The Spiritual Practice of Holy Week


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Palm Sunday (April 28, 2013)

John 12:1-18 (Palm Sunday)

Today the Church invites us to a 7-day guided meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That is why it is called “Holy Week”.

We are encouraged to put aside our worldly cares, to rest our weary minds, and enter into a period of spiritual contemplation that has the power to transform us not only for seven days, but for all days.  It is a journey from death to life in real time, not just the Lord’s in history, but our own in the present. The over-arching reason for all of this so easily forgotten – it is to unite us to God.

The journey to the Empty Tomb in time and space, in song and ritual, began yesterday on Lazarus Saturday morning and continues today in the ritual of Palm Sunday.  Two rivers meet here. The river of grace that flows in this particular moment and the Eternal river that envelops every moment in all time, and all space. We are both moving toward the Resurrection in time and already participating in it in spirit. The Resurrection is omnipresent in the present.  We just aren’t aware of it.

This week the two rivers merge and we hear the cry tonight, the Great Instruction,“Be awake!” “Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight. Blessed is the servant whom he shall find awake.”  On Holy Thursday we will hear it twice, “Could you not stay awake with me one hour,” and in the Great Hymn, “Today is Hung Upon the Tree.”  Every time we hear the word “today” it is a reference to mindfulness.

We think of Holy Week as a week of remembrance.  It is and it is not. It is much more than remembrance.  We will be guided by the Four Gospels, the Old Testament, the ancient hymns, and an ancient ritual, but the focus is not the past, it is the present. Today is Palm Sunday, the only Palm Sunday we can experience.  Wake up to the past?  No. Wake up to the present.

Holy Week is not an invitation to squeeze our brains and squint our eyes to try and imagine ourselves in the Upper Room, or Gethsemane, or at Golgotha 2000 years ago.  That’s too much effort in the wrong direction.  The past is always the wrong direction. So is the future.

What the Church wants us to do is what the Elder Porphyrios recommends, “open a tiny aperture for light to enter” so that the “darkness will disappear.”   The tiny aperture is mindfulness and all the powerful tools of the Church will be used this week to help us open it.

As the aperture opens, the light will come through, everything will become light and we will be filled with it. The more we are awake, the more we will become light.

Our focus will be the death and resurrection of Jesus not only as a moment in history, but as a moment in the present.  Holy Week is not just a moment in time, but a metaphor for all of life.

This week our own experience of death and resurrection will come into focus. We have all been betrayed, we all know crucifixion, and we all have experienced resurrections. The journey Jesus makes this week coincides with the journey you and I are making every day. Our life is his and his is ours.

The mind needs the ritual to stay present. While our minds are busy chewing on words and letting go of distracting thoughts again and again, the eyes are busy seeing, the ears are busy hearing, the heart is busy opening as the mystery is laid out before us in living color. The Church’s goal is to help us wake up and stay awake, to present the metaphor in ways we can grasp.  Just a little effort is all that is required. Mindfulness. It is the match for the flame.

Now, here are two themes for contemplation that always resonate on Palm Sunday.

One: Praise is fragile and fleeing, unreliable and misleading. Today Jesus is reverenced, tomorrow he is crucified. There is no security in this life. Trying to hold on to any experience is like trying to hold water in your hand.  Today we will be praised, tomorrow we will suffer. That is the truth of life.  A truth of Palm Sunday. Everything changes.

Another is this. The Messiah has come and he is not the one that was expected.  The crowd that greeted him in Jerusalem was terribly disappointed.  His teaching in the temple made them angry. They deemed his message inappropriate. His Gospel of Peace and self-sacrifice was unwelcome. The crowd was looking for a fix and Jesus refused to give it to them. So they betrayed him.

We must not think that the living Christ will always comfort us and say what we want him to say or do what we think he should do or be what we want him to be. He is Truth and we are not. The discrepancy may be uncomfortable, but seeing it is the first step toward salvation.

The prayer of the faithful man is, “Lord, show me my delusion.”  The prayer of the faithless man is, “Lord, give me what I want.”  Faithless men become extremists, not faithful ones. The crowd on Palm Sunday got excited and then got angry. They wanted satisfaction, not truth.  God is always surprising because he is God.  Expect to be surprised. Fr. Schmemann once said if we are always happy with sermons, then the Gospel has not been preached.

Each Holy Week is different. Each present moment is different.   Jesus appears different to us from year to year not because he changes, but because we do.  This year, if all is well, we will have grown and changed, our minds more made more open by a deeper immersion in the flow of grace, by our practice of mindfulness throughout the year. Hopefully, we have developed the ability to stay awake for longer and longer periods of time. That is the point of spiritual practice after all.

Maybe someday we will become like the saints called, “the Unsleeping Ones.”  So, as we embark together as a parish community on this Great and Holy Week, come and see what surprises God has in store this year and let us, together, with mindfulness as the oil to keep our lamps alight, embrace them with joy.