Holy Week with its climax in Easter is for Christians what Passover is for Jews: the most important week of the year – a sacred time during which its primordial and primal narrative is remembered and ultimately celebrated.
What is this week about? Within Christianity today, two very different frameworks shape how this week is seen – its meanings and significance. These two frameworks to a considerable degree divide American Christianity both theologically and politically.
One framework is “the common Christianity” of the recent past and present – what most Christians took for granted and what many still share in common. For it, the central message of Christianity, the gospel, the good news, is that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven. Within this framework, Good Friday is about Jesus as the sacrifice for our sins and Easter is about the promise of life beyond death.
Though this meaning has transformed the lives of many over the centuries and in that sense has had good effects, it is nevertheless very different from how the story of Holy Week is seen within a second framework.
This framework is historical: it seeks to understand the story of Holy Week with its climax in the death and resurrection of Jesus within its first-century context of early Christianity and the New Testament. For those who first spoke and wrote about it, what did it mean for them in their then?
The gospel of Mark contains the earliest and most important narrative of Jesus’ last week. Mark was the first gospel to be written, around the year 70. When the authors of Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels a decade or two later, they used Mark. Thus Mark provides the basic narrative of Jesus’ final week in the first three gospels.
As Mark (and Matthew and Luke) tells the story, the week is about a series of public provocative challenges to the authorities that lead to his arrest and execution.
The week begins with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem at the beginning of the week of Passover. The city had an ambiguous, almost contradictory, status for Jews in the first century. On the one hand, it was the center of their world and devotion. the place of God’s presence in the temple, the destination of pilgrimage, the “Holy City.”
Yet the city had become the center of religious collaboration with imperial power. The high priest and his circle of aristocratic families ruled the Jewish homeland on behalf of the Roman Empire. They owed their positions of power and wealth to appointment by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
On Sunday, Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east in a procession riding on a donkey cheered by his followers. At the same time, a Roman imperial procession of troops and cavalry entered the city from the west, headed by Pilate. Their purpose was to reinforce the Roman garrison stationed near the temple for the season of Passover, when tens (hundreds?) of thousands of Jewish pilgrims filled the city.
The contrast between Jesus’ entry and the imperial entry sounds the central conflict that unfolds during the rest of the week. Jesus’ mode of entry was symbolic, signifying that the kingdom of which he spoke was a kingdom of peace. According to the prophet Zechariah, the king entering Jerusalem on a donkey was to banish the weapons of war from the land and speak peace to the nations. The kingdom of Rome on the other hand was based on violence and the threat of violence.
It is clear from Mark that Jesus pre-arranged this way of entering the city. In modern language, it was a planned political demonstration. Of course, it was also religious: Jesus did so because of his passion for God and the kingdom of God.
On Monday, Jesus performed another provocative public demonstration. In the courtyard of the temple, he overturned tables where money was being changed into appropriate coinage for paying the temple tax.
His words as he did so indicted the temple as “a den of robbers.” The phrase does not refer to the moneychangers in particular, as if they were “robbers” who charged an unfair rate of exchange. The reference is to what the temple had become: the center of religious collaboration with imperial power, including imperial taxation.
The authorities want to arrest Jesus but fear doing so in the presence of the crowd of pilgrims who are at the very least sympathetic with what Jesus is doing.
The theme of conflict and confrontation continues through the rest of the week and soon becomes deadly. On Tuesday, representatives of the authorities engage Jesus in a serious of verbal confrontations in the temple court, seeking to get him to say something that will discredit him with the crowd. They fail.
On Wednesday, the authorities find a betrayer who will lead them to Jesus when he is not surrounded by the crowd.
On Thursday Jesus has a final meal with his followers and then, in the darkness of the Garden of Gethsemane, is arrested.
On Friday, he is beaten, tortured, mocked as “king of the Jews,” and crucified. At mid-afternoon he dies and his body is placed in a rich man’s tomb.
The mode of his execution is highly significant: in that world, crucifixion meant “executed by Rome.” A cross was always an imperial cross, reserved for those who defied imperial authority. Jesus was killed – he didn’t just die, but was executed by the powers that ruled his world.
On Sunday, some of his women followers find his tomb empty and an angel declares to them: “He is not here – he is risen.” To Mark’s story of the empty tomb, Matthew, Luke and Mark add stories of Jesus appearing to his followers.
Cumulatively, the meaning of the Easter stories is clear. The empty tomb signifies that Jesus is not to be found in the land of the dead. As the angel asks the women, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” For his followers, Easter meant that Jesus is a figure of the present, not just of the past. Imperial execution didn’t stop him and a rich man’s tomb couldn’t hold him. He’s still loose in the world.
Within this second and historical framework, Holy Week is not the story of Jesus dying for the sins of the world, as if this was his and God’s purpose for his life. Rather, it is the story of Jesus’ passion for God and the kingdom of God, his challenge to the combination of religious and political authority that ruled his world, and his vindication by God.
Good Friday is about the authorities saying “no” to Jesus and his passion for the kingdom of God. Easter is about God saying “yes” to Jesus and his passion for the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God was at the center of Jesus’ message and activity according to Mark, Matthew and Luke. God’s kingdom is not about life after death, but life on earth as the Lord’s Prayer affirms. It is about this world transformed into a world of justice and peace. This is God’s dream, the dream of God, for the world according to the major voices of the Bible. It was Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God led to his passion in the narrower sense of his suffering and death.
Within a historical framework, Good Friday and Easter have a second primary meaning within the context of the New Testament. This meaning is overtly personal and individual. Jesus’ death and resurrection, dying and rising, are a metaphor for the path of personal transformation. So it is in the letters of Paul, the earliest documents in the New Testament. Paul speaks of himself as having been crucified with Christ – the old Paul has died and a new Paul whose identity is now in Christ has been born. So also he speaks of “dying and rising” as the dynamic at the center of following Jesus. It is a metaphor of radical interior transformation.
Thus the historical framework yields minimally a twofold understanding of Holy Week: it is about God’s passion and Jesus’ passion for a transformed world; and it is about personal transformation.
The difference between these two frameworks divides American Christianity today. The first – Jesus’ death as a dying for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven – is strongly affirmed by most conservative-evangelical Christians.
For example, Albert Mohler, president of the flagship Southern Baptist seminary, said in an interview on NPR in 2010:
Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that’s a very interesting chapter of human history, but I’m not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.
Note how his statement combines the “gospel, the “hope of everlasting life,” the “hope for eternity,” with Jesus being more than “a mere victim,” more than “a political prisoner executed because he had offended the regime.” For Mohler and many Christians, what matters about Jesus is that he died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven.
Yet this emphasis on Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice for sin (he died in our place to pay for our sins) is not ancient or early Christianity. It is less than a thousand years old, first explicitly developed around the year 1100.
The second and more historical framework is becoming increasingly present within mainline Protestant denominations and Catholics. It is the product of integrating the historical biblical scholarship of the last few centuries into an understanding of Holy Week and the origins of Christianity.
Within the historical framework, Jesus’ death was a sacrifice – but not a sacrifice required by God as payment for sin. Rather, he was willing to sacrifice his life because of his passion for God and the kingdom of God. In this sense of sacrifice, three Christian martyrs of the 20th century sacrificed their lives because of their passion for a different kind of world: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Martin Luther King, Jr., in this country, and Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Sacrifice, yes; substitutionary payment, no.
The division between the way these two frameworks see Holy Week also corresponds to some extent to a political divide: conservative Christians tend to vote conservatively; the Christian theological right and the Christian political right are largely the same.
Christians who understand Jesus and the Bible within a more historical framework tend to be political moderates or progressives. They see the meaning of Holy Week as both personal and political. It is about personal transformation; and it is also about the domination system of the ancient world killing Jesus and God vindicating Jesus.
Just as there is a Christian right, so also there is a Christian left, even though it is not nearly as visible.
The first of these frameworks most often leads to a focus on personal morality, forgiveness when we fall short, and heaven in the end. It appeals to many people, and is still probably the majority form of Christianity. For it, the important political issues tend to be about personal behavior, especially the “loin” issues of abortion, contraception, abstinence, gender, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage.
The second leads to a focus on seeking to transform the world by following Jesus and standing for what he was passionate about. Its political issues are the systemic issues of greater economic justice, less dependence on military power for our security, and human rights. A more economically just and peaceful world. Its passion is political transformation as well as personal transformation.
Thus how Christianity’s primal narrative of Holy Week is seen and understood matters greatly. At stake is whether Christianity is primarily about individual morality and an afterlife, or whether it is also and equally about the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.