Holy Week is the high mark of the church’s liturgical year. In it we celebrate Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, from his arrival on Palm Sunday to his death on Good Friday, to his resurrection on Easter Sunday, with all the momentous events in between. There are many ways to commemorate the week, from personal reading of scripture, to family traditions, to the special liturgies and prayers of the church. These practices not only assist us in remembering Jesus’ final week; they also train us in the way of the Cross, teaching us what it means for us to follow after Jesus. For though only a few of us will die a martyr’s death, Jesus calls upon every one of his disciples to take up his cross:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? (Mark 8:34-36)
What does it mean for the Christian to take up his cross? The details will differ by person, but the general pattern is the same: we pour ourselves out in sacrificial love, serving God and neighbor. And when we are tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil, we respond with self-denial, turning to the Lord as our highest good and waiting on him in patience. The contemplation of Holy Week, then, does not necessarily show us the details of our own cross, but it does show us the one Cross which gives the pattern to our own, the self-denial of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desired not to die yet accepted his crucifixion as the will of his Father: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
The conclusion of Holy Week is Easter Sunday, the celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death. Easter is Good News to us in many ways, not least because it means that Jesus is not only our example; even better, Jesus is our Savior. As we seek to follow after Christ and to deny ourselves, inevitably we will fail, succumbing to temptation, sinning and falling short of the obedience of Christ. But Jesus has risen from the grave; he who “was delivered up for our trespasses” is now “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In other words, Christ has already saved us, apart from anything that we can do on our own. All our efforts to cover ourselves with our own righteousness are but filthy rags, but by his death and resurrection Christ freely covers us with his righteousness. He was stripped that we might be clothed. He died that we might live. He rose that we might rise with him, born again to newness of life.
Thus we return to the way of the Cross, walking in the power of Christ. We walk by faith, not by sight, believing that the same Father who delivered his Son from the grave is working in us. He has justified us in his Son, is sanctifying us by his Spirit, and is drawing us to himself. In the celebration of Holy Week, God is revealing his glory, and calling us in Christ to participate in it. Therefore let us pray, in the words of the Collect for Monday in Holy Week, with earnest longing and true hope:
Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 607)