Some 2,000 years ago, a divine chain of events played out over the course of eight days and culminated in an occurrence that has changed the world. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead following his horrible crucifixion proved to be the nexus from which all human history flows.
Historian Will Durant, quoted more fully below, called the unfolding events following Jesus' resurrection the “the greatest drama played by man.”
Holy Week recalls that drama that reaches a crescendo of victory and is sealed with a wave of satisfaction, joy and celebration observed on a worldwide scale that dwarfs all other events.
Christians participating in some aspect of Holy Week observances by most estimates exceed two billion. The Christian faith is the world’s largest and fastest growing faith community — currently numbering 2.3 billion with tens of millions more being added every year.
With 32 percent of the world's population claiming to be Christian, Easter events frame the meaning of time and shape the thoughts and actions of not only individuals and churches, but nations in ways nothing else can.
For example, Ramadan, a month of fasting from dawn until dusk, is the other great religious event that is observed worldwide. But many of the 1.7 billion Muslims are granted an exemption from participating in Ramadan due to difficulties placed upon the participants (although they are required to make up the days at some other time).
While Muslims may find fasting beneficial for spiritual discipline, and as important as it may be in their faith, there is no intellectual and emotional ascent to unfolding events and an all-embracing climax of victory, and is therefore absent the riveting drama of the Christian Holy Week.
In the secular realm, a competitor to Holy Week may be found in sports, specifically football and soccer with playoffs structured to hold viewers in anticipation.
Some in the United States have even jokingly proposed making Super Bowl Sunday, the culmination of the NFL season, a national holiday while in many churches it is already a de facto addition to the Christian calendar. However, the most charitable estimates for TV ratings place the World Cup finals for soccer and the NFL's Super Bowl with just over 1 billion viewers worldwide, less than half the number of Christians who anticipate and participate in the Easter story.
There is another reason Holy Week can and does so powerfully attract and captivate billions of people, both believers and non-believers alike in ways nothing else can.
Sporting events, which in many ways have reproduced the use of time and events to create pseudo-significant events, inevitably end with most players and viewers left angry or sorrowful and wondering “what if?” And in fact, champions are crowned for a year, the victory is not final and the celebration is short; there is no lasting satisfaction.
Holy Week provides for a progression of events set out to experience time and victory on God's terms. Time is invested with authentic meaning and unrestricted joy.
The victory of Christ is final and eternal. The celebration of the church is full-throated, abiding and even boisterous because it rests upon not only a past victory, but is secured with an eternal champion and promises of an even more glorious future.
God has granted Christians the incredible opportunity to utilize the beauty, pageantry and promise played out in Holy Week to give expression to our joy and to share the joy with the world!
While surely telling the story of sin, embracing sorrow and death with Good Friday's remembrance of Christ's crucifixion, Holy Week is centered on and culminates in redemption, victory and joy for everyone. The loser is death, the great enemy of all mankind.
Death has been vanquished and therefore we can proclaim with the Apostle Paul that “death is swallowed up in victory”: “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?”
The attraction and power of Easter finds expression again in the words of the Apostle in Colossians 2:12-15:
“[Y]ou also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised [Jesus] from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.”
The drama played out in Holy Week, including Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Resurrection Sunday is a condensed version of what has played out in the history of the world. Will Durant, referred to above, wrote perhaps the most popular multi-volume series on the history of civilization. Volume III is titled “Caesar and Christ” and Durant is so captivated by the drama he writes:
“The study of antiquity is properly accounted worthless except as it may be made living drama, or illuminate our contemporary life. The rise of Rome from a crossroads town to world mastery, its achievement of two centuries of security and peace from the Crimea to Gibraltar and from the Euphrates to Hadrian’s Wall, its spread of classic civilization over the Mediterranean and western European world, its struggle to preserve its ordered realm from a surrounding sea of barbarism, its long, slow crumbling and final catastrophic collapse into darkness and chaos — this is surely the greatest drama ever played by man; unless it be that other drama which began when Caesar and Christ stood face to face in Pilate’s court, and continued until a handful of hunted Christians had grown by time and patience, and through persecution and terror, to be first the allies, then the masters, and at last the heirs, of the greatest empire in history.”
Durant brings us to the conclusion of “Caesar and Christ” with his chapter on The Triumph of Christianity. He summarizes the amazing story shaping up as early as 311 AD when, Galerius, suffering from a mortal illness, convinced of failure [to rid the empire of Christianity], and implored by his wife to make his peace with the undefeated God of the Christians, promulgated an edict of toleration, recognizing Christianity as a lawful religion and asking the prayers of the Christians in return for "our most gentle clemency."
The Diocletian persecution was the greatest test and triumph of the church.
It weakened Christianity for a time through the natural defection of adherents who had joined it, or grown up, during the half century of unmolested prosperity. But soon the defaulters were doing penance and pleading for readmission to the fold.
Accounts of the loyalty of martyrs who had died, or of "confessors" who had suffered, for the faith were circulated from community to community.
"The blood of martyrs," said Tertullian, "is seed."
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known. “Caesar and Christ” had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
Westmore Church of God, like most other Christian churches and believers worldwide, elevates Holy Week to a prime place not simply within our local congregation, but within the broader culture as it speaks to the history of the world, explains the tremendous changes and advancements the world has experienced and represents God's Good News to mankind. Holy Week is the world in miniature. It is a time of music, of meditation and reflection, of praise and worship, feasting and extravagant celebration.
Westmore Church of God invites you to join us in telling the story that transformed the world and is captured by words flowing from an author who had the “eyes of his heart” opened to clearly see:
The incarnation of Christ ... and the manger of Bethlehem, in conjunction with Golgotha, will forever be:
... of all times — the turning point;
... of all love — the highest point;
... of all salvation — the starting point; and
... of all worship — the central point.
(Editor’s Note: Kelvin E. Page is the senior pastor of Westmore Church of God, in Cleveland. A graduate of Lee University and The Pentecostal School of Theology, he has served as pastor at Westmore for 13 years.)