The Pope died two weeks ago. I know, I know, you’re thinking to yourself, wasn’t he just in Mexico, didn’t I just see pictures of him with Fidel Castro in Cuba on the news? And you did. And sure enough, he was. That’s where Pope Benedict XVI was, and that’s what Pope Benedict XVI what he was doing in the last few weeks. But that’s not the Pope I’m talking about. The Pope who died on March 17th was Pope Shenouda III of Egypt, the Coptic Pope – the See of St. Mark – who led the ancient Egyptian Christian community for the past 40 years. I actually met him once in Houston during an audience with area clergy. He blessed me and gave me gifts in celebration of his visit to America. He struck me as a wise and gentle man with a wonderful smile and sparkling eyes. He was a charismatic spiritual leader, and I grieve with my Coptic brothers and sisters his passing. The Egyptian Christian community finds itself in a precarious place these days. It is part of the suffering church, and it will miss Pope Shenouda’s courage, conviction and strength. We should be praying for our Egyptian brothers and sisters.
Among the gifts that Pope Shenouda gave me when I met him in Houston all those years ago was a collection of his writings, and I’ve been reading things that Pope Shenouda has written ever since that introduction to them. The Coptic tradition is very different from mine as an American Protestant Christian with Evangelical leanings, but in recent years the insights of Eastern Christianity has been an area of exploration and spiritual growth for me, and Pope Shenouda has been one of my teachers.
One of the things that Pope Shenouda wrote for his people was a guide to help them keep a more spiritually meaningful Holy Week. He counseled them to “concentrate their thoughts, conversations, and meditations around the events of this Holy Week and the passion of our Savior” by –
Letting solitude and retreat characterize the week by staying away from idle discussions, various means of entertainment and pleasures. Reserve your time for God and to spiritual activities worthy of this week.
Giving ourselves to spiritual exercises this week that allow us to share in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering and to be conformed to His death… by carrying our cross and following Him. If there is a cross in our lives, we shouldn’t complain about it, but rather rejoice in it and bear it for Christ’s sake.
Practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting. Whoever puts the suffering of Christ before Him will not take any pleasure in eating, drinking or pampering the body. But in order to succeed in pursuing asceticism, we must satisfy our souls with spiritual food so that it may thrive and overcome physical hunger.
And finally, using the resources of the church’s life of worship – her hymns, prayers and Scripture readings – meditate on the events of the week one by one, from Palm Sunday when Christ refused His worldly kingdom… until He was crucified and buried. On Palm Sunday, ask yourself: “Is Christ King and Lord over everything in my life?” “Do I, like Christ, turn down worldly glory for spiritual and eternal glory” When the church denounces Judas’ betrayal with a kiss… ask yourself in prayer, “How often, O Lord, have I betrayed You?” “How many times have I told You words of love in prayers, while my actions show the opposite and my heart is far away from You?” (http://st-takla.org)
All of these recommendations from a true spiritual father about how to make Holy Week more spiritually meaningful are rooted in the understanding that the objective truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has got to become subjectively real to us in our very own experience if it is to have the impact that it intends. And in this journey of the Gospel from our heads to our hearts, the importance that the church’s life of worship plays cannot be overstated.
From another wing of the church, the Scottish Congregationalist Theologian of the last generation, J.S. Whale wrote –
Reading books about God, so far from leading a man to the knowledge of God, may have the opposite effect. You may spend years on the sacred texts, the wearisome minutiae of linguistic and archaeological research, the arguments about the deepest things by which men have lived. But by studying these facts it is easy to lose the life which alone gives them unity and meaning.
…The mind may labor with great concepts such as that of the Trinity in unity, but the whole man cries out for the living God. As Luther put it in a striking epigram: ‘He who merely studies the commandments of God is not greatly moved. But he who listens to God commanding, how can he fail to be terrified by majesty so great?’ We have to get somehow from the commandments of God to God commanding…
…Instead of putting off our shoes from our feet because the place whereon we stand is holy ground, we are taking nice photographs of the burning Bush, from suitable angles: we are chatting about theories of Atonement with our feet on the mantelpiece, instead of kneeling down before the wounds of Christ.
…The need is obvious. Is it met anywhere? The answer is that it is met in the worship of the Church, where the Christian religion is given to us in all its living meaning. Apart from this, Christianity is no more than archaeology, a museum piece for antiquarians. The Church lives, not on ideas about God, but on God’s grace itself, mediated by his Spirit through the immemorial rites of corporate worship. There the Word of God, contained in the words of Holy Scripture, is proclaimed and heard as the Gospel There in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, this Word reaches its climax, and action adds something to utterance.
…In short, saving faith comes to men not through any intellectual gymnastics of their own; it is wrought by the Holy Spirit of God in the heart through the preaching of the Gospel; the same Holy Spirit confirms or seals it through the Gospel Sacraments. (J.S. Whale – Christian Doctrine)
The power of Holy Week is what God in Jesus Christ did for us from day to day throughout it — from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, through Good Friday to Holy Saturday, and climaxing on Easter Sunday. It is important to know the story, the sequence of events — what was said and what happened. But this week is more than just a recital of some events that happened long ago and far away. This is a story that shapes us. It tells us who God is and what God does. It tells us who we are and what we need to be made whole again. It tells us about what God intends for the whole world, what God is doing about it, and what our part in it is. This is the defining story of our lives, and it’s what this week is all about. In Word and Sign in Christian worship this week, the Holy Spirit takes what Jesus Christ did on the cross and applies its accomplishments to our hearts so that we will become cross-shaped people in the world, carrying God’s grace and glory into every nook and cranny of life.
It would not be too much to say that what we are doing in church this week is the most important that is happening in the world this year. I urge you not to miss it.