Embracing the Not-So-Holy Holy Week

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

The symbolism is beautiful.

The tradition of folding a palm frond into the shape of a crosspowerfully illustrates the kingdom message of Jesus, as a symbol of royalty becomes a symbol of sacrifice.  This simple action reminds us that the victory of Jesus did not take the shape of forceful triumph, but of humility and that our citizenship in the Kingdom of God demands we do the same. 

...Which is why I got really pissed off yesterday when the palm fronds I bought weren’t the ideal size for folding.

Dan took one look at the wilting potted palm I brought home from BiLo and said, “I think they needed to be at least 21 inches long.”

“Well, if you want to go out in the pouring rain to buy a $40 palm tree, be my guest,” I shot back.

I was determined to present a cross to everyone at The Mission that night in honor of Palm Sunday and the commencement of Holy Week, so the two of us spent the afternoon painstakingly folding the six-inch leaves into tiny green crosses.

The meticulous nature of the work frustrated me, and as I struggled to make one particularly misshapen cross hold together, I couldn’t help but see a parallel between the unraveling little cross in my hands and the unraveling faith in my heart.

The symbolism was depressing.

I had lofty intentions when I decided to observe the church calendar this year, and things were going really well until Lent.

Advent included the appropriate amount of anticipation, reflection, and celebration. Epiphany brought with it a sense of solidarity with the human race for whom Christ came.

Unfortunately, Ash Wednesday fell on a day when I woke up unsure that God even exists, in a week when I felt betrayed by a group of Christians, and in a month full of writing deadlines and social commitments. Although I diligently kept my fast throughout the season, I felt as though I did a better job honoring the letter of the law than the spirit of the law. I’d hoped to get into a steady rhythm of daily prayer and reflection, but instead I found myself feeling distant from God, distracted by work, and cynical about the Church.

I guess in the back of my mind I’d hoped that all the liturgy and symbolism and tradition would magically restore my hope in Christianity and miraculously cure me of my doubts about God.  Isn’t that why we “emergers” have all rushed out and purchased The Book of Common Prayer? Isn’t that why troubled, poetic folks like Anne Lamott and Sara Miles are Episcopalian?

But the crumpled fronds and awkward crosses spread across my dining room table spoke not of holiness, but of imperfection. Messy, screwed-up, real-life imperfection.

It took a few minutes for me to realize that this is how it’s supposed to be.

The symbolism was perfectly imperfect.

Holy Week wasn’t perfect for the disciples. They betrayed, ran away, lied, despaired, and doubted.

Holy Week wasn’t perfect for Jesus. He wept. He wondered if there was another way.  He experienced the same agony and isolation that inspired the poet David to ask, “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”

Holy Week isn’t perfect for the Church. It comes amid scandal, division, persecution, and complacency.

Holy Week isn’t perfect for God, as he looks down upon the messes we have made, the stupid wars that we wage, and the imperfect representation of His son that we clumsily project to the world.

For most of us, holy week isn’t so holy. In fact, it's more like the unholy mess spread across my kitchen table on a cold and rainy Palm Sunday afternoon.

But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe Holy Week isn’t about perfection maintained, but about imperfection restored—an execution device transformed into a symbol of pardon, three denials transformed into three declarations of love, a tomb transformed into the birthplace of hope.

The symbolism is beautiful.

Do you struggle with disappointment when Holy Week turns into an unholy mess? What have you learned from the imperfect moments during Lent? What do you hope to experience/feel/learn/enjoy as Easter approaches?

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