When we read the Gospel accounts of Holy Week, their length can leave our minds wandering and their familiarity can do the same; we cry out, “Crucify him!” with little attention to the horror of the words that we rarely utter but so often live.
When we do manage to engage with the accounts of the Passion, the imagery can be overwhelming, often leaving us with shame and guilt over the gore borne for our sake but no real sense of redemption or of the intimacy with God that Jesus’ suffering won for us.
How, then, to approach the Scriptures of Holy Week, especially for those who’ve become inured to it all by a long Lent of praying the Stations and the sorrowful mysteries?
Rather than standing outside the action as a distant observer, enter into Holy Week through the saints who lived it.
Pray with St. Mary of Bethany, who came to Jesus at the beginning of Holy Week with an alabaster flask of ointment, who pushed past Jesus’ closest friends and broke her jar open on his feet, a lavish display that cost 300 days’ wages. Ignore their cries of horror, aghast as they were both at the waste and (we must read between the lines here) at her audacity. Hold in your hands the feet that were calloused from his travels to seek and save the lost. Think ahead to the nails that will pierce them and bathe them with your tears, as the sinful woman did in Luke 7. Hear the complaint about your gift, a gift so massive it seems it can only have been a dowry sacrificed by one who no longer needed it, having given her life to Jesus, and ask yourself: what have I sacrificed for the Lord? How have I handed over my life to him as Mary did? How does the world look at me and say, “What a waste”? And when they do, can I look into the eyes of Jesus and see his pleasure, his pride? Can I hear him say, “She has done a good thing”?
Pray with St. Peter, who so cockily insisted that he needed no grace to hold him strong: he would never deny Jesus, no matter what the cost. Feel in his words your own self-reliance, your own pride. Feel his weariness in the Garden and remember the many times God has asked you to be with him and you’ve given up a few minutes in. Sit with his terror when the soldiers came, his desperate attempt to seize control of the situation by grabbing his sword and hacking at his enemies, and ask the Lord: where have I refused to let you lead? How have I failed to trust? Imagine yourself at Peter’s side when he denied Jesus once and again and still a third time. Feel the anguish over his failure. Meet the eyes of Jesus, as St. Luke tells us Peter did, and imagine the expression there: disappointment, perhaps, but compassion. Love. Can you picture Jesus’ loving face looking on you in your darkest moments of sin? Can his gaze draw you back to his heart? Can it draw you to the confessional?
Pray with St. Mary Magdalene , who didn’t leave his side though all the rest had fled. Push past the crowds to keep up as he trudges and falls and gasps and groans and never stops, all the way up Calvary. Choke back a cry as they strip him, beat him, nail him to the tree. Collapse at the foot of the cross but do not leave. Do not leave when he cries his last. Do not leave until they make you, and the moment you can, return. Go to the tomb before the sun has even risen, desperate to be with even the corpse he left behind. You who have built your entire life on him, wonder what on earth you will do without him. And ask yourself: do you love him like Mary Magdalene did? If there were no resurrection, could you go on? Or would you, too, decide to curl up to weep in the tomb until death took you as well?
Pray with St. Nicodemus—yes, Saint Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night and walked away again, who tried (but not too hard) to temper men’s rage against the Christ but always kept his distance, who didn’t betray him or deny him, just stayed a little too far away for Jesus to ask anything of him. Confront your complacency, wonder at your refusal to follow and then make your choice. You who could not rejoice with him when he raised the dead and gave sight to the blind, look on his battered, bloody corpse and choose him. Stand with him. Declare yourself his man, here in his utter defeat, and join Joseph of Arimathea in giving him a king’s burial. Pour out your coffers for him as Mary poured out her oil. Give him your heart, expecting nothing in return.
And then sit with Mary Magdalene as she hears him call her name, the tenderest word ever spoken by the world’s most loving voice. With the Apostles, hear the cry that the tomb is empty, that he is risen, and believe. Stand with Thomas and put your hands in the holes in his feet and his side. Beg his mercy with Peter by a charcoal fire. Let the greatest news the world has ever known light a fire in your belly and send you out to preach his name. Don’t let Holy Week end with one Hallelujah hymn and a few Easter eggs. Live the Easter season just as you lived the Triduum. Let the risen Jesus live in your heart and raise you from the death of sin and shame and weariness to the joy of being a resurrected man, a woman reborn, a new creation in Christ.
 There is a strong tradition in the Western Church that conflates Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene; there is an equally strong tradition in the Eastern Church that views them as two separate women. Either position works for this reflection.
Prefer to listen? Meg recorded an audio version on her podcast!