Thought for the Week – What’s holy about holy week?

Hear from Lucy Winkett in this week’s edition of Thought for the Week, as she asks ‘What’s Holy about Holy Week?’ and considers
the ethics of watching.

Background Shape
Church Window Mask
Lucy Winkett

Brave war reporters are going into basements in Ukraine to find bodies, are filming piles of executed people in mass graves. Photographers are putting their own lives in danger to make sure that for those of us who are not there, we can still see the horror of Mariupol, Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv.

The events of Holy Week, this week, are a hard watch too. A peaceful, provocative yes, but luminous healer and preacher Jesus is betrayed, abandoned by everyone he thought were his friends, and is subject to the hubris of frightened politicians and jealous religious leaders who stir up the people. Those people demand his death, willing to run with the crowd to the extent that a murderer’s release seems preferable to the saving of this one peaceful life.

The events of Holy Week move inexorably on, day by day. And the following of these events in the ancient liturgies and rituals of the church gives a framework, a rhythm, a focus to the facing of the violence inherent in the story and visible in the world today.

The liturgies are deliberately immersive. A real live donkey leads people through the streets on Palm Sunday, hands were anointed with pungent nard, mixed with olive oil on Holy Tuesday. On Maundy Thursday, feet are washed and bread is shared. On Good Friday, no bells are rung, no communion is shared, and no flames are lit for two days until dawn on Easter Day. The life -sized, or should we say, death-sized cross, is stark and placed in the centre of the church for what is often a rather gruelling three hours from noon on the day that Jesus dies.  On the Saturday, there is quiet preparation for the next day: flowers are brought to the church, bread is made, songs are sung at Compline and then vigil is kept all night, until dawn in the garden, when one of the most ancient songs of the church – the Exultet – is sung to announce that death has been overcome by the irreducible life of God in the world.

One of the most appalling aspects of crucifixion as a method of execution is that it was designed to be seen. A public agony, as a deterrent to insurrection for an occupied people.  And violent states down the ages have used public executions formally and informally from lynchings to guillotines to firing squads to force their frightened populations into submission.

What are the ethics of watching?

The church’s liturgies challenge our desire to remain bystanders and demand that we become not just observers but witnesses. Witnesses do not look away but also, like Mary Magdalene, act in response to what they have seen.   The church’s call is to become active witnesses, not only to the gospel events then but to the crucifixions and betrayals that happen now.  One of the church’s vocations is to help to create witnesses; people who see the not only the injustices of the world, but people who also begin to trace the outline of a better world, a more hopeful future realisable in the present, a resilient insistence that this is not all there is: that love is stronger than death. Witnesses who see, yes, but then testify to both the horror and the hope they can see.

At the time of writing, Easter day with its trumpets and melodies, fresh flowers, baked bread and good wine, feels far away. There is much to see, much to witness, before then.  And for many people today, displaced by war, despairing in the midst of famine, living under oppressive regimes or unjust systems, it seems as if Alleluia will never be sung again.

But one of the most compelling traditions of Christianity is that it is a way of looking at the world that insists on witnessing to the paradox of human living: both the facing of the war that has its seeds sewn in every human heart, and also the indestructible hope and life that Easter Day proclaims.

At a time of pandemic and war, immersing ourselves in the bigger story of God of which we are part, gives us both realism and hope that will defeat despair and invites us to stake ourselves, to live freely, immersed in the possibility of new life, even in the midst of death.