As my friend and co-worker, Trey Colson, was combing through the liturgies that different church traditions have used to celebrate Holy Week, he noticed something that struck him—and as he shared it with me, it struck me as well. A seemingly small detail at the end of the Maundy Thursday service: The service continues on Good Friday. And then at the end of the Good Friday service: The service continues on Easter.
That phrase, with its key word continues, communicated something significant for us. We tend to emphasize Easter, celebrating it as an isolated event in the church calendar, and as much as it really is the culmination of the whole story of creation, it is also the culmination of a chapter in that story known as Holy Week.
The week is framed in triumph. First as triumph from a human perspective, and lastly as triumph on a cosmic scale.
On Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week, we witness Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, welcomed by the cheers of those who expected him to be the Messiah—a political messiah who would overthrow Rome with her secularism and power, and the religious persecution that is born out of the marriage of the two. It is called the triumphal entry because it was triumph over Rome that was expected. It has remained the triumphal entry because, misguided as they may have been, those who cheered for the one who would set the captives free were cheering for something truer and better than they knew.
The chapter continues on Thursday—Maundy Thursday—in an upper room where Jesus sits down with his closest friends to share a Passover meal, remembering again God’s deliverance of his people from the power and persecution of Egypt. They were delivered because they painted the blood of a lamb above their doors. For these households, death passed over without demanding its terrible requirement. They were later sustained by bread from heaven in the wilderness. So Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and says, “This is my body, broken for you.” He pours the wine and says, “This is my blood, poured out as a ransom for many.” Before this, he had wrapped a servant’s towel around his waist and washed everyone’s feet, offering them clues as to the kind of triumph they should be looking for in the coming hours. As the meal concludes, he is betrayed by one of his own with a kiss.
Hours pass—dark hours in a garden as Jesus pleads with God to let the cup of his suffering be withdrawn. He sweats blood. His friends fall asleep instead of keeping a prayerful vigil. He is taken captive, tried, beaten, and sentenced to die as those who had cheered for him as Messiah days earlier now chant, “Crucify him!”
A page of the chapter turns and it is noon on Friday—Good Friday as it is both aptly and ironically called. The sun is blotted out and the sky is black. There are nails piercing the hands and feet of the Most High, and his head is mocked with a crown of thorns as he is offered the cruel comfort of gall to drink. His mother is weeping. There are thieves hanging to his right and left—one pleading for life and the other cursing him. Soldiers are gambling for his cloths and his friends are nowhere to be found. He screams—words from a Psalm—and it is finished.
The Son of God is slain by the sons of Adam. And his blood is on us, and on our children, and on our children’s children. Lord, have mercy and—thanks be to God.
The story continues on Easter.