Holy Week, the last week of Lent, begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday. Good Friday is the day that receives the most attention, and for good reason. Yet the entire week offers an opportunity for us to deepen our relationship with Christ and our appreciation for His sacrifice.
With that goal in mind, here are two words to focus on as we prepare our hearts for Holy Week.
Word #1: Empathy
Hebrews 4:15 offers this assurance: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus is able can empathize with our human frailties because He became fully human. What we don’t often consider is that the potential for empathy runs both ways. We can’t fathom what it means to be fully God, but we have a pretty good handle on what it means to be fully human. We know all too well what loneliness and dread feel like.
So, we imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the cheers of the crowd—alone in the knowledge that, in a matter of days, the people’s adulation would curdle into disappointment and then hatred. Imagine being able to comprehend the full measure of God’s wrath—which Jesus could do, since He is God—and realizing that wrath would soon be turned against you.
Imagine knowing that, in a matter of hours, you were going to suffer an excruciating death—and having no one to talk to about it, no one to give you comfort. Jesus’ disciples couldn’t seem to grasp what was about to happen, even though Jesus had tried to make them understand time and time again.
When His burden became almost too much to bear, Jesus turned to His three closest friends for help. He asked a simple favor of them: to stay awake and keep watch for those who would betray Him while He focused His attention on the most intense prayer session of His life. All three of them fell asleep.
Jesus watched His followers scatter when His enemies came for Him. He felt the betrayal of Judas Iscariot and the denials of Peter. He was rejected, taunted, and beaten by the human race He had come to save.
The question is, can we feel it? Can we empathize, even slightly, with what Jesus must have experienced? Let that be our first aim this Holy Week.
Word #2: Tension
Let our second aim be to embrace the tension of Holy Week. To do that, we must look at it from a first-century perspective. Easter Sunday is the most joyous day of the Christian calendar. Yet its full impact can’t be felt unless we understand the uncertainty that preceded Jesus’ resurrection. Easter Sunday is the surprise ending to the greatest cliffhanger in human history.
Keep in mind that Jesus’ death was an especially cruel blow to those who had embraced His teachings. Jesus had released them from the burdens of Old Testament law. He had shown them a new way. He had promised everlasting life.
He had given them hope, direction, and purpose.
And when He died, all of that supposedly died with Him. His message was tied to His identity. If He was not who He claimed to be, His promises and the truth He spoke were null and void. If He could be silenced by death, so could everything He stood for.
So, on that Sabbath, the Silent Saturday of Holy Week, all must have seemed lost.
Or almost all.
A flicker of hope remained. Someone paying very close attention would have recognized that the events surrounding Jesus’ death followed a familiar pattern—one that Jesus Himself had predicted. “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day” (Matthew 16:21).
Someone paying very close attention would have recognized that the fate of humankind hung in the balance that Saturday. The apostle Paul expresses that tension well in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.”
If the grave held Him, all was lost. Death would remain undefeated. There would still be a great chasm between God and humanity. In Israel, the Jewish people would settle back into their religious routines. And the rabbi from Nazareth would be forgotten within a few years.
If, on the other hand, the grave could not hold Him, the world would never be the same.
We can maintain our focus throughout Holy Week by meditating on the tension of if—on everything that hung in the balance between Jesus’ death and resurrection.
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