Pilgrimage Through Holy Week

Read an excerpt from In the Company of Christ: A Pilgrimage through Holy Week by Benedicta Ward (Church Publishing, 2005):

Originally published April 7, 2006

From the fourth century until today, Christians have created things to do together, rituals, in order to experience for themselves the great simplicity of redemption. These rituals are meant to recur, they are the stones of an archway which, once built, is there to use, to go in and out by prayer and so to find pasture. We do not want to be rebuilding a different-shaped arch, however entrancing, but to use what we have, what we are used to, in order to enter into the real business of prayer. So the ceremonies of Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday, are there to be used, and this is a physical matter, a use of the body, so that all of ourselves will know. Intellectual apprehension of truth is all very well, and indeed for some it is enough; but for most of us, we live in a half-light, neither awake nor asleep, wanting to understand but not quite able to think it through; we need to be there to act it out, to participate. This is in no way an alternative or lesser kind of theologizing; by both ways we come to the central theme of redemption, the flesh-taking of Christ in which he returns to the Father and takes us unto the dynamic life of the Trinity which is the ultimate procession, and it is by physical processions that we can learn to become part of that reality.

post0a-holyweekpilgrimageThe last days of Holy Week provide a simple way of allowing the body, the flesh, to learn theological truth by doing and being in earthly processions. Palm Sunday’s procession is about how to do the basic human thing — to walk, to take one step, just to be able to do the next step, and to remain with that doing, not seeing a much quicker way to get there by a bus, a train, a ship, a plane, which are quicker than our feet; we are always dashing through in order to be somewhere else, and when we are there then we think we will begin. But the procession is a slow, corporate event, the pace set by the weakest and slowest. Like growing, a procession is something done for its own sake, and in doing it we are becoming what we are not, going by a way we do not understand, for a purpose that is God’s, not ours, in ways that are too simple for our sight. We will never of course be ready on earth for the full “procession” which is the dynamism of the life of love which is the Trinity, since we are broken human beings, with limited sight; but given our consent, God can lead us by the flesh he created, to understand and apprehend the image of God which he placed within us. All that is needed is to give a minute assent, however impatient and grudging, and then just to do it. A procession can be seen as a sacrament, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” In the same way that we read through the letter of the Scriptures to the inner truth, so we understand more by walking than we know; it is the work and gift of God.

Meditation upon the processions of Holy Week is rightly undertaken at its commencement. In the early church, for the first three days of Holy Week, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the custom was to have only plain readings from Scripture; later, what was read each day were the separate accounts of the Passion. Then as now, these were days of stillness and silence when all were to be prepared, emptied, turned towards the Saviour’s great work. After the signs we gave ourselves during Lent of being ready to become empty by giving things up and therefore more free, now that desire will be put to the test. There is nothing now to be done or thought. It is the end of Lent, the pause before the great mystery of Redemption. In this pause, it is possible to reflect on these three processions, on Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter night, as ways into the great procession which is the life of Trinity, and this is not just for ourselves here and now. First we walk with so many others from the past, joined with them by our present actions. We receive life from the hands of the dead to live it out ourselves and pass it on to others, and that is true tradition. We are walking with our friends. And second, we do not do this for ourselves only, but for the whole of creation; insofar as one small portion of humanity which is us assents to the love of God, so the whole of creation becomes part of redeeming work.