Professor John Swinton, a former psychiatric nurse-turned practical theologian at Aberdeen University, reflects on the events leading up to the death of Jesus and ponders their significance for our lives today
Holy Week is the week that occurs before the cross and resurrection of Jesus. It’s that crucial time for Christians where Jesus begins to move towards Jerusalem, begins to recognise the horribleness of what’s happening to him. Other people are not really recognising that - in fact, on Palm Sunday, everybody thinks this is a wonderful thing! But Jesus knows what’s going on.
Then through to the cross, to the emptiness of Holy Saturday, to the joy of the resurrection. So, it’s a timeful movement that is fundamental to the nature of what Christians believe.
The relevance of Holy Week
Holy Week is a time of peacefulness. It’s a time of hopefulness. But it’s also a time of lostness. There’s beauty in the resurrection, obviously. The resurrection is our hope, the resurrection is on the other side. We’re all, in that sense, moving towards there. But the thing about Holy Week that always strikes me as troublesome is that impending sense of not quite doom, the emphasis of the horror of the cross. And the way in which even Jesus himself was so anxious, so troubled by that, but at the same time, so courageous, to move through to that.
I think the beauty of that dimension of Jesus, his journey, is that he was fearful but he was courageous. Sometimes, as Christians, we think we’ve got to have no fear whatsoever. I think you’ve got to be courageous - that is to recognise your fear and to push on, even in the midst of that. That courageousness of Jesus is profound.
For me, the cross is just so painful. The Gospels are so beautiful, the stories of Jesus are so wonderful, and the way in which Jesus’ character is narrated throughout. And then suddenly, your friend, the healer, is on the cross in this horrible situation. And I just always find that a source of brokenness because I realise that we still, in many ways, live on this side of the cross. And when it comes to that point, I find there’s a sense of brokenness within me.
How we live a life informed by Holy Week
Holy Week gives us an interesting map for life. We have a destination, we have the resurrection. So, as Christians, we can be sure that things are in the hands of God and ultimately will be alright. But the way in which Holy Week works itself out, from Palm Sunday through to Good Friday and Holy Saturday, these are all aspects of life that we go through on various occasions.
At one level it’s historical, because they happen in the life of Jesus. But these emotions, these feelings, these ways of being in the world, are things we all experience. So, I think Holy Week offers us different spaces, places to go to, when we’re feeling in different kinds of moods and going through different things. There are different aspects of Holy Week we can identify with.
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It may be Holy Saturday. Maybe we just need to sit there and understand the depths of the pain and suffering we’re going through, always in the light of the resurrection. It may be Palm Sunday, where we are thinking “this is fantastic”. And so, it gives us a way of thinking about the complex diversities of the way our lives are.
When we think about the pandemic, we all talk about this new world that’s going to be emerging from the pandemic. And I think about this in light of Palm Sunday. On Palm Sunday, everybody was really excited, everybody was really hoping for great things. And then they ended up with this Passion story and then the resurrection. So, the resurrection was completely different from the expectations they had on Palm Sunday.
What the resurrection sometimes does is it modifies our expectations. So, we may have great expectations for what a good life is, what the post-pandemic life is, but God is full of surprises. And the resurrection is the biggest surprise.
Palm Sunday teaches us to look at the world differently and to look at ourselves and our own exuberance and expectations differently.
This is an adaptation of Ruth Jackson’s Holy Week conversation with Professor John Swinton on Unapologetic. To hear more from John, check out this episode.