Each year Holy Week begins with a re-enactment of Jesus entering Jerusalem amid shouts of praise. The week soon moves to his rejection, suffering and death, and concludes with the preconium paschale, the ringing proclamation that he has been raised. Each Evangelist highlights different aspects. Luke adds to the acclamation, Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord, the phrase, Peace in heaven and glory in the highest (see Lk. 2:14). During the Passion Luke stresses that Jesus is a model of the innocent martyr. Pilate proclaims his innocence (three times), as do Herod, one of the criminals at the cross and the centurion. The Lukan Jesus prays for both Peter and his persecutors and remains a healer, teacher and prophet. He is a model for all his followers who are unjustly executed. But just as this did not destroy Jesus, neither will it destroy those who witness to him.
During Holy Week the density of Scripture readings and the drama of the liturgies make preaching particularly challenging. It may be a time to imitate the early church and reflect on Psalm 22, which resonates throughout the passion narratives, along with the other laments of Psalms 31, 38 and 69. Laments, the most frequent category among the psalms, begin with a cry to God expressing anguish, suffering and abandonment, list reasons for the suffering, plead with God for release and end with petition or praise. Laments give voice to suffering with the plaintive realization that alienation and suffering can be placed before God. The psalmist clings to God at that very moment of God’s absence.
The earliest accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death embody the theology of lament, and in the Synoptics the final words of Jesus are from laments. Prior even to a theology of atonement for sin or victory over death through resurrection, the early church looked through the prism of the Old Testament and saw Jesus as the one who was abandoned by friends, mocked by enemies and seemed forsaken by God. Jesus joins those whose agony smothers any sense of God’s presence and who stand alone before the abyss of deathfrom Job and Jeremiah through the Servant of Isaiah 53, and down through history.
While the current liturgies of Holy Week stress what God has done for us and point to the victory over death, the older liturgy, with the solemn chanting of Lamentations at Tenebrae and the somber observance of Good Friday, captured the sense of the horror of the unfolding events. In the United States today national rituals of lament have become an all too familiar celebration. Oklahoma City, Columbine and, as I write these lines, Santee, Calif., enact ceremonies of grief as lives are snuffed out and futures shattered.
A few years ago I was giving a Scripture workshop on the Beatitudes. Blessed are they who mourn, provided the occasion to reflect on the laments of the Old Testament. With the help of a sensitive young liturgist we then put together an evening prayer of lament, following the structure of evening prayer but using psalms of lament and appropriate readings in place of those prescribed for the day. Instead of petitions we asked people to utter simple statements such as I grieve over... or I lament.... Each utterance was followed by prayerful silenceno requests for help, no expressed hope that help would come. Suppressed grief and frustration over the reign of evil in our world echoed through the chapel. There was a sense that Christ was praying in us during the waning hours of the day. Participants said it was one of the most loving and healing liturgies they had experienced.
The suffering of Jesus reminds us that his followers will also walk to many Calvarys. In a haunting lament, our African-American brothers and sisters ask us if we were there when they crucified my Lord. The passion narratives allow us to express abandonment and betrayal and to feel forsaken even by God, but assure us that no one need tread the winepress alone. Jesus’ final words in Mark repeat the beginning of Psalm 22, My God, My God why have you forsaken me? In Luke Jesus dies with the words of another lament on his lips, Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit (Ps. 31:6). Arms are stretched out in abandonment, but eyes are raised up in trust. Behold the wood of the cross!