“In some ways, the experience of the early disciples is not at all like the Holy Week that we celebrate these days, with dates so clearly mapped out and the destination known. Instead, the experience of the early disciples might have been more similar to the experience of my sister, awaiting the birth of her first child on this Good Friday. It is that experience of not knowing exactly when, or what, or why, or how.”
Sermon Preached: Good Friday, April 15, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
I have been entrusted to you ever since I was born; you were my God when I was still in my mother’s womb. Amen.
It will not be a surprise to many of you that I am pregnant. But what some of you might not know is that my younger sister, Dana, is also expecting – and that her due date is today, Good Friday.
I’ve been thinking a lot about due dates, these days. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about just how uncertain a due date can be. Babies can be born two weeks (or more) before a due date, or up to two weeks after. An expecting mother can never know exactly when to expect the painful process of childbirth, or the joy that hopefully comes after.
I’ve been thinking about due dates, and how they are similar or different to the ways we as Christians commemorate Holy Week each year. These days we are bound – or blessed you might say – with a liturgical calendar, based on the Gregorian system. For months we have known when we would gather together for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and eventually the great celebration of Easter. Not only do we know these dates this year; we could also look them up five, ten, or fifteen years down the road – with Easter always falling on the Sunday morning following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
According to traditions that go back to the fourth century, these dates are fixed. There is no chance that Good Friday will come two weeks early or two weeks late. We know when to expect these days. And so we can prepare, bracing our hearts for the devastation reliving the passion story – but also knowing the end of the story. Knowing that will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, roughly one day from this moment.
How different that is from the first Holy Week that Jesus and the disciples lived through. They had no date marked on the calendar. And they had know idea of the events to come. They must have been surprised when Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem turned sour with Jesus’ arrest. They must have been mortified on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, a day of unexpected, unprecedented pain.
In some ways, the experience of the early disciples is not at all like the Holy Week that we celebrate these days, with dates so clearly mapped out and the destination known. Instead, the experience of the early disciples might have been more similar to the experience of my sister, awaiting the birth of her first child on this Good Friday. It is that experience of not knowing exactly when, or what, or why, or how. An experience of sleeplessness, like the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. An experience involving rolling waves of waiting, uncertainty, and pain. And yet for my sister there is the expectation of new life, at the end of all that pain. The birth of a child is, after all, a sign of the resurrection. A sign that new life can emerge through, and in spite of, great struggle and pain.
The disciples had no idea that what they were witnessing was not merely the death of their leader and friend. They were also witnessing a birth. The birth of a new hope; a new way of living and believing. They had no idea that the birth pangs of crucifixion would end in the new life of resurrection – when Jesus emerged from the tomb, a symbolic echo of the womb from which Mary bore him into this world. Out of death, out of pain – new life.
Perhaps the way that we commemorate Holy Week these days cannot do justice to the lived experience of the trial, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So why do we do it? Why do we even try to walk in the footsteps of Jesus?
Well, we do it because we forget. We forget the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. We try to remind ourselves of this sacrifice every time we celebrate the Eucharist, the meal that Jesus first shared with his disciples on the night before his arrest. And yet our memory is still insufficient – and so once a year we come together to relive the events of Jesus’ passion. We read the passion narrative not once, but twice – hearing it spoken on Palm Sunday and sung again this evening. And we strip the altar on Maundy Thursday to imagine a world without Jesus – a world in which we are just as bereft as the disciples, amid the birth pangs of passion of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, we commemorate Holy Week and walk in the footsteps of Jesus – because Jesus first walked in our footsteps, becoming human like each one of us. In this way the womb and the tomb are always connected. Jesus’ great sacrifice was not simply his sacrifice on the cross. It was also his sacrifice of becoming human. His willingness to be born, to feel pain, to feel joy, to be vulnerable. His willingness to embrace our human life, even unto death.
God became human. Living with us. Loving us. Showing us that we too can be born again into Jesus’ resurrection; into a kind of life that extends beyond this world.
In this moment, on Good Friday, we are in the birth pangs of what will soon become the resurrection. We know how the liturgical calendar works; the dates are fixed. And we know how this story will end. Nevertheless, I encourage you to live into this moment. Live into the fear, the uncertainty, and the pain – wherever those feelings emerge for you in the story of Jesus or in the story of your own life, and the lives of those around you. Know that God is there with you in the struggle. God is there even in those moments when we want to shout to the sky, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God is there with us because Jesus became human. And through the power of the incarnation God was born into this world, for once and for always. Amen.