As a churchgoer in my distant past Holy Week was the undoubted climax of the year. Sometimes we would attend services daily the whole week, and almost always from Maundy Thursday. The move from fast to feast was dramatic. As with Christmas, the festival may have pagan undertones, linked to Spring and fertility, but unlike Christmas, the Christian content has been able to hold its own. Even now as an agnostic, Holy Week retains a lot of power; power that other festivals have lost. Why would that be?
This might be a puzzle. My attraction to Christianity is based on Jesus’s teaching. There’s not much of that during Holy Week. Instead, as this Radio 4’s morning service demonstrated, we get some of the most difficult Christian doctrines to digest. God sent his only Son to be a living sacrifice, etc. This doctrine clearly had real power in Graeco-Roman times, and retained it in the Medieval period. The Universe was a much simpler place then. It was dominated by a single Earth, with its only sun, with the stars mere spots on the firmament. It was easy to see that Man was the pinnacle of God’s creation, and that the two would have an important relationship . God was be a kind of special superman. Now we are lost in a near infinite Universe, this idea has gone beyond modern imagination. If god exists, he must be similarly infinite and quite beyond us. The whole idea of the incarnation and the idea of the sacrifice of God’s only son to save our sins has become a series of stale empty words. Christians pronounce them as a ritual of identity; at best this formula is an icon – something to be worshipped and contemplated, perhaps, but a man-made creation of little intrinsic worth. And I haven’t even touched the Eucharist.
So why does Holy Week retain its power? It helps that it is linked to a clear narrative in the gospels, full of human drama and detail. So much more gritty and real that the Christmas stories, which seem to have been worked out backwards from biblical prophesies. But ultimately the drama of struggle, being wronged, hope destroyed and then reborn sums up so much of the Christian message. An impossible burst of light onto a difficult world. Most modern religions have a huge focus on the personal lives of their founder, and Christianity is no exception. Few of these personal stories can be as unpromising as that of Jesus. The Buddha devoted his whole life to attaining enlightenment; Mohammed attained huge temporal power in his lifetime. It is impossible not to marvel at how the few days of the Holy week story led to such a dramatic and powerful movement.
So for me Good Friday will be a day of quiet reflection; Holy Saturday will be a normal Saturday; Easter Sunday will be a celebration. Practising Christians do it better, but I will be shadowing them in my small way.