Prayers for Holy Week

Palm Sunday

It feels a little perverse to confess that Holy Week is my favorite week of the year, if not borderline morbid. After all, what kind of person looks forward to a murder – especially one that they help perpetrate? But as someone who tends to float in the spiritual shallows more often than not, I grab onto Holy Week each year like a life preserver. It is the one week each year that practically forces me to structure life around Jesus’ experience rather than my own; it’s an annual invitation to see and believe that his story is the only one that matters; and it is, each year, a revelation that God knows just how messed up my own story is and moves towards me all the same, knowing fully what it will cost.

I know all of these things, all year long. But I can’t maintain the intensity of focus. The cares of the world spring up and choke out much of my growth. And then comes Holy Week – with my church’s corporate fast, with the building crescendo of services, and the slow approach into the dark waiting of Holy Saturday – and the weeds begin to wilt. Strangely, annually, out of death comes new life.

In keeping with Holy Week tradition at here Aslan’s Library, we’ll be offering daily reflections as Christians the world over walk through Jesus’ last week together. Not too much talking from us, since this is a week more for listening and waiting, quietly standing by. My fabulous sister-in-law gave me a copy of The Valley of Vision for Christmas, and I’ve been savoring the frankness, the incisiveness, and the desperate hope in some of the old Puritan prayers. I hope you’ll join us, and that they’ll speak to you as well.

Here’s one for Palm Sunday (from “Love to Jesus,” in The Valley of Vision):

The Son breaks out in glory
when he shows himself as one who outshines
all creation,
makes men poor in spirit,
and helps them to find their good in him.
Grant that I may distrust myself, to see
my all in thee.

Illustrating the names of Jesus: a project for Lent


“Who do you say that I am?”

That’s the question that all three of the synoptic Gospels hinge on. And it’s one of the most important questions our children can learn how to answer. Ultimately, of course, we can’t coach them into a right answer: they will only be able to honestly respond when they encounter Jesus and he poses the question. But it is our privilege and sacred duty to introduce our kids to Jesus, to share our own stories and love for him, and to provide them with opportunities to meet him themselves. So I’m very thankful to Martha Zimmerman for prompting a project that is helping my six-year-old and I do just that.

In Celebrating the Christian Year, Zimmerman suggests “getting to know Jesus through his names” during Lent. She provides 40 different descriptions of Jesus (or the Messiah, in prophetic literature) found in the Bible, and suggests doing a daily Bible reading along with looking up each word in the dictionary.

Fantastic idea, but: my daughter glazed over, started squirming in her chair, and commenced eating the Craisins off her brother’s plate while I tried to explain what an apostle (the first name) is. The 2-year-old protested his missing snack, threw his milk on the floor, and devotional time was done for the day. Back to the drawing board.

Right. The drawing board. My daughter loves to draw. I do not. I am an accomplished master of stick figures. Even my animals are stick animals. She forever wants me to draw with her. During art times, I suddenly find that there is laundry to fold or a dishwasher to empty. But here was an opportunity to engage her, do something she loves, and to do some Lenten meditation of my own alongside my daughter. So we started a Jesus Is book.

Here are the basics: I took a simple story journal, and wrote each of the descriptions of Jesus we’ve read so far, along with the Scriptural citation, on each page. I got out her colored pencils, handed her the book, and told her we were going to illustrate each page. She was a little stuck at first, so I pulled out some paper and started working on my own illustration. She watched me for a few minutes, then began her own drawing. When we finished, we explained our pictures to each other; when I got stuck on “the way, the truth, and the life,” she gave me some suggestions. We then read tomorrow’s description (Jesus is a Bridegroom, Matthew 9:15), talked about it for a moment, and put it all away.

What I loved: being forced to put my understanding of some very familiar verses into an image. Using my imagination that way is so much more engaging than simply reading a passage. I loved doing it side by side with my daughter and asking her about her pictures.

And I appreciated the chance to just appreciate her pictures without trying to wrest out the “right” answer. When we were done, I felt like I’d offered her a small, momentary chance to encounter Jesus on her own – and respond on her own. Which is super challenging for those of us who want our kids to Get It Right, and therefore probably all the more worth doing.

When we’re done, she will have a book (and I’ll have a stack of pictures) that we can return to whenever we want to spend some time getting to know Jesus better. One of Zimmerman’s repeated injunctions is to “put something where you can see it, so your eye can remind your heart.” That insight is at the core of much Christian practice, and it’s so perfect for helping children (and all of us, really) learn to meditate on God and his ways.

If you’re interested in trying something like this, you can track down Celebrating the Christian Year; you can also compile your own list from this helpful index at I’m curious to hear from anyone who tries it, especially those of you who, like me, aren’t native-born artists. May we all come to a deeper and more intimate knowledge of Jesus during this season!

Reading through Holy Week: Maundy Thursday

Last night, we read Mark 14:1-52. I had planned to stop at verse 31, but we were both so into the story that I just kept going. Two things (apart from the young man fleeing naked at the very end – unwise choice on my part to stop there!) really caught my daughter’s attention: Judas’ decision to betray Jesus, and Jesus’ prediction that all of the disciples would desert him. All of her “why” questions fell during those parts of the story.

She didn’t know what the word “betray” meant, and it’s actually kind of hard to define for a five-year-old. We wound up with something like “pretending that you love someone, while all the time you’re planning on hurting them.” Not precisely right, I suppose, but it captures what Judas is up to. Anyway, she was perplexed and a little dismayed, I think, by the role Jesus’ friends play on the night he is arrested.

Her perplexity helped me see afresh the poignancy of Jesus’ plea in the garden: “Abba Father, all things are possible with you. Remove this cup from me.” It wasn’t just some formal request he had to lodge so we’d all get that he’s human. Everything around him is coming undone. Nothing about this is going to be okay. It’s easy to forget the deep pain and fear that must have clouded that night, living as we do on this side of the Resurrection.

Anyway, it’s interesting to me that my daughter was so intrigued by the disciples’ failures. Tonight we’re going to go to our church’s Maundy Thursday service, and later read the account of the Last Supper in the Jesus Storybook Bible**. After we read about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, I plan on talking about what Maundy Thursday means: maundatum, or commandment, is where the day gets its name. And the commandment is that we love one another as Christ has loved us (John 15:12). Hearing his commandment to love as he loves us – given as he served them, given even as he knew how deeply their love would fail him, and how he would continue to feed them and empower them to love nevertheless with his very body and blood – is one of the rich blessings of this day.

(**my only real dissatisfaction with the Big Picture Story Bible is that it doesn’t tell the story of the Lord’s Supper, which is a major theological oversight in my book. Happily, the JSB tells it in the context of the foot-washing — a great case for owning both!)

Reading through Holy Week: Wednesday

Today’s reading: Mark 14:1-31

In Mark’s gospel, this is the part where the story really picks up and gets moving. (Well, the whole book is kind of fast-paced, but this is where everything starts to accelerate towards the climax!) So I think we’re just going to read big chunks and let the story wash over us. Maybe tomorrow, on Maundy Thursday, we’ll read the account of the Last Supper in The Jesus Storybook Bible, so we don’t just zoom over it — but for now, I just want to steep us in the story.

Reading through Holy Week: Tuesday

Our walk through Holy Week continues!

My five-year-old daughter and I read Mark 11:12-33 tonight. She was distracted and I was tired, so I was afraid it was a wash — until, while we were looking at my study Bible picture of the Temple, she commented, “I have a picture of this story in my Bible!” She hopped up and grabbed The Big Picture Story Bible and flipped to the account of Jesus cleansing the temple. We read it together, and between the simple text and eloquent pictures (a sacrificial lamb lying behind Jesus, blood smudged on the corners of the altar), it did a much better job of getting to the heart of the story than I was.

Have I mentioned how much I love the Big Picture Story Bible?

Here’s our reading for Tuesday: Mark 12:1-12

There’s so much to talk about in Mark 12, but the parable of the wicked tenants is so incisive and shocking. Especially when I remember Jesus is telling it while looking at some of the very people who will kill him. Earlier in the day, I’m going to try to read her the “Many Silent Years” chapter from the Big Picture Story Bible, since it anticipates this passage so well. Then we’ll read the parable before bed.

Instead of asking specific questions, I want to ask her to narrate it back to me – and then see where her focus lands. We’ll try to imagine how each of the characters felt and draw some connections to the story of Jesus we’re inhabiting this week.

I’ll be back on Wednesday with more!

Reading through the events of Holy Week

Holy Week

This evening is Palm Sunday, and as always, it feels like this week has snuck up on me. In my ideal world, I would have cleared my calendar for the week; already have Easter baskets done; have the menu for Easter dinner mapped out and a shopping list complete; and be ready to settle in for a week of contemplation and gradual approach to the Cross.

Ever notice that this isn’t an ideal world?

Yet again, we have a busy week (my husband is traveling) and I’m struggling with how to prepare the slam-bang celebration that Easter deserves while keeping my heart focused on the place this week this culminates – namely, Golgotha. What to do?

There’s one rather large thing our family has committed to this week, but I don’t want to share about it until we’re done. I have no idea how it will go, and I want to reflect about and inhabit it before I report on it.

But in an additional effort to sacralize this week, especially for my 5-year-old, I’ve chosen to read through Mark’s passion narrative each night before bed. We started with the triumphal entry tonight. So for the rest of this week, I’ll be sharing our reading selections. I’ve also included some of the questions I might ask my five-year-old; I think they could work with a range of ages (thanks, Jerome Berryman!). Here’s today:

Monday of Holy Week:
Read Mark 11:12-33
Some possible questions:

  • Did anything in the story surprise you? Make you feel something?
  • Can you imagine having enough faith to move a mountain? I wonder what that feels like?
  • Can you imagine being in the temple when Jesus came? I wonder what that felt like for the people selling pigeons? For the people who bought them?
  • I wonder what it felt like to be one of the chief priests or scribes, watching Jesus do all these things?
  • I wonder what it felt like to be one of his disciples?

I find it hard not to overcomplicate things when I’m discussing Scripture with the kids – one of the professional hazards of studying philosophy and theology, I guess. I’m hoping this week to try and hear the story with my daughter’s ears, and try to speak in ways that help her make sense. Keep Scripture perspicuous, as it were. Any and all encouragement in this direction (explaining the withered fig tree, anyone?) is always welcome!

And do let us know how you’ll be marking Holy Week this year. Will you be reading poetry? Using a Lenten wreath? Any tips for walking through the week with children?

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell

Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell, Denise Levertov

Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that is mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food–fish and a honeycomb.

excerpted from Selected Poems, Vintage International, 2002

Friday’s Child

Friday’s Child, WH Auden

(In memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred at Flossenburg, April 9th, 1945)

He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought–
“Paternal Love with only use
Force in the last resort

On those too bumptious to repent”–
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds he meant
Exactly what He said.

Perhaps He frowns, perhaps He grieves,
But it seems idle to discuss
If anger or compassion leaves
The bigger bangs to us.

What reverence is rightly paid
To a Divinity so odd
He lets the Adam whom He made
Perform the Acts of God?

It might be jolly if we felt
Awe at this Universal Man
(When kings were local, people knelt);
Some try to, but who can?

The self-observed observing Mind
We meet when we observe at all
Is not alarming or unkind
But utterly banal.

Thought instruments at Its command
Make wish and counterwish come true,
It clearly cannot understand
What It can clearly do.

Since the analogies are rot
Our senses based belief upon,
We have no means of learning what
Is really going on,

And must put up with having learned
All proofs or disproofs that we tender
Of His existence are returned
Unopened to the sender.

Now, did He really break the seal
and rise again? We dare not say;
But conscious unbelievers feel
Quite sure of Judgment Day.

Meanwhile, a silence on the cross,
As dead as we shall ever be,
Speaks of some total gain or loss,
And you and I are free

To guess from the insulted face
Just what Appearances He saves
By suffering in a public place
A death reserved for slaves.

excerpted from Selected Poems, Vintage International, 1979

Looking at Stars

Looking at Stars, Jane Kenyon

The God of curved space, the dry
God, is not going to help us, but the son
whose blood spattered
the hem of his mother’s robe.

excerpted from Collected Poems, Graywolf, 2005

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis

Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis, Denise Levertov

Maybe he looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
a soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
in a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
that He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken a step too far
and wants herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.

Excerpted from Selected Poems, New Directions, 2002