Holy Week is also sometimes known as Passion Week. It is the week of weeks for Christians. Jesus entered Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna!” (which, as we frequently remind, did not mean “Welcome” or even “Praise,” but meant “Save us now!”). So, when He began the week, already the pressure was on to do something big, specifically to save the Hebrews from occupying Roman forces and from corrupt Herodian forces. “Save us now!” That was followed by His public accusations of Herod and his public (and angry) cleansing of the Temple. Those two things alone sealed Jesus’ fate.
Then came the end of the week: the Seder Meal in the Upper Room where He clearly reminded the disciples why he had come and what it meant (and cost) to follow him. He prayed there The High Priestly Prayer. He confessed that one of his closest associates would betray him and another would deny even knowing him. He took three trusted friends to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus pled with God that somehow he might be spared the agony of the Cross: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And though He asked his friends to watch with him and pray, they kept nodding off and leaving him to face it all alone. After that was the betrayal and arrest, the illegal trial in the Courtyard of Caiaphas, the early morning debacle in Pilate’s presence (with a specifically gathered and probably paid group of people who were coached to cry out “Crucify Him!”), and the flogging. The flogging (a severe beating) was enough to kill most people before they even got to a cross. Jesus was so weak afterward that he had trouble standing and needed assistance carrying the crossbar to Golgotha. At last, after all His disciples fled in fear, he was nailed to the Cross (“nail” in this case is roughly the equivalent of what we would call a “railway spike”). On the Cross He finally suffocated from the collection of fluid in his lungs and around his heart. And understand, what I have just written is the edited (and considerably softened) version. To adequately describe flogging and crucifixion is so brutal that many readers simply could not endure the images.
So, why would anyone call it “Passion” Week? Are we strangely acknowledging negative (cruel, brutal) emotions that lead to crime? Obviously, as you already knew, “passion” in this context refers to that which Jesus felt for us. Whatever your theory of Atonement may be, it is beyond question that Jesus had it within his power to escape Jerusalem before being arrested. He was even encouraged to do so. But, He chose to stay and face suffering, even death, because of his love (his “passion”) for people. Some say it was His passion for the innocent, vulnerable, victimized people of Israel that caused him to stand fast in face of the evil Pilate-Herod alliance. Someone had to call them on their misdeeds, and He took up that dangerous mantle. Others say it was His passion for us that led him to carry our guilt to the Cross so that we might be made clean. Whatever you believe, the suffering of His last week reveals, to a great extent, the unequaled love of his life. Even when dying, Jesus prayed out of love for the people who had driven the spikes through his flesh: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
One of the central messages of Holy Week (and its emphasis of the Passion of Christ) is this: Love is willing to pay a price, even suffering or sacrifice, if it’s real. Ask parents who have incurred lifelong indebtedness or worked multiple jobs to send their children to college. Ask spouses or children who have tirelessly become caregivers for ailing family members. Ask anyone who has ever answered unkind words with gentility. Ask anyone who has ever patiently turned aside from their own plans or agendas in order to be present with someone else in an unexpected moment of crisis. And, ask anyone who has ever benefitted from the selfless kindness of somebody else. Love that has no costs attached is too easy. But when we give of ourselves, when we sacrifice, when we stand beside another when everyone else is walking away, then we understand at least a bit of the biblical meaning of the word “Passion.” And that is what Jesus felt (and feels) for us. Holy Week is more than palm branches or Hallmark cards or hiding eggs or holiday performances or buying new outfits for Sunday. Holy Week is a time to remember the depth of love Jesus has... and what lengths that love was willing to go to... and why.