The first time I experienced a 'walk through Holy Week' was when I joined the Ichthyan Singers in Cambridge. The name of the choir was taken from the Greek word ἰχθύς (or ichthus) meaning fish. One of the symbols used by early Christians was the fish. The Greek word 'ichthus' is an acronym for 'Iesous Christos, Theou Hios, Soter', the transliterated Greek words meaning 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Saviour'.
The choir sang the full range of church choral music from Palestrina, Bach and Tallis to Bairstow, Finzi, Howells and the blues! Each Holy Week we spent the eight days in one parish, singing all the services. This introduced me to the practice of journeying through the events of the last week of Jesus' life and, to some extent, experiencing the emotions they engender. It's an overwhelmingly powerful story of celebration, betrayal, misunderstanding, political intrigue, legal process, torture, crowd pressure, forgiveness, death, grief, astonishment, reconciliation and hope. Over the years I've continued to keep Holy Week with Christian communities as varied as a Roman Catholic seminary, a Maltese parish, four British cathedrals, churches on vast outer city estates and the deeply rural churches of North Yorkshire. For the past three years, worshipping as a Quaker, I have not kept Holy Week but have endeavoured to focus on recognising the experiences held within the story through weekly contemplation at Quaker Meeting, meditation with other Christians and people of prayer in our villages, and through daily silence and private meditation.
The purpose of this post is not to suggest that one way of marking the events of Jesus' death and resurrection is 'right' or 'better' than another. It is, rather, to try to express something of the impact of dwelling on them on everyday life.
It's undoubtedly true that the journey I embarked on with the Ichthyan Singers was the beginning of a life long practice of drawing strength and inspiration from the many layers of the stories in the Gospels. There is something about living, if only for a week each year, with the words of Jesus ringing in your ears and His, at times, puzzling actions at the forefront of your imagination that builds into a rich storehouse of imagery and thought resourcing you for everyday life. Facing death, bereavement, grief, pain, argument, betrayal and life's inevitable tragedies has been done through the lens of Jesus' story. Darkness, conflict, despair and death are very real and feel very much like endings but the events of Jesus' death and resurrection allow us to tangle with what life sends in the light of a broader context where death is experienced as the precursor of a renewed and different life. In particular, for me, the liturgy and poetry of Holy Week have been sources of inspiration and empowerment for nursing and for ministry with those facing terminal illness and the loss of loved ones.
However, it's also true that there is a danger in this concentrated form of remembering. For years I've been very aware of the way Christians tend to stuff Lent and Holy Week full of extra activity and extra talk of sin without there being a noticeable sense of renewal beyond the emotion of the activities themselves. For seven weeks of the year there is a psychologically heavy feel to the words and music of the churches. Sometimes this coincides well with the period just before the earth wakes up and trees and plants spring into bud; other years, when Easter is late, there is a dissonance between the sombre world of the desert prophets and the joyously emerging spring. Either way there can be a sense that the spiritual path you are invited to walk is not touching the real things of your life as much as it might. It's sometimes more like a soon-forgotten pilgrimage of good intentions rather than a slow dawning of renewed and sustained changes in behaviour.
Quakers look to experience divine life in the here and now, in our own lives this very day. To that extent, although there is no problem with remembering and celebrating texts and events that speak of how God inhabits death and life, the focus of our attention is on the ways God inhabits both the created order and the individual human spirit now, today. The desire is to see and hear where the Spirit is leading us. The themes of betrayal, death, resurrection and the indwelling of God are lived out in acts of truth-telling, justice, reconciliation and restored dignity only as we attend to the leadings of the Spirit of God within us every day. One of the conditions for this 'leading' is silence in which listening can happen. And one of the conditions for silence is a greater simplicity of life where everything is stripped back and the important begins to emerge.
Perhaps it's worth lingering over the meaning of some of Jesus' post resurrection words, and pondering how they shape us and our living?
'Do not hold on to me, but go.' Don't cling for safety to the familiar, even the familiar things of faith. Go to all without preference or favour?
'Peace be with you.' Be people of peace whatever the cost?
'Receive the Holy Spirit.' Search out and live by that of God within you?
'Tend my lambs, feed my sheep.' Work for the practical, physical well-being of all people and the distribution of the earth's resources so all can live?
'Someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.' Be willing for whatever God's Spirit directs you to?