Today is Palm Sunday, which marks what many Christians refer to as “Holy Week.” It is the climax of the liturgical year. As our pastor observed this weekend, it is an “emotional rollercoaster.”
We begin with Palm Sunday, which marks Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem. It is a triumphal entry. He is welcomed by adoring crowds who greet him in a celebratory fashion by waving palm branches. But not long after, he is taken into custody by the religious leaders, then handed over to the secular Roman leaders. He is tried and convicted. He receives the death penalty. And the Romans had a particularly cruel form of imposing death on convicts: crucifixion.
Not only does Jesus die a torturous death as a common criminal, he is abandoned in a cowardly fashion by those closest to him. Those who had vowed at the last supper to never betray him, those who had previously declared their love and loyalty to him, soon would protest that they hadn’t even known him. Jesus died in agony alone in this world.
But that is not the end of the story. For Christians, this week will end with Easter. It is the reason we call ourselves “Christians.” It marks Jesus’s triumph over death. For himself. For us.
Before we get to that glorious point, however, we spend this week in preparation. We Christians are not just a bunch of dour folks, gluttons for punishment. That is not why we spend Holy Week remembering Christ’s final days on this earth. We take time to remember his entrance into Jerusalem, his last supper, his last night when he knew his arrest was imminent, the crowd’s demand to release Barabbas instead of Jesus and Christ’s passion because without doing so, the resurrection would lack context.
As a lawyer, I find Holy Week particularly interesting. Jesus of Nazareth was considered a common criminal in his day. That’s what the authorities in his land determined. He was tortured and executed as a criminal. Yet a large percentage of the world’s population worships him as God. What a curious thing. I would think that would particularly give us Christians a certain sympathy for those caught up in the criminal justice system. We of all people should understand that such systems are not perfect and innocent people can be convicted, even executed.
The behavior of the twelve is particularly interesting to me. If someone were to ask why I’m a Christian, one thing that I could cite is the behavior of the twelve before and after Jesus’s death. During his ministry, they traveled with him and seemed convinced he had a special relationship with God, and might be the messiah. Some of the twelve even quarreled about getting a special spot of preference in heaven because of their earthly relationship with Jesus.
They didn’t get it. In those days, the concept of “messiah” was that someone was to be sent by God to make things right, to crush enemies. The person was supposed to be powerful. When Jesus was arrested, convicted and crucified, the twelve were confused. That was not supposed to happen to the messiah. Their dreams were crushed. This man they had followed, loved and worshipped seemed to not be the one they thought he was. How devastating. They retreated in fear and defeat, hiding because they thought the authorities might next come for them.
But something happened a few days later. It changed the course of history. These defeated, depressed, disloyal cowards experienced the risen Jesus. It was such a game changer that these men who exhibited such cowardly behavior days before became incredibly emboldened. They no longer feared earthly leaders with earthly powers. They preached the gospel and literally went to the ends of the earth to do so. They willingly risked their lives to do so. Indeed, most of the twelve were killed for their evangelization.
Holy week is about understanding those huge changes of attitude. The disciples’ reactions after the crucifixion don’t mean as much if we don’t understand how they behaved beforehand. We remember the abandonment of Jesus not to judge the twelve, but to remember we all stray from Jesus and his teachings. Fear and the distractions of daily life get in the way. Sadly, we fall short of our ideals.
And we contemplate the heartbreaking loss the disciples must have felt when their supposed messiah was taken away, humiliated and killed. The loss must have been crushing. I get emotional thinking about it two millennia later; I wasn’t even there.
Mark 14:25-34 (Amplified Bible)
Solemnly and surely I tell you, I shall not again drink of the fruit of the vine till that day when I drink it of a new and a higher quality in God's kingdom.
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
And Jesus said to them, You will all fall away this night [that is, you will be caused to stumble and will begin to distrust and desert Me], for it stands written, I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.
But after I am raised [to life], I will go before you into Galilee.
But Peter said to Him, Even if they all fall away and are caused to stumble and distrust and desert You, yet I will not [do so]!
And Jesus said to him, Truly I tell you, this very night, before a cock crows twice, you will utterly deny Me [disclaiming all connection with Me] three times.
But [Peter] said more vehemently and repeatedly, [Even] if it should be necessary for me to die with You, I will not deny or disown You! And they all kept saying the same thing.
Then they went to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, Sit down here while I pray.
And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be struck with terror and amazement and deeply troubled and depressed.
And He said to them, My soul is exceedingly sad (overwhelmed with grief) so that it almost kills Me! Remain here and keep awake and be watching.