There may be a paradox to Holy Week. We recite reproaches and sing hymns in which we dramatically declare, “I crucified thee.” We solemnly recall that Jesus died for our sins. We then contemplate the utter gratuity of the Resurrection. However, the week before Easter can also be a time of rather self-conscious human achievement. The liturgies are long and exquisitely choreographed. The priest stares at an unusually full and decorated church; her sermons are well-prepared. The congregation before her has been dutifully planning for Easter festivities: food, seating arrangements, dresses and hats, recreational activities made possible by warm (or warmer) weather and a week off from school. Perhaps there’s even the inevitable sense of accomplishment about Lent, about going 40 days without chocolate, caffeine, or carnivorous indulgence.

And that may be all right. Holy Week may be about learning to see differently, which first means grasping that the way we presently look at our world and go about our business is likely to have been badly framed. Our rituals of human achievement, if we look very closely, may be tinged with failure.

Peter-Ben Smit has written about ritual failure in the New Testament. As he notes,[1] the Corinthians celebrated meals in which hierarchy, exclusions, and dietary boundary markers were surely (and traditionally) important. Paul, however, claims that this ritual did not follow the right procedure and was very badly framed. After all, the broken bread really represents the body of Christ, and by eating the body of Christ, one expresses the desire to live in a social body of Christ — a new community in which hierarchy and exclusions and the placing of dietary boundary markers can be seen as nothing more than fruitless “divisions” (1 Cor. 11:18). To Paul, it is no surprise that the misguided dining ritual has been a failure; some of the Corinthians, he points out, have become ill and “some have died” (1 Cor. 11:30).

But Paul’s most striking reframing concerns the Cross. Just as dining was ritualistic — an act through which identity was created — crucifixion was a ritual of imperial power meant to humiliate criminals and bind together the edified crowds in proper subjection. Joel Marcus has even described crucifixion as a form of “parodic exaltation” in which the very height of the cross could express “the emperor’s contempt through a parody of the victim’s pretension.” Everyone could laugh together at the common victim.


But, for a mocking emperor, the danger of the imperial ritual of crucifixion was that, despite the intentions of the executioners, the exalted criminal could appear noble in suffering. Paul reinterpreted the apparent punishment of a disobedient criminal to be the very real hyper-exaltation of an obedient slave who revealed himself as “Lord” (Phil. 3:11). The display of the seemingly greatest earthly power — the imperial power to take life cruelly — really became the unintended means to Jesus’ elevation to glory. The true meaning of the ritual was its failure. Likewise, centuries later, the real meaning of a lynching would likewise not be a blood sacrifice to repair the torn social fabric of a Southern town, but instead the sad reenactment of mob violence much like the scapegoating that killed Jesus. As Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “the loveliest lynchee was our Lord.”

Of course, our own Eastertime rituals of human achievement may not be quite as exclusionary as the Corinthian dining ritual or as bloody as crucifixion. (Although, it is worth noting, one should never underestimate the positioning and subtle cruelty that can go on at a dinner party.) But the Holy Week liturgies should make us look again at how we think about hierarchy and boundaries and how we see power; we should ask if our ritual behaviors need to be reframed.

The pseudonymous Catholic priest who writes for Commonweal, Fr. Nonomen, has just shown how these liturgies might have such an effect. Right before his first foot washing on a Holy Thursday, he realized that he did not have basins and pitchers of the correct sizes. A friend lent him an aunt’s set of 150-year-old French antiques. One imagines that they are the sorts of things that are meant to be kept behind glass, touched with great care if at all while speaking in a hushed voice. Fr. Nonomen writes:

When I shared this with the twelve, they stared at it in shock. “You want us to put our feet in that? What if it breaks? Suppose it gets chipped?”

“You’re worth it,” I told them.

Fr. Nonomen also writes about encountering people through their feet:

In the washing, you see and touch the calluses and arthritic toes and blister scars, which are usually hidden away, but in those moments, they tell the world a story about the pains and sacrifices of walking through life.

Finally, he speaks, no less than five times, of having to look “up” into faces. What he saw are not the signs of our usual categories, but rather who these people really are: they are characterized by the capacity for humility, gratitude, wonder, and joy. They are capable of echoing the self-emptying of Christ of which Paul spoke to the Philippians in his reframing of Christ’s cross. “Out of their eyes, that night, Christ shined.”

So, part of the Holy Week liturgies might mean a set of reframing: antiques become mere tools to wash others; our pains and sacrifices need not be fearful signs of coming loss to be hidden away; and, in our ordinariness, Christ might shine. The paradox of Holy Week — reproaches amid rehearsed liturgies and planned dinner parties — can be very useful if it gets us to look and think again.

Other posts by Neil Dhingra are here. The featured image comes via Fr. Lawrence Lew, OP, and is from a 15th-century reredos in Hannover.


[1] See his “Ritual Failure, Ritual Negotiation, and Paul’s Argument in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34,” Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters 3:2 (2013), pp. 165–95.

About The Author

Neil Dhingra, a Roman Catholic, is a doctoral student in education at the University of Maryland.

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