday has big spectacle, then there’s a service on Thursday (with communion), on Friday (in the dark and quiet), and on Sunday with the biggest party of the year in the sanctuary. For many, there’s also a Sunrise Service in the wee sma’s of Easter morning. If you’re a pastor, that’s five big sermons (or meditations, or whatever) in 7 days. If you’re an organist or pianist, not only is it a lot of music you have to put together but it’s some of your hardest and most important of the whole year. Most of the liturgical professionals I know are completely wiped out after this week.
The Good Friday service is my favorite of the year. In our church, it’s the same down to the word, year after year. The only thing that changes is the name of the president and the UN Secretary General. We read through six scripture sets, extinguishing a light after each is read until the sanctuary is in total darkness. (Or rather, lit only by the extremely bright light that illuminates our parking lot. The year that it cycled on and off during the service was memorable to me.) Between those readings is only music and your own thoughts and prayers.
I have gotten better at this, over time. The first few years, I could hardly sit still and think, looking over and again for stimulation or change – unused and uncomfortable with the silence of my mind. This year, I sat heavy in my pew and was surprised when the time came to read again.
The other surprise is that, in those few words read over and over, I can still hear new things. This year on Good Friday, I heard something I’ve never heard before. It was in the voice of those many people who ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Son of God? Are you the King of the Jews?” Before, I only heard the leading, lying question trying to get him to implicate himself in front of the Romans in order to remove a nuisance. But this time, I heard another thing.
They really wanted to know. Moreover, some of those asking really, really wanted him to answer yes. This was the moment so many of those followers had been waiting for. This man whom they had watched work miracles – who a short time before had met with Elijah and Moses – would declare himself! He would be a second Moses, liberating the people from the domination of the Romans! He would show not just the hungry multitudes but the halls of power who he really was and what he could really do.
And it wasn’t just those Pharisees and soldiers asking and half hoping to hear a yes, nor only his disciples. Jesus is sent to Herod, who is totally excited because he’d been hearing about this guy and really wanted to see it for himself. If Jesus had given Herod anything to hold on to, he wouldn’t have been sent back to Pilate to die. Even if Jesus had just told a good story or two, or a minor miracle, maybe he would’ve gone on to great things within the Roman Empire!
All these people wanted Jesus for all these different things: for entertainment, for political need expediency, for rebellion, for leadership. Many of these people who looked to Jesus for deliverance were good people, who were asking for needed things. None of them were looking for Jesus to, oh, conquer death and provide atonement for sin. It just wasn’t on the agenda. Overthrowing the Romans: plausible. Dying and coming back from the dead: not plausible. (In this my reading of the Greek and Roman classics has been edifying. Virgil talks about Prometheus (Tityus), and the vast torment of being immortal while your liver gets ripped out and eaten every day. In their immortality the very power of those ancient gods is limited because – do what they will – they cannot die.)
I have heard before how unexpected the path of Jesus was to his followers: how this was not the outcome they expected. This is not in the stories. You’d don’t lose all the way, and end up winning. You don’t quietly accept shame and ignominy. (I promise you now that silence is not how Odysseus or Aeneis or Xerxes would have dealt with being mocked and abused.) But I had never before heard that note in the voice of his accusers, betrayers and killers. They were hoping he would prove them wrong.
“Look at you now!” they yelled at him. “You said you were going to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Well then, if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross!” Matthew 27:40
I had heard the mockery in it before. I had never before heard the half-hope that he would.
This is Holy Saturday. It deserves a cooler, more depressing name, like “Black Saturday” or “Golgotha Saturday” or “Despair Saturday” or “Holy crap he actually died, what do we do now?” Saturday. It’s the only full day that Jesus was actually dead. It always seemed to me like a day where were should just stop – like a day where we should rend our hair and mourn and walk around in a shocked trance.
Of course, I did nothing of the sort today. In fact, I had a lovely day that included a nice lie-in, breakfast in bed, a spring-flower walk, an Easter egg hunt in a local part (which was a dud), followed by an impromptu Easter egg hunt in my backyard with the neighbors (which was not) and a family movie. Great day, in fact.
But there in the back of my mind was the set-apartness of this day. If you go from Palm Sunday to Easter, or from Christmas to Easter, or from Easter to Easter… you miss the best part. On Easter, Jesus does something that humans could not do: to be raised from the dead. But on this Saturday, he was doing something the little “g” gods of mythology could not do: be human enough to die and be dead.
Tonight is dark with the grim settling reality for those who loved Jesus. That really happened. He really died. When we thought he would wage his mysterious eloquence against the powers of the world, he shut up and went silent and the fickle crowds abandoned him – including us, to our everlasting shame and horror. We sold him out. We fell asleep. We lied about knowing him. We shouted “crucify him” from the crowds and threatened a riot. We gambled for his clothes and put sour wine on a stick for him. We made fun of him. We did little to be proud of this week.
But tomorrow will come with the vast surprise of resurrection (as it has every year for almost 2000 now), and a confusion of pancakes and chocolate and bunnies and preludes and trumpets and ham dinners and nice dresses and really tired clergypeople with adrenaline highs. We will take the purple off our communion tables, welcome back whatever we gave up for Lent, and catch the baseball game in the afternoon.
But – hopefully – we will remember that the miracles we look for are not always the miracles we get. The miracles we get may be far bigger, far more profound, and far less predictable, and less comfortable, than we ever dreamed.