• Courtney Ellis

Holy Week: The Journey We Cannot Bear

One of the unique lonelinesses of vocational ministry is how the world keeps spinning even when Very Holy Things™ are happening.


It might be five days before Easter, but did you know that there is a sale at the supermarket on canned tomatoes? It’s true.


The world still notices that something is about to happen around the end of Advent—only five, four, three more shopping days, after all—but Easter is different. It moves around on the calendar. It hits during the late frost or the early heatwave, giving us no consistent outdoor signals from year to year. It dares to interfere with spring break.


I don’t know why the whiplash of Holy Week surprises me every year. It really shouldn’t. It’s a truth as old as the Gospels. Even unto the end of time, Jesus tells us, we will still be marrying and threshing grain. On the eve of the crucifixion goods and services were still being traded in the town square. So keep those lamps lit. Or buy some extra tomatoes.


I’ve seen enough to know the struggles of this season aren’t just the regular stuff of life writ large.

At the first church I pastored, nestled on the prairies of southern Wisconsin, my inaugural Holy Week was all sleet and snow. Palm Sunday came late that year—April 17—and I was hoping for buds and blossoms but instead found myself stomping into the sanctuary in slush-encrusted boots.


I was alone at home that week, with my husband busy studying for his PhD exams in Nashville. The house—a historic manse built in the 1800s—was dark and cold, filled with memories of the pastors who’d come before me. It had been winter for a thousand years and I had miles to go before I slept.


Then came the onslaught of the unexpected, sacred sadnesses of Holy Week.

 

The weighty holiness pressed upon me as I led these services for the first time. Palm Sunday’s turn from praise into passion. Maundy Thursday’s Last Supper, with Judas’s ultimate betrayal. Good Friday’s ecumenical worship where I gathered in my brand-new clergy collar with the men of the town—the bearded Lutheran minister, the Reformed pastor with his bottle-thick glasses, the young firebrand Baptist who gave me a bit of side-eye but stopped short of barring me from his pulpit.


“Just . . . remember that we are Baptist,” he told me. “Try not to . . . ”


“Say anything super Presbyteriany that will freak your people out?” I said.


“Yes. Please.”

 

With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that if anything is to go wrong in a pastor’s home, it will happen on a Saturday night. Water leak, hyperactive smoke alarm, barfing kids, barfing self. This truth is magnified during Holy Week. After eleven years in ministry I now know to plan ahead, to stock up on chicken nuggets and Band-aids, to hold all but the absolute essentials in open, open, open hands because stuff is about to get real.


A Jewish friend told me his rabbi mentioned something similar: that the High Holy Days are strangely heavy, rife with unusual amounts of discord and disaster and death. I’m not one to talk much about spiritual warfare, but I’ve seen enough to know the struggles of this season aren’t just the regular stuff of life writ large.


We all have stories.


I’ve driven away from more than one Lenten service to put my hand on the dying brow of a congregant. Our pastoral staff has witnessed bizarre accidents, disastrous choices, relational meltdowns. We’ve had to call the police more than once.


We can rarely sit in the presence of transcendence for long before tracking mud all over the carpet, a distraction from the exquisite pain of being so seen, so known, so loved.

I’ve stopped being surprised at the myriad weirdnesses that crop up in the thin places, when God is hovering over the waters and perhaps stirring them up as well. Almost every story of the miraculous and beautiful in Scripture is followed by bad behavior of one form or another. We can rarely sit in the presence of transcendence for long before tracking mud all over the carpet, a distraction from the exquisite pain of being so seen, so known, so loved.

 

On my first Maundy Thursday, after the congregation had gone home, I walked slowly through the sanctuary turning off lights and picking up stray tissues and mittens and bulletins. With Daryl away, I was in no hurry to rush back to the lonely parsonage.


A strange sadness pressed in upon me as I heard a spattering of sleet on the windows. Then I pressed the final light switch off, looked up, and gasped.


The wooden cross at the front of the sanctuary rested against a curtain of red velvet, lit from behind. In the darkness it looked red with blood.


I walked to the center aisle, knelt with my face to the floor, and sobbed.

 

“The journey is too much for you,” a ministering angel tells Elijah in 1 Kings 19.


This is the piece I don’t want to forget. That wrestling with holy things will leave us forever changed, and not always in ways that are beautiful and easy.


Jacob fought with an angel, desperate to see the face of God, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life.


But sometimes in the holy heaviness, what we actually need are the basic things of life. The angel who wrestles Jacob also gives him a blessing. The one who meets Elijah offers him a snack and a nap.


To my friends and colleagues in ministry this Holy Week: make sure you are fed and watered. Remember that you are seen.


The journey is too much for us all.


Lord, have mercy.



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