Holy Week—the Greatest Week Indeed!

The Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem: Alexander Gibbs, 1883-1884.

by Timothy Quill

If professional pollsters had existed on Palm Sunday, they would have been shamed out of business in less than a week due to totally erroneous predictions about Jesus’ popularity among the people and His political prospects. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, He was met by a large crowd rallying their support and shouting, “Hosanna (“save us now”)! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:14) Then almost overnight the pollsters would have had to issue a major correction, embarrassed at the astonishing speed at which Jesus was abandoned by the crowds and religious leaders, betrayed and denied by His disciples, and forsaken by God Himself!

In the poignant Lenten hymn, “My Song is Love Unknown,” we sing:

Sometimes they strew His way and His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King.
Then “Crucify!” is all their breath,
And for His death they thirst and cry. (LSB 430 St. 3)

Palm Sunday is also known by the name Passion Sunday, for it marks our Lord’s entrance into the most unholy week in history. I say “unholy” because this is the week which led to the crucifixion and death of our beautiful Saviour.  Since the beginning of creation, the world had never seen such divine grace and truth and beauty. Yet now, Jews and Gentles united with Satan to unleash the most brutal, inhuman, ugly attack on the most beautiful, pure, and holy, Son of God.

Today, however, Christians observe these seven days every year as Holy Week. For this is not primarily a story about the deeds of the unholy. Holy Week—also called the Great Week—is God’s beautiful story about how He so loved the world that He sent Holy Jesus, His only begotten Son full of grace and truth, into the flesh to save the world through His holy suffering and death. It is holy because it is God’s week. The Gospel story is about God’s gracious deeds and is rightly called the Great Week—the greatest week indeed!

Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine!
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend! (LSB 430 St. 7)

During Holy Week, Jesus miraculously transformed the most unholy week in the unholy history of the fallen sinful world into what today is rightly called Holy Week. The Holy One, Jesus Christ, remade His fallen creation into the new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). For this reason, the joyous Easter Proclamation (Exsultet) is sung at the Easter Virgil prior to the service of Holy Baptism: “Rejoice now, all you heavenly choirs of angels; rejoice now all creation…This is the night when Christ the Life, arose from the dead. The seal of the grace is broken and the morning of the new creation breaks forth the out of the night. Oh, how wonderful and beyond all telling is Your mercy toward us, O God.”

Christ Bearing the Cross: Alexander Gibbs, 1883-1884.

As Christians we observe Holy Week every year with special attention focused on the four great services marking the four major salvation events: (1) Palm or Passion Sunday, (2) Maundy Thursday, (3) Good Friday, and (4) Easter. In these divine services we walk with Jesus on His holy way to the cross. It is a time to listen to Sacred Scriptures. But to do so is to do more than simply listen to religious history: when we listen to our Lord’s Word at worship, where two or three are gathered together in His name, we have Jesus’ sure and certain promise that He is indeed with us (Matthew 18:20). In the Holy Week liturgies of Word and Sacrament, we travel with Jesus in repentance for our part in His suffering and death; mourning His death and our sin. We hear His words of forgiveness and in so doing receive His holy, cleansing absolution. On Maundy Thursday we hear Him tell how He bestows upon us today the forgiveness, life, and salvation He won through His suffering and death upon the cross: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.”

On Good Friday we hear His words from the cross spoken in unfathomable anguish because of our sins and for our sins. Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” And what He said to those who crucified Him and the penitent criminal dying on the cross next to Him, He says to us today: “Father, forgive them” and “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” The Holy Spirit moves us to acknowledge our Lord’s holy gifts with our lips in faith and song. Through His death and resurrection, we are prepared for our own most blessed death. In the hymn “O sacred head now wounded,” we sing together:

Be Thou my consolation, my shield, when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion when my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well. (LSB 449 St. 4)

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Rev. Dr. Timothy Quill is General Secretary of the International Lutheran Council.