Holy Week balances the drama and ordinariness of Jesus’s last days in almost equal measure.
Holy Week’s high liturgies literally script us into Jesus’s last days. We waved palms for Jesus and demanded His crucifixion with the crowds on Palm Sunday. We will be present for the foot-washing on Holy Thursday, mourning Christ’s death on Good Friday, keeping vigil near Jesus’s tomb at Easter Vigil, rejoicing in the Risen One’s appearance on Easter Sunday.
In contrast, Holy Week’s Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are plain. The liturgies seem no different. Special smells, sights, and actions are gone. Here, we are unscripted. Only the murmur of our everyday can be heard, shaping the hearts of betrayers and true disciples alike.
Given for our liturgical celebrations this year, Luke’s Gospel can help orient us in these ordinary days of Holy Week. Between what we heard of Jesus entering Jerusalem triumphantly (19:28-30) and the events leading to Jesus’s death (22:14-23:56) at Palm Sunday’s liturgy, Luke presents Jesus teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem (19:45-21:38). The Gospel’s narrative arc has been leading to these days: Jesus has been traveling to Jerusalem for nearly ten chapters (9:51-19:27).
Confronting, being confronted, and comforting mark Luke’s account of these days.
Jesus’s last teaching moments aim to unsettle His listeners and bring the truth to light.
The religious leadership confronts Jesus with three trick questions, seeking to pin Him to their categories and to trip Him up. In each of these places, though, Jesus turns the tables, confronting them with the truth of their own identity. They are the ones unwilling to acknowledge where God’s power is at work (20:5-7). They are the ones who understand God and Caesar as being two actors on the same level (20:24-25). They are not ready for the new life which “the God of the living” has in store (20:34-38). Clearly but unwillingly, Jesus confronts them with a simple question: who are you, really?
Jesus confronts His listeners with the terror and promise of the Day of the Lord (21:5-36). The picture is bleak: suffering and death for His disciples (21:12-19), the destruction and desolation of God’s city and the Temple (21:20-24), signs of unrest in the very fabric of the cosmos (21:25-26). Yet this is the setting for the Son of Man’s coming (21:27), the day marking the rule of a truly human world, when we “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” (21:28). This terrifying intermixture of cosmic failure and triumph confronts His listeners with a simple question: what do you really want: God or something good in God’s place?
Yet in the midst of this escalating confrontation, there is comfort not just for us, but for Jesus. Between these confrontations, the poor widow appears in the Temple, unnoticeable and unnoticed by all except Jesus, who sees her offering of “her whole livelihood” to God (21:4). In one of his most beautiful sermons, Hans Urs von Balthasar shows how the widow brought comfort to Jesus in the time leading to His death:
In [the poor widow] Jesus sees his own preaching of the kingdom bearing fruit. There can be no doubt that, at the end of his earthly life, the word he had sowed in the world seemed to him to have borne very little fruit. […] The widow […] just gives, purely and simply, and she does not give something, she gives all she is and has, herself. Jesus’ entire proclamation of the kingdom is directed to this point. For God does not give us just something: he gives us himself, his heart, his word, his mind. And what he requires from us, in response, is not just something but the entire investment of our selves, our binding word, our heart.
God’s Kingdom takes shape in self-gift, entirely giving ourselves to God so that we might be sent to give ourselves entirely to others. In the face of sin, the cross is the tragic intersection of these two modes. In the face of God’s grace, its reward is God’s own life breathed forth on Easter Sunday. The widow thus raises a question for us: how can we comfort Jesus with our own self-gift?
Though unscripted, these ordinary days of Holy Week can make this week’s liturgical participation more than just words. They can be an opportunity to let these events in Jesus’s life be radiantly reflected in our own everyday reality, which has already been plunged into Jesus’s death and already raised into the Son’s eternal life through Baptism.
Consider Luke’s questions:
- Like those who confronted Jesus, can we let Him reveal the truth about our lives right now? Can we bear seeing ourselves in our complicity with this world’s evils? Can we acknowledge our racism, our fear of others (like our Syrian brothers and sister), our unacknowledged hatreds, including of ourselves? Can we stand to see our own indifference to God and to our brothers and sisters and ask for change?
- Like those whom Jesus confronts with the Day of the Lord, do we want God alone and communion with our brothers and sisters in God, or something else? The fallen heart is a factory of idols: mute and dead but lethal to ourselves and others. Have we acquired the taste for God and God’s desires alone?
- Like the widow comforting Jesus, how can we comfort Jesus? That is, how can we give ourselves fully to the Lord and to each other? How can we give not just gifts but ourselves, from the experience of our finiteness and our sinfulness, risking all for the sake of those who suffer and even for the sake of those who cause suffering?
Filled with Jesus’s Spirit, let us confront ourselves with these questions. Let the total offering of ourselves and our lives be breathed into God, as Christ breathed his last on the cross, so that we might be breathed out to share God’s love with this broken world which so desperately needs it, as Christ breathed His Spirit on His disciples (John 20:22).
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Where Is the Kingdom?” in You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Radio Sermons, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 154-158; here, 156 (original emphasis).