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.

 

Daily Lenten Reflection

Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert. Hot sands will become a cool oasis, thirsty ground a splashing fountain. Even lowly jackals will have water to drink, and barren grasslands flourish richly. –Isaiah 36:6-7, MSG

Hidden presence revealed in the subtle, vibrant buzz of life. In the desert, that hidden presence is water; in the desert of the spirit, it is God from whom life arises and thrives.

We need only look to our own lived encounters with Divine Mystery to detect currents of experience that seem to both affirm and deny Holy Presence. Times of loss and desolation remind us that, at least as far as human perception goes, God is not always here. “Trying to give one’s life to God can be a very lonely business, especially when God often seems absent,” laments the priest Felix in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Severed Wasp. And yet life’s suffering is sweetly balanced with startling eruptions of joy as absence gives way to the awareness of loving presence that gives and sustains life. –Laurie Gordon, The God of Barren Landscapes 

Reflect: 

  • Where do you discover the Spirit’s hidden presence in the seemingly barren places of your life?
  • When has your perception been that God is absent? When has absence given way to “the awareness of loving presence that gives and sustains life?”
  • Prayerfully dwell with Isaiah 36:6-7. What is God’s invitation to you in this text?