For Christians who are serious about their relationship with God, this is the most important week of the year. But if you are not religious, the Holy Week narrative can still serve as a metaphorical paradigm for making changes in yourself, your family, our village and perhaps even in our nation. The paradigm tells us that often death is the gateway to new life, that disorientation can be fertile soil in which a new orientation can grow.
Check out the main events of Holy Week, and see how similar they are to what’s going on in our society. They include Jesus entering Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the crowd reacting as if he were a conquering hero. He then goes into the temple and violently upsets all those using that place of worship for making money. On Thursday he washes his disciples’ feet, commands them to love each other, gets arrested by representatives of a corrupt police force and watches his “disciples” abandon him.
On Friday he is framed by insecure religious leaders, sentenced by a paranoid Roman governor, tortured by soldiers and crucified. On Sunday he rises from the dead. Jesus once framed the whole series of events by comparing it to a seed that only grows and bears fruit if it first “dies” and is buried in the ground.
Many folks, even those who call themselves religious, skip the church services on the “overcast” days of Thursday and Friday and come to church only on Easter when it’s spiritually sunny. As I was pondering this and trying to get myself ready to experience these days for the 68th time in my life, I happened to interview a Catholic priest who is also a physician. His story helped me look at these days as a paradigm for self-examination and reorientation. Here’s a summary of a critical time in his life’s journey.
While he was practicing medicine, one of his patients, a 90-year-old woman, experienced a massive heart attack, and he was utilizing all the technology available and every trick in his medical training book to keep her alive — ventilator, IV lines, medication, the works.
He said, “I was taking care of an elderly woman who was ‘trying to die.’ I suspect that her Creator was calling her home, but I just wasn’t going to let that happen because I thought allowing her to die would reflect badly on me.
“At one point I remember standing by her bed and looking at what I was doing, and I heard a voice in my head, almost like it was coming from outside of me, asking, ‘Who are you that you would do this?’ The question had a kind of gentleness, an inquiring character, yet it was one of those questions that slices right through you. I remember being shocked. The question spun me around and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
He used the word disorientation to describe what the next few weeks felt like. “I had lost my mooring,” he told me. “Who I thought I was apparently was not me. How I thought of myself moving through life no longer seemed to work and had to be set aside. My self-concept began to crack and fall away, and I didn’t yet know what would replace it.”
In the midst of his uncertainty, he felt drawn to move in a different direction without knowing the ultimate destination. “I was being invited to walk down a different path,” he said. “I began to hear things interiorly that seemed to be invitations to follow more closely, to just keep following. I responded slowly. I would take a few steps in the direction in which I was being drawn. I would get more interested in my patients’ lives, not just their diseases. I would take a few more steps and work at the homeless shelter.”
He kept on doing that incrementally, taking a few steps at a time, believing that following would finally bring him to the place where he needed to be. It was like he was on a spiritual Lewis and Clark expedition, leaving what was known behind and discovering a new reality. “As I moved along that path I found that doors just kept opening,” he said.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote a book titled, Learning to Walk in the Dark. In the divorce recovery group I was in years ago, the mantra was “the only way out of pain is through it.” Unless a seed dies and is buried in the ground it won’t bear fruit. When you remodel a house to bring it up to date, the first thing you have to do is some deconstruction before the reconstruction can begin.
I’ve cited this quip before. The pilot gets on the PA system and says, “Folks, I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that we’re lost. The good news is that we’re making real good time.” Face it. All of us are lost to one degree or another, and many of us would agree that the same is true these days for our country. The Holy Week narrative is telling us that it’s absolutely critical that we not be afraid of honestly questioning who we are, where we’re at and toward which destination we are heading.
That’s true on a personal level, but it also seems that on a national level our society is going through a season of deconstruction and disorientation. Part of what the Holy Week narrative and my priest/doctor friend’s story seem to be saying is, “Don’t be afraid of walking in the dark. Take one or two steps at a time. Learn what you can from the darkness and keep your eyes open for a new way to proceed. It will probably come in a form you never expected.”