Andy Tilsley from ChristChurch London writes about the true meaning of Holy Week and explains how each special date will be celebrated by Christian communities.
One of the most common questions I’m asked, as a church leader, is “Why would a loving God allow suffering?”
It’s one I mull over a lot at Easter time. After all, it’s the moment we remember a 33-year-old man being crucified. I sometimes consider the question by looking at the alternative options at God’s disposal.
One plan to deal with suffering would be to destroy it all in one swoop. However given that I, myself, have caused my fair share of disappointment and pain, I suppose that would necessitate the end of people like me – not sure I fancy that.
An alternative route might have involved God either brainwashing everyone, or otherwise forcing the world to obey his every command. But if God were to step in each time I drove over the speed limit, or render me speechless when on the cusp of insulting someone else, I’d soon be reduced to little more than a robot.
In choosing to give humankind free will, God adopted a very risky strategy.
Suppose I told my two-year old daughter that she was never allowed to date, nor get married, to protect her from a broken heart. I’d soon have a riot on my hands. In wanting my daughter to experience real love, I must risk giving her freedom, even if it doesn’t work out as I want.
So, reluctantly, for better or for worse, I’ve told her that when she’s 41-years-old she can choose anyone she wants.
The message of Easter that Christians remember each Holy Week is that God chose a more patient approach with humanity. Rather than wiping me out for my failings, he offers me the chance of experiencing real love and relationship with him.
More than that, it’s a reminder that God takes sin, suffering and pain very seriously – so much so he decided to do something about it personally rather than leaving us to our own ends.
During Holy Week we encourage our church to reflect carefully on this message.
We provide daily devotional studies on the Easter Story that help people remember that God didn't throw away the human project and that he loves us in spite of, and in the midst of our weaknesses.
Fasting, solitude and prayer are tools that many use for spiritual reflection and preparation.
We gather the whole church together on Good Friday where we take Communion together. The bread and wine, representing Christ’s body and blood, speak powerfully of the brutality of crucifixion that Christ endured.
God is not a benign deity in the clouds who is far removed from suffering. He has experienced it personally. When I reflect on the problems in my own life, it’s a reminder that God knows and understands everything I face. We offer prayer for those confronted with challenges in life, for the sick, the disadvantaged and for those across our city who are in need.
We also think it important to marry this prayer with practical action.
Feeding the hungry through our Foodbank project, serving charities for the homeless like Growth in Tower Hamlets, mentoring refugees, visiting the elderly, caring for the sick and giving money to local, city-wide and national projects are all things we encourage and in which we seek to actively participate.
Easter Sunday is a wonderful celebration of Christ’s resurrection. I must confess that I used to be guilty of what I might call ‘chronological snobbery’ – thinking that 2,000 years ago, before all our modern scientific advances, people used to believe in fairy stories like miracles and healings.
I forget that people were convinced back then, just as much as they are today, that dead people tend to stay dead. Somehow, the tiny group of followers of Jesus were so persuaded by the subsequent resurrection of Jesus, that they ended up changing history forever. If Jesus couldn't be defeated by death, then that offers wonderful hope, even in the darkest of moments.
We will often celebrate this day with baptisms, signifying the new life that relationship with Jesus can bring to individuals, hearing personal testimonies from those involved.
Easter Egg hunts and party games for the children aren't just nice additional gimmicks. If there’s ever a day in the Christian calendar to be characterised by rejoicing, then this is it, and we hope there’s a sense of fun and celebration for the whole family.
We also spend time praying for our world. The Bible is first and foremost a story of God and his love for humanity, and it’s one that hasn't finished yet.
If the Easter message tells us that God has dealt with suffering at the cross, and that God is dealing with suffering through the personal change offered through relationship with Jesus, then the resurrection reminds us that God hasn't finished yet.
Suffering will one day be fully and finally dealt with forever. That gives us wonderful hope as we remember those in need around the world that those prayers don’t fall on deaf ears.
ChristChurch London makes a variety of Easter resources available for people.