Holy Week: Chapters 20 & 21 of Joan Chittister’s ‘The Liturgical Year’

by Andrea Tisher

Holy Week is here. Now. We’re in it. Already.

Jesus has entered the city of peace. He has been sung to, lauded, waved at with greenery. He has wept over the misunderstanding of who He is.

And now there’s really not much left to do, except to stay mindful of the events of the rest of the week. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

Chittister rightly warns of the intensity of the drama that unfolds during this week.

Her opening comments are helpful, and I’ll return to them.

But first, I must quibble with Chittister. Which I really hate to do. She’s been such a lovely conversation partner and guide. But here, in what could be argued is the most important week, she drops the ball. Vague references to the opening liturgies of Holy Monday-Wednesday. Holy what? And then a whole chapter on the ways days of the week were measured and other assorted mundane topics. I’m trusting that as she leads us through the days of the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) that she’ll regain her footing in offering us ways to view these days and doorways into meaningful participation. But these overview chapters left me a little disappointed.

Back to her opening comments, as I think that’s where there are some gems…

Of Palm/Passion Sunday: “It reminds us that at the moment of what seems to be the height of Jesus’ public acceptance aslo begins the process of His public betrayal, His public failure, His public abandonment.”(130)

And of the week in general: “Why must this happen? What is all this suffering about? But deep down inside of us, we already know what the life of Jesus and these first days of Holy Week confirm: there are some things worth living for, even if we find ourselves having to die for them as well.” (130-131)


  1. I am in complete agreement with you, Andrea. After building Easter as the height of the Christian calendar, I was surprised that Chittister’s chapters on Holy Week – the climax of Lent leading up to the blessed celebration of Easter – fell so flat. I’m hoping with you that the chapters on specific moments during Holy Week guide us into a more personal, more visceral observing of these days. I also gravitated to the same lines you did – pausing to consider the meaning of “success” in spiritual terms. Certainly the fact that Palm Sunday kicks off a week of betrayal and suffering should turn our traditional understandings of success on their heads. I was also particularly struck by this sentence: “We suffer things we would rather not undergo because we realize that if we fail to endure them, we can never achieve what we want most in life” (p. 131). It leapt off the page for me partially because of circumstances in my own life (and who doesn’t have “circumstances” they are forging through?), and partially because it struck me that hope comes to us through suffering, not despite it, and not simply in the midst of it. We suffer, and that suffering teaches us that there is something more to reach for. The suffering of Christ, and our own suffering, teaches us that what we live through now is not God’s best for us – but that there is a best, and it is not as far out of reach as we sometimes think.


  2. It seems I’m the odd one out here, at least on these chapters. I was actually quite struck by Chittister’s emphasis.

    The whole discussion about days and dates in chapter 21 is significant, she says, because it’s really a question of what Easter is about. What Christianity is about. And she comes from a tradition (like the early Jewish Christian passover-celebrators, and like most evangelicalism) that mostly emphasises the cross. Easter is about death. Christianity is about costly forgiveness. And yet. And yet she dares to highlight very forcefully (to my mind) that this is Wrong – or at least incomplete.

    Easter, agreed our 4th-century forefathers, is about an empty tomb. Christianity is about hope, the hope of life, and how it makes possible a completely different kind of life now – life lived to celebrate and obey and usher in the kingdom/reign of God. And we, with our routine ‘gospel message’ and our guilt/therapy approach to evangelism, have failed this vision. Tough to hear. Tougher still to change…

    Ironically, this seems to marginalise the Thursday/Friday/Saturday of Holy Week into merely the last bits of Jesus’ “faith[fulnes] tested to the end”. It marginalises the ‘visceral’ experience Stacey speaks of. Chittister seems to want us to look beyond the pain, beyond the suffering, to see already, even on Wednesday, the glimmering hope beyond, the hidden purposefulness within, Jesus’ (and our own) suffering.

    So how is there anything left to say about Maundy Thursday? Time to get reading chapter 22 so I can find out…


    1. I’m so glad you disagree – it’s about time we had a more rousing discussion! Thank you for opening my eyes a bit more to what Chittister has to say in this chapter. I wonder, however, if it is quite right to say that we have focused on the cross at the expense of the empty tomb. Certainly I think the world has focused on the cross (it’s far easier to deal with a man dying than it is to deal with a man alive after death) – but I feel that not a few churches have been all too willing to skip over the bit of “unpleasantness” we call the cross and head straight for the celebration, and I wonder if that is partially a result of the historical decision about dates and days (and partially the result of a culture that avoids pain at almost any cost). I think you’re right (and Chittister is right) that we need to see the glimmer of hope even within the darkness of suffering – that Christianity is, above all, about hope, about good news – but we must be given the time to sit in the dark and see that glimmer, rather than turn on the flood lights and deny the darkness. To me the trumpets of Easter sound tacky and false – unless I’ve first been given the opportunity to sit in silence. Do you really think that the church tends to emphasize the cross over the empty tomb? How so? Am I simply reading it this way because the darkness makes more sense to me at this point in my life?


      1. I definitely share your feeling that all the celebration is a bit tacky and shallow without the preceding silence and gloom!
        I think I was reflecting mostly on what we call ‘the gospel’, which mostly involves guilt and forgiveness, with the cross as the transition point. In a culture that doesn’t really feel guilt any more, but is still a bit more sensitive to death and despair, there seems to me to be a real case for ‘evangelism’ to focus on an empty tomb, on this-life-doesn’t-need-to-be-your-everything, on the possibility of grander hopes and a more-than-one-lifetime purpose for our days.
        I’m not sure how easter would look if we made that the total focus, though. I imagine the isolation, the liturgical emptiness (purposelessness?) and death-dealt despair of Holy Saturday would get a bigger mention. Any guesses? And do you think this is a good idea anyway?


        1. Ah, I see what you’re saying. The use of guilt and fear (the cross, heaven and hell) to “get people in” is definitely sadly prevalent in the church (often at the expense of a real relationship with Christ). And when’s the last time we saw a tract that focused on the empty tomb, and the freedom that Christ offers? We do tend to focus on the “don’ts” when we speak to people about Christianity (don’t go to hell, don’t do this or that) – and so that’s how the world tends to define Christianity: as a bunch of rules. But what if we really did preach the GOOD news – freedom for captives, sight for the blind, food for the hungry… triumph over death? Of course it wouldn’t make sense to preach freedom without also helping people to understand what they have freedom from (from darkness, from despair, from death) – so Good Friday/Holy Saturday would need added emphasis as well. I’m going to have to chew on this a bit more. I went to a church once where freedom in Christ was preached almost at the expense of any understanding of how Christ changes us to be more like him… so I guess that’s the other extreme. I definitely need to think more about this – maybe as we sing “He Set Me Free” on Sunday morning.

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