Dr. James Emery White

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Holy Week... So What? (2013)

(Editor’s Note: This blog entry was first published in 2012, and the ChurchandCulture.org Team wanted to share it with you again this year in honor of Holy Week.)

This weekend is known as Palm Sunday weekend.

So what?

It’s a fair question. In our culture, the significance of sacred days and times has long been forgotten. We live our lives on the surface of frenetic activity, seldom adding depth to any given moment. We surf and skim over a body of information, but rarely dive into the depths of knowledge, much less wisdom. 

There are no “thin times”, as the ancient Celts would have noted; times when the separation between the eternal and the temporal was thin enough to walk the soul between both worlds.

But without that sensibility, we are lesser people.

So here’s the “so what.”

Palm Sunday is the traditional beginning of what has been known throughout Christian history as Holy Week, a week designed to focus our attention on the “passion,” or suffering, of Christ.

The story of Christ (a title meaning “messiah”) is the story of God Himself coming to earth in the form of a human being, a man named Jesus, living the perfect, sinless life and then willingly going to the cross in order to die for the sins of the world.

The tradition of Holy Week began when Christians making pilgrimages to Jerusalem had a natural desire to re-enact the last scenes of the life of Christ in dramas.

There is an ancient text called The Pilgrimage of Egeria which describes a fourth century visit to Jerusalem.  It was noted that people were already observing Holy Week by that point in history, so it dates back many, many centuries.

There are five days in this week that are set apart:

It begins this weekend with Palm Sunday, and then includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and then Easter Sunday.

Maundy Thursday denotes when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet during what is known as the Last Supper on the night He was betrayed. 

The word “Maundy” is built off of the Latin word for “command”; when Jesus washed their feet, He said, “A new commandment I give you – love one another as I have loved you.” It’s why some churches actually have a foot-washing ceremony or service on Maundy Thursday.

Good Friday is the day we mark the anniversary of when Jesus was crucified. I know, the word “good” is a misnomer. 

Or is it? 

Sin is not good. Suffering is not good. But what Jesus did for us, what His death accomplished on our behalf – that was good. Good because He took on our sins, and then hung in our place, paying the price for our sins so that we could be forgiven.

Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, marks the time of Jesus in the tomb. To be honest, little is associated with this day, though it is named. Perhaps because few know what to do with the obscure verses Peter offers surrounding Jesus’ descending into the depths of hell. The medievalists called it the “harrowing of hell,” and that is perhaps its fullest sense. 

What is certain is that it was a victory lap.

And then, of course, comes Easter Sunday when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. A day that so altered human history that we are still talking of it, and marking it, over 2,000 years later.

Each day rich with meaning, significance, and spiritual admonishment.

But it all begins this weekend, with Palm Sunday, the day of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

From the gospel of Mark:

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ tell him, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’ ”

4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?”  6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“Hosanna!

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

“Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:1-10, NIV).

This was a fervor that eclipsed Tebow’s press conference in New York, or any iPad or iPhone introduction Apple ever construed. 

Palm Sunday is the celebration of Jesus that Jesus deserves. 

Yes, “Hosanna” quickly turned into “Crucify him!” It was one of the most tragic turn of events, perhaps second only to the fall, where humans turned from worship to rejection.

But that’s what Palm Sunday calls us to remember. After Jesus entered to acclaim, He moved to clear the temple. Not willing to succumb to a celebrity culture, He made it clear what the demands of following Him would entail. 

That’s what changed “Hosanna” into “Crucify.” People were confronted with the weight and consequence of God. They had to choose: a tame God, or a real One.

And now it plays out again; not in human history, but in our lives.

Every day. 

Welcome to Holy Week.

James Emery White

Sources

On Holy Week, and the individual days, see The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church; the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second Edition; and the Encyclopedia of Christianity.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

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About Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

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