Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Who would willingly come to this threshold? With all society’s promises of happiness and fulfillment beckoning at every bend, who would choose to enter this week of suffering? Who would sit at the table of bread being broken, feeling the horrible tension of a body almost broken too? Who would be a witness at the cross of injustice, suffering, and grief? Who would go to the tomb to revisit the despair and dread, to face what can happen even to you who dare to challenge the systems of power?

We come to this Holy Week threshold precisely because most suffering in our lives and in our world is not what we would choose. We do not want to lie in a hospital bed, or sit beside one. We do not want to witness chronic poverty, or the impact of war, or the rubble of another natural disaster. We do not welcome the loss of a broken relationship, a miscarriage, the death of a loved one, or a layoff. It does not ease the pain to remind us how part of being human is to experience suffering; how loss is an inevitable part of life.

Most of the time we avoid pain at all costs. I take Tylenol at the first sign of a headache. I avoid the risks that could cause disruption. In moments of intensity, it is sometimes easier to become emotionally numb than to sustain the feeling. As much as I can control my away around suffering, I will try.

Yet, Holy Week does not offer an invitation to ease the pain, but to enter it. We are invited to enter the heart of suffering and pray our own agonizing Gethsemane prayers: Where are you, God? And, why God? And, how could this happen? Can’t it be another way? What possible spiritual wisdom could reside in the yearly journey into this uncomfortable place?

We have spent the season of Lent practicing restraint in the desert, stripping ourselves of unnecessary baggage, assessing our idols and illusions. Holy Week is the culminating moment of this wilderness season of the spiritual life. It is the time for whatever is false that remains in us to show its face before what is most true. In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor asserts that even pain and suffering can be a spiritual practice because they force us to confront what isn’t real. “Pain strips away all the illusions required to maintain the status quo… Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove.”

We do not seek out suffering, but it happens. There is no neat theological explanation for the Good Friday moments of life that can satisfy my deepest questions. And yet, we can see how it is often through enduring what we would never choose that we find ourselves transformed into who we really are. When asked to draw a map of my spiritual life, the relationship between the lowest points and the most growth becomes abundantly clear. In our aching Gethsemane prayers we dare to utter what is most real in us. There is no time for fancy wording or even right theology. What was once abstract becomes sharp immediacy. And it is here, in this journey to the cross, right in the middle of what we’ve tried to avoid, that we discover the presence of the One who is truly in all things even in the places we’d rather not be.

And it is here, in our dying, that the seed of resurrection breaks open, shedding even its own seed-identity to become fullest life beyond what we can imagine or hope.

This is the threshold we dare to cross.

This is the promise we dare to hold.


5 Replies to “Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering”

  1. I could not have imagined, at my husband’s funeral 14 months ago, that I could come to this place of serenity. While I miss him terribly, God has lifted up my grief and transformed it to the peace of Jesus. This, my first lenten journey, has guided my heart into a divine space and I am so grateful. I walk willingly and with joyous expectation into this holy week, where Jesus is my companion and I his. I will break share the weight of carrying the cross and stand witness to his death, knowing that Easter morning will be a resurrection, a new birth, of all that is good in the world.

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