Yet as I’ve reflected over the years about the meaning of the Christian faith, it seems somehow appropriate. Because it is a strange thing that we do here—week after week. It is a strange faith that we practice. Most of us have grown up with Christianity, so perhaps it doesn’t seem strange to us most of the time. But have you ever thought about Christianity from an outsider’s perspective? Have you ever tried to imagine what you would think of the Christian story if you encountered it as an adult with no prior knowledge?
In Christianity, we worship a God who became human in order to show us the way to salvation--which in itself is perhaps not so strange, because the story of a God or Gods becoming mortal is in fact an ancient story that traces its origins to long before Christ ever came on the scene. But where the Christian story becomes unique and strange is in the fact that this God we worship humbles himself to the point of death on the cross. He let himself be humiliated and killed, even though he was God. We worship as our God a man who was arrested as a criminal and executed in one of the most brutal ways possible. And while there is victory and resurrection in the end, before there is victory, there is death, and loss, and grief.
The Christian faith is strange, because as much as we live in a culture that is increasingly pluralistic, and supposedly relativistic, we also live in a country that deals in absolutes. Certain things are just bad. Death. Loss. Sadness. Greif. Endings. Our culture says that these things are bad and to be avoided at all costs. And yet the Christian story— in particular this part of the Christian story— turns these absolutes around, and says that in death there is life, in loss there is gain, that there is value in sadness, and that what may seem like the end is sometimes only the beginning of another great journey. That even when it seems like everything has been taken away, something deeply valuable remains.
There is a temptation for Christians in this culture to gloss over Holy Week. To bask in the celebrations of Palm Sunday and then fast forward through the more unsavory details of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to get right to the happy ending on Easter. In this way, perhaps we are much like that original group of disciples, who just can’t seem to stay awake and remain present to Jesus in his moments of deepest anguish. But the dark journey through Holy Week— as uncomfortable as it may be for some of us— is important to observe, if for no other reason than the fact that this is what real life is like. We don’t always get to skip over the unsavory parts of life. We don’t always get to avoid suffering or fast forward through grief. In real life, we have to go through suffering and loss before we can experience new life on the other side of it. Holy Week teaches us that life is not just about the triumphs and victories, but that this life is also filled with struggle and loss. Yet Holy week also teaches us-- through the story of Christ’s struggle, pain, and loss-- that we are never alone in our own suffering, whatever that may be. That Christ walks with us along every step of the way. There is no pain that God has not already been subjected to. There is no darkness that we can encounter in which God would be absent, because God has been there too.
Finally, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection reminds us that even in the midst of our darkest moments, there is hope to be found. We go through the darkness of Holy Week with the hope of resurrection on the other side. And we go through the dark times in our own lives with the hope that light and new life wait for us somewhere around the bend.
I want to leave us this morning with a reflection from Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite theologians and spiritual writers. It’s a reflection that we can carry with us as we journey from the cross to Easter morning. Over the course of this week, let us reflect on these words:
“When we say “Christ has died”, we express the truth that all human suffering in time and place has been suffered by the Son of God who also is the Son of all humanity and thus has been lifted up into the inner life of God Himself. There is no suffering—no guilt, shame, loneliness, hunger, oppression, violence or exploitation that has not been suffered by God. There can be no human beings who are completely alone in their sufferings, since God, in and through Jesus, has become Emmanuel, God with us. It belongs to the center of our faith that God is a faithful God, a God who did not want us to ever be alone but who wanted to understand—to stand under—all that is human. The Good news of the Gospel, therefore, is not that God came to take our suffering away, but that God wanted to become a part of it.”