“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Jewish children will voice this question around Seder tables this week as families celebrate Passover and remember the ancient identity-forming story from Exodus 12-14. Likewise, we do well to ask ourselves as Christians, “Why is this week different from all other weeks? Why is this a holy week?”
Simply put, this week we too, with believers across the globe and over the centuries, rehearse and re-embrace the great story that shapes our lives.
Holy Week began this past Sunday, Palm Sunday, when churches marked Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem during the last week of his life to cries of “Hosanna! Hosanna!” It will conclude this coming Sunday, Easter Sunday, when we will sing our own “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” to celebrate the life and joy and hope of the resurrection. Between these two Sundays fall Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
Perhaps you have been observing Lent in some way over these last six weeks, fasting or forgoing something in order to heighten your dependence on God and to build your anticipation for this week. Good! But even if you have not been keeping Lent, the invitation into the life-giving, identity shaping, soul-bolstering meaning of this week stands. You make it holy by setting some time apart—and setting yourself apart—for attention to God, and God makes it holy by offering his presence and attention to you.
Here are a few insights and suggestions to help you observe Holy Week:
Maundy Thursday. Find a church offering this special evening service. The focus will be on the last night of Jesus’ life. It might include footwashing (See John 13), which can be a spiritually sweet experience. It will fittingly entail Communion. To begin the transition to Good Friday, some churches offer Tennebrae (Latin for “darkness, gloom”), a service of Scriptures and prayers during which the worship space is gradually darkened. By the way, “Maundy” is derived from the Latin mandatum meaning “mandate,” as in Jesus’ command on this night: “As I have loved you, you also should love one another.” If you cannot find a service, why not gather with a few friends to creatively rehearse the story of Jesus’ last night?
Good Friday. This is a day for quiet and thoughtfulness. Perhaps you could set aside a few hours for meditation and prayer—to rehearse the cruel story, to ponder the cross in its spiritual enormity, to reflect on what his death means for you personally. God’s incalculable self-sacrifice, our undeserved gain! Again, you could choose a service, midday or evening, for a worship experience centering on Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. Or meet with your group of friends to quietly attend to the cross together.
Holy Saturday. Sometimes called The Great Sabbath or Silent Saturday, this day corresponds to Jesus resting silently in the tomb. Again, a good day to be more quiet and reflective. Perhaps you will choose to fast. Maybe in some area of your life it feels as though you are stuck between the pain of Friday and the not-yet-realized hope of Sunday, a place where you are waiting for God to do something, but the waiting is hard. If so, this is a day to lean by faith into the promise of God.
Easter Sunday. Ah, this is the day to let your joy and gratitude and hope soar! Join God’s people in exuberant worship! Play music loudly. Buy fresh flowers. Feast with family or friends. Go for a walk and take in the beginnings of spring. Express your love to someone. Give thanks to the One who makes all things new, including you!
Whether you are on campus or home with your family or away somewhere for spring break, I invite you to make these coming days holy. I remember Easter during my junior year at UNC—Chapel Hill. My small group met in the Arboretum early that Sunday morning. The dogwoods and redbuds were in lovely bloom, the air held a crisp chill. I don’t recall exactly what we said, but I know we opened the Scriptures and rehearsed the story, our Story. We prayed, we sang, we expressed our hope in the resurrection, even though death seemed remote to us.
But as I begin my 60th year this Holy Saturday, having lost my father two years ago and knowing I’ve entered the last third of my life, the promise of Jesus grows ever more vivid and vital: "I am the resurrection and the life; those who believe in me, even though they die, will live."