Christians call the week beginning with Palm or Passion Sunday Holy Week.
On the face of it, there is little that is “holy” about it. Take any of the four gospel accounts of the passion and death of Christ, and we are faced with an unremitting account of betrayal, arrest, imprisonment, torture, political and religious intrigue, violence, mass hysteria, cowardice – all culminating in one of the slowest and most painful forms of state murder: crucifixion. What on earth is “holy” about such X-rated evil?
Quite a lot actually.
There is the obvious: that the crucifixion is not the end of the story, and that after his slow painful death his resurrection occurs.
But there is more. In even the bleakest of Tartan Noir or the darkest Scandinavian thriller there is redemption of sorts; there are scenes or characters who transcend the evil around them, even if only for a short time. We also find transcendence even in the depths of the Passion story.
There is the courage of those who stood by Christ. Particularly the women, one of whom is his mother Mary, who remain at the foot of the cross as he dies, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who together take Christ’s body and prepare it for burial. Even some of those who denied Christ regretted their actions and tried to make amends – particularly Peter who, after swearing three times he did not know Jesus, spent the rest of his life spreading his message, eventually being crucified himself. And let’s not forget the thief crucified with Christ who, according to Luke’s Gospel, in the midst of his own unimaginable pain acknowledges his crimes and asks for forgiveness.
Christ himself, in his death agonies, asks “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). This theme of forgiveness runs through all the Gospels, but particularly that of Luke. But to offer that forgiveness while dying one of the most painful deaths imaginable shows just how important, how crucial, reconciliation is.
Reconciliation doesn’t mean denying what we believe in or compromising on our principles (that, after all, is what Peter did when he denied Christ). It doesn’t mean we allow others to control us or walk all over us; neitgher does it mean we back down in the face of threats and refuse to defend ourselves. It means we acknowledge our own faults and ask forgiveness from others at the same time as we offer our forgiveness. Reconciliation means using our principles and our strengths to offer the hand of friendship to those who have been our enemies. Before we can offer reconciliation, we need to seek our own reconciliation and seek to forgive ourselves. Peter was able to achieve this; sadly Judas was unable to do so.
The alternative to reconciliation is a downward vicious spiral of ever increasing violence, not just individual against individual, but ideology against ideology, race against race, religion against religion, often leading to the “enemy” or the “other” being demonised and leading to further violence and death, sometimes even genocide. Sadly, Christians themselves, ignoring the message of Christ, have often perpetuated this process. The medieval crusades, the roots of anti-Semitism and the massacre of native populations in the Americas are historical examples of Christians ignoring the meaning of Jesus in the name of Jesus.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Brussels, as with earlier terrorist attacks in New York, London, Madrid, Paris and Ankara, we are faced with a choice. We can continue to fight fire with fire, we can continue to respond to terrorism with violence of our own – whether that be sending yet more troops to middle eastern and north African countries or, as suggested by Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, erecting barriers – or we can acknowledge that approach has failed and admit our own responsibility in the escalating violence the world is experiencing.
If Holy Week has any meaning for us, it lies in understanding that killing our enemies is no solution, that ideas can transcend the death of individuals. Christ’s resurrection is a moment of supreme transcendence, one we celebrate every Easter, one we should use as an inspiration in our search for reconciliation with ourselves and with others.