Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Reflecting in Holy Week

In this week between Palm/Passion Sunday and Easter, Christians all over the world contemplate the mystery of the last few days that Jesus spent in his earthly ministry. The moments are familiar – Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He has dinner with his friends. He is betrayed to the authorities by Judas. He goes to the garden of Gethsemane to pray, and is arrested and condemned. The next morning, he dies a gruesome death by crucifixion; then, his body is sealed in a cave as his followers grieve.

The sad story of these last days is repeated wherever Christians gather throughout Holy Week. On Thursday evening, members of my church will gather to wash one another’s feet, remembering that Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example – you should do just as I have done for you.” [John 13:14-15]  We will eat a simple meal of dates, figs, nuts, pita, and hummus together, remembering that Jesus said that the bread we break together is somehow also his body, broken for the sake of all; and the crushed, poured out fruit of the vine is his blood, poured out for the healing of the world.

On Friday, specific details of the day on which Jesus died are retold in many churches or enacted on city streets in a ritual called the Stations of the Cross. This opportunity for prayer and self-reflection has its roots in the Middle Ages, when the walls or gardens of any church could become a place of imaginative pilgrimage for those who were not able to go to the holy sites in Jerusalem. Over the centuries, many artists have been asked to create imagery to mark the stations where the devout would stop to enter into each moment of Jesus’ final earthly journey.

Several years ago, I was commissioned to make a set of such paintings. The organization that bought them has since been disbanded, and I have no idea where the artwork is. But wanting to resolve some of the artistic problems in a different way, I did a second set, which now hang in Oxnam Chapel at the seminary where I work. It’s more than a bit odd to worship each week in a place where I am surrounded by my own art, but today I was reminded of the meditations that grew out of the experience of painting them.

Although they have been published elsewhere, I offer them here again as an invitation to join me in my Holy Week reflections.

1. Jesus is condemned to death

Jesus is bound. His hands are tied. He can do nothing but accept what is coming. The word "passion," comes from the same root as our word "passive." The passion of Jesus is not so much in the agony that he endured, but in his acceptance of it, in his willing refusal to return evil for evil.
Where are my hands tied? How much do I struggle against what cannot be changed? How do I know the difference between what I can change and what I must accept?

2. Jesus receives the cross

Jesus lifts up his hands as if in prayer. He receives the burden of the cross as gift. He carries it lightly above his head, a banner proclaiming his solidarity with those who are outcast and forsaken.
What am I carrying, and what is its message? Is it a heavy burden? A gift? A banner? For whom, and to whom, do I carry it?

3. Jesus falls the first time.

The cross grows heavier with time. Jesus stumbles and falls. He puts one hand on the ground to steady himself, to find his balance, to touch the firm ground at his feet.
What trips me up? How do I react when I lose my balance, or when something gets in my way? What restores me to a firm footing?

4. Jesus meets his mother

Mary is helpless as she sees her son stumbling under the weight that he is carrying. Jesus sees her praying for him. He raises his hand in blessing and thanks. The knowledge of her love gives him hope and strength.
What are my parents' roles in my life today? Can I forgive their human frailty? Can I bless and thank them for their hopes and dreams for themselves, and for me?

5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross

Jesus is unable to carry his burden alone. The soldiers press a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, to help him. Simon's strong hand lightens the load, giving Jesus a moment to catch his breath.
Why do I think I must do it all myself? Why is it so hard for me to accept help from friends and loved ones, let alone strangers? Why is it so hard for me to reach out and help others?

6. Veronica wipes Jesus' face with her veil

Jesus' face is covered with dust and sweat as he makes his way through the winding streets, upward towards Golgotha. A woman steps from the crowd and offers a piece of cloth. When he hands it back, she sees his picture imprinted on it-a vera ikon, a true image of Jesus.
Can I allow others to see my true face? Can I take off the mask that hides my real thoughts and feelings? Can I bear to see my own true image, the vera ikon of my soul?

7. Jesus falls the second time

Even with the help of Simon, Jesus stumbles again, burdened with the fear of what is to come. Dizzy and reeling, he reaches out with both hands, searching for something solid to lean on.
What or who do I lean on when I am weak? Where do I find the strength to go on when I am too tired to think or move? Whose burdens do I help to carry?

8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

The women of Jerusalem greet Jesus with prayers and tears. He has lived with them in community, teaching them how to pour out their lives in love. They have believed in him, trusted him, and now he is to die. They feel bereft. He blesses them, but warns of more trouble to come.
It is easy to get swallowed up in grief. How shall I live when people I love leave me? What should I do when the morning news makes me weep? Will my sorrow and prayer heal the sorrows of the world, or only add to the anguish?

9. Jesus falls the third time

Unable to continue, Jesus falls to his hands and feet, kneeling in the dust of the street. He knows that he is made of dust, and to dust will soon return.
What does it mean to be a creature of the earth, finite and mortal? Is it giving in to know my limits, or is accepting them a sign of maturity? How does the knowledge of my death make a difference to how I live today?

10. Jesus is stripped of his garments

Jesus is left naked, exposed, and as vulnerable as a new-born baby. With no power, no ability to change the course of events, he blesses even those who torment him.
It goes against the grain to love my enemies. I want to fight back, to argue, to build a wall of defense around my vulnerabilities. How can I learn to love those whom I fear?

11. Jesus is nailed to the cross

As the soldiers nail him to the cross, Jesus opens his hands, accepting even this pain and indignity as gift. With no choices left, he chooses to love God and neighbor, saying, "Holy One, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
When someone hurts me, I lash out, wanting only to protect myself by building walls of rage. How would it feel to open my heart at that moment? What would happen if I simply accepted the pain with love?

12. Jesus dies on the cross

At the moment of death, Jesus makes a sign of blessing. His hands uplifted as if in prayer, with his last breath he yields his spirit to God.
What does it mean to pour out my life for my friends? Am I willing to give up anything at all for the sake of justice and peace? What am I willing to die for?

13. Jesus' body is removed from the cross

After Jesus dies, a well-connected friend gets permission to take his body from the cross. Tenderly lowering the body to the ground, he wraps it carefully in linen cloth, and takes it to his newly-prepared, rock-hewn tomb. Even in death, Jesus offers a blessing to the one who tends to his body, although this caring gesture comes too late to bring him any real comfort.
Why is it easier for me to mourn the dead than to bring comfort to the living? Why is it so difficult for me to call a friend who is in trouble, to give genuine assistance to someone who is ill, to give of myself before it is too late?

14. Jesus is laid in the tomb

Like a grain of wheat which has fallen to the ground, the body of Jesus is buried, hidden behind a large, heavy stone. Time has no meaning for the one who has died. Outside, his friends believe that all is lost, that God has forsaken them. In the shadow of Jesus' death, they wait for dawn, not believing that they will ever hear any good news again.

Even in my darkest hours, I believe that God is with me. Even in my darkest hours, I believe that God will heal the world. Even in my darkest hours, my hope is in the love of Christ. In a time of timeless unknowing, I wait with Jesus for Resurrection.


  1. Deborah, your beautiful Stations of the Cross now hang in the parish center at St Thomas More Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina!

  2. Thank you, Andrew. This is such good news!