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The Christian calendar year: Holy week, standing near

The Christian calendar year: Holy week, standing near

by Steve Bell

Is there one who would not weep,
whelmed in miseries so deep…
“Stabat Mater”

Whereas Advent can be generally described as an ascent to light, Holy Week, by contrast, moves us in the opposite direction – in a descent into darkness. Even though we, by faith and hindsight, might see past the darkness of Good Friday to the bright dawn of Easter morn, we are invited to enter imaginatively into this time, suspending our foreknowledge of the Resurrection so that we, like Mary at the foot of the cross, may stand in solidarity with all those who know of no such hope, and for reasons that may surprise us.

If you are like me, the temptation is to want to theologize our way past human suffering, thereby diminishing its horror in an attempt to shield ourselves from it. When our attempts to do so fail, we don’t like it.

The story of Holy Week, briefly and flatly stated, is that shortly after Jesus made the bold statement, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and after encouraging His followers to therefore follow after Him, he went and got Himself killed.

It’s a little abrupt, but that’s what happened.

There’s more to the story, but it’s not hard to imagine how any claim to Jesus’ messiahship would be considered “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Indeed, most of us would expect and prefer our saviours to save us from death, not lead us into it.
In a dream, I once found myself at the end of a scowling pirate’s sword, being pushed to the edge of a gangplank that cantilevered terrifyingly over a baited swirl of hungry sharks below. A sense of horror mixed with the deepest sadness overwhelmed as I realized that all hope was lost and that my untimely end would also be friendless, painful and unmarked. Suddenly, swinging in on a rope, came a swashbuckling saviour – a heroic Robin Hood figure – dashing and brave and sure to save, and I was overjoyed at the sudden possibility of an unforeseen way out of my calamity. But then, to my disbelief, rather than engage the menacing pirate in battle, my rescuer loosened the rope with a flick of his wrist and then wrapped it around the two of us before rushing us both headlong off the plank into the feeding frenzy below. All I could think as we tumbled to our bloody doom was (pardon my language), “What the hell?!”


The dream was almost comical in its absurdity. But there you have it. Inasmuch as the dream reflects our own faith, the cornerstone on which the Christian story turns is understandably both foolishness and a stumbling block to anyone of reasonably good sense.

Here I am reminded that our story, the Christ story, is not first and foremost about good sense. Rather, it is a mystery to be pondered and not a problem to be solved, or a calamity to be avoided. Our orientation towards it is more appropriately that of prayerful, patient attention than anything else. For, incomprehensibility aside, I am also convinced there is a gift here.

During Holy Week, the tempo of our attention slows to a walking pace as we, with Jesus, turn our face towards Jerusalem, that most puzzling city where practical good sense is lauded and love is religiously opposed. We enter into the passion of Jesus who, after three years of active ministry throughout Galilee, suddenly and surprisingly turns passive (which is the archaic meaning of ‘passion’). He is no longer commanding seas, no longer healing limbs, no longer challenging powers. Instead, he becomes increasingly mute and docile as he allows himself to be humiliated and led where no one would ever wish to go.

What then should our posture be as we enter reflectively into this week? John’s Gospel gives us a clue in its reference to Mary, the mother of Jesus, with these simple words: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother…” (19:25).

Scriptures say so little about Mary. However, given her significance in the drama of salvation, we should perk up and pay attention when they do. In the darkest hour, Mary – the blessed Theotokos (God-bearer), the first Christian and mother of the church – simply stood near the cross. Her response to the tragic circumstance, before anything else, was proximity. The agonizingly beautiful 13th century Latin hymn “Stabat Mater,” which commemorates Mary’s co-suffering presence at the cross, opens with these lines:

At the Cross her station keeping,
stood the mournful Mother weeping,
close to her Son to the last.

This is true compassion: ‘com’ meaning with, and ‘passion’ archaically cognate with the word passive, which reveals true compassion to be more of a suffering with the helplessly suffering rather than feeling sorry for them or actively seeking ways to alleviate their suffering.
In the face of hopelessness and loss, let love overcome our horror. Let us, with Mary, stand near. Let us ponder these things in our own hearts and bear with patience the sorrows that the fruit of our compassion and love will transform into communion and joy.


music and lyrics by Ken Medema

I’m on my way on a long, long journey
And I don’t know where the road ends
I’m on my way on a long, long journey
Surprises await me around the bend

Take my hand and walk beside me
The road is long and brief the rest
Take my hand and walk beside me
The answer to this riddle is a quest

And the riddle says:

Finding leads to losing
Losing lets you find
Living leads to dying
But life leaves death behind
Losing leads to finding
That’s all that I can say
No one will find life any other way.

Listen to the above song at Holy Week Chapter One.

Steve Bell is a storyteller through and through. For 30 years, he has offered encouragement to audiences throughout North America through concerts, song-writing and teaching. With a vocational calling to “refresh Christian faith and spiritual tradition for the weary and the wary,” Steve is known as much for his award-winning musical career as he is for his social commentary and theological insights. He has written numerous articles for online and print publications and has penned books on Scripture and the Liturgical Year. He lives with his wife Nanci in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation.

Steve’s Pilgrim Year series (Novalis Press) is a 7-volume collection of reflections based on the Christian calendar year. It is available for purchase at





The Pilgrim Year Series in City Light News

The Christian calendar year: the story of stories

The Christian calendar year: Advent: A season of attentive waiting

The Christian calendar year: GLORY! THE FEAST OF THE NATIVITY Dec 25

The Christian calendar year: Epiphany, like shining from shook foil

The Christian calendar year: Lenten disciplines, Fasting

The Christian calendar year: Holy week, standing near

The Christian calendar year: Easter in its fullness

The Christian calendar year: Ordinary Time, loving the daily divine