By Rick Shallenberger
I have a confession to make. For years, Passion Week, or Holy Week, depressed me. It seemed my pastor would always put the main emphasis on Jesus’ pain and suffering. We would read Isaiah 52 and 53 and parallel those passages with the Gospel accounts of Passion Week and then focus on how badly Jesus was treated in an effort to make us feel more guilty.
But one day my whole approach to Passion Week changed. I suddenly realized that Jesus didn’t want us focusing on his pain, but on his love.
It happened in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as I read story after story of firefighters and other heroes who died saving the lives of others. These men and women were being remembered for what they did — save lives — not for the suffering they went through as they died.
In September 2009, Muelmar Magallanes, an 18-year-old construction worker in the Philippines, rescued more than 30 people in a raging flood before losing his own life when he went back into the waters to save two more people. Family members and those he saved called him a hero as they gathered at his funeral. One woman whose baby he saved said, "I will never forget his sacrifice."
Those he saved will continue to give praise for his sacrifice, focusing on what he accomplished, not on the terrors of drowning.
I went back and read Isaiah 52 and 53 again. The passage that parallels Jesus’ struggling begins with these words: "How beautiful is the person who comes over the mountains to bring good news, who announces peace and brings good news, who announces salvation and says to Jerusalem, ‘Your God is King’" (Isaiah 52:7, New Century Version throughout).
Isaiah 53 ends by telling us: "He willingly gave his life and was treated like a criminal. But he carried away the sins of many people and asked forgiveness for those who sinned." This is reason to rejoice! We don’t rejoice in the excruciating details of how Jesus died, but in the fact that in undying love he willingly gave himself for us. He took our suffering, our pain, our wrong, and our evil (verses 4-6), in order to "make many people right with God (verse 11).
This is why the Lord’s Supper is a time of celebration. The sacrifice of Jesus gives us reason to rejoice.
The message of Passion Week is good news! It’s a message of joy, triumph and glory, not a message of sadness and guilt.
My pastor believed he was doing right by helping us feel all the more guilty about our sins by focusing on all the gory details of death by crucifixion. He believed he could motivate us to follow God through guilt. But guilt wasn’t the approach Jesus used.
Knowing I have a Savior, I don’t need to wallow in guilt. Instead, I follow and I worship my Savior in joy, praise and adoration as I join him on his journey of sharing his love and life with others.
Passion Week is a reminder that Jesus, who is in perfect communion with the Father, wants every one of us to share in that joyous relationship. He became sin for us, bearing our burdens, so that we could become righteous, bearing his perfection. He is the one who reminds us that nothing can ever snatch us out of his hands.
Paul put it this way in Romans 8:38-39, "I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, nor anything else in the whole world will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Passion Week is no time to bathe in guilt; it’s time for celebration. He died for us all, but now he is risen, he is risen indeed!
Rick Shallenberger is Pastor of Christ Fellowship Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.