Holy Week: Practicing the Most Sacred Rhythm of All

“Nothing that has not died will be resurrected.” C.S. Lewis

I remember leading a retreat for pastors some years ago in which we talked about that place in the spiritual journey (variously called the Dark Night, the wilderness, the movement from the false self to the true self) in which there is a very profound kind of death and dying that must take place in order for something truer to emerge. We talked about the fact that it is a time when even those who have been faithful to the spiritual journey may experience loss and disillusionment, when we are humbled, confused and even begin to question those things that we used to be so sure of. It feels like dying because in some sense it is. We are dying to what is false within us—surrendering that which is passing and needs to pass—in order to be more completely given over to God.

After that teaching, I walked to lunch with several young men who were in their late twenties/early thirties. They were elders at a hip and happenin’ church that was growing and developing in good ways and they had a question. I don’t remember the exact words now but it was something like this, “Does everyone have to go through this kind of death and dying?  How can we do ministry in such a way that we don’t have to pass through such a dark night?  And if we can’t, is there any way we can speed up the process so we can get it behind us?”   What they were really asking was, Isn’t there any way we can be good enough so we don’t have to die?

Well, I had never been asked that question in quite that way before so it gave me pause.  And after falling in love with them for their earnestness and sincerity the only thing I could even think to say was, “Even Jesus had to die in order for the will of God to come forth in his life. If Jesus had to go through it, I don’t think any of us are going to get away without it.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the answer they were looking for.

Surrendering to the Mystery

So here we are at the beginning of Holy Week—a week when we are invited to practice the most basic and most sacred rhythm of the spiritual life: the rhythm of death, burial, and resurrection. The Paschal mystery. It is not a rhythm that any of us would willingly choose or even know how to choose; it is usually thrust upon us. Even Jesus admitted to having mixed feelings about the inevitability of it all. Now my soul is troubled.  And what should I say—”Father, save me from this hour?”  No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 12:27)

“Really?” we might say.  “We’ve come all this way, done all this work, become this good just to die?”  The answer to those young elders and to us is yes, always yes. But it is not something we surrender to easily; it is something we need to practice.  As Richard Rohr writes, “We all find endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die for our own spiritual growth…It is always our beloved passing self that has to be let go of.  Jesus surely had a dozen good reasons why he should not have to die so young, so unsuccessful at that point, and the Son of God besides! It is always ‘we”—in our youth, in our beauty, in our power and over-protectedness—that must be handed over.  It is really about ‘passing over’ to the next level of faith and life.  And that never happens without some kind of ‘dying to the previous levels.’”[i]

Handing Ourselves Over

So let us enter into Holy Week as a way to practice the most holy and sacred rhythm of our faith—death, burial and resurrection.  Let us enter into Jesus’ passion by “handing ourselves over” to the events of this week–Mary’s costly act of preparation for Jesus’ burial, Jesus’ final teaching regarding the cost of discipleship, the tenderness of the Last Supper, the pain of betrayal, Jesus handing himself over to his enemies in the garden of Gethsemane, the arduous journey to the cross, the despair of Holy Saturday, the joy of resurrection Sunday.

As we begin this week together, let us ask Jesus what area of our lives at this time needs to be transformed through the rhythm of death, burial and resurrection. Let us ask him to be our teacher on the way… from death to burial to resurrection life.

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

[i] Richard Rohr, Wondrous Encounters (Cincinnati, OH: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), p. 134, 135.

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be reproduced without permission. Ruth is the founder of the Transforming Center. As spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous articles, books, and resources on the spiritual life.

Join us this Good Friday in one of two ways

If you live nearby, please join us for our Good Friday Stations of the Cross Prayer Service at the Loretto Center Chapel in Wheaton, IL.
You can participate from wherever you are by praying with us between 12:00-3:00 pm. We will send you our Stations of the Cross Prayer Guide. Learn more by clicking here.

Revised Common Lectionary Year A
Readings for Holy Week

Monday of Holy Week
Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 36:5-11
Hebrews 9:11-15
John 12:1-11

Tuesday of Holy Week
Isaiah 49:1-7
Psalm 71:1-14
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
John 12:20-36

Wednesday of Holy Week
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 70
Hebrews 12:1-3
John 13:21-32

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Holy Saturday
Job 14:1-14 or Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-16
1 Peter 4:1-8
Matthew 27:57-66 or John 19:38-42

Ruth Haley Barton

(Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founding president/CEO of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, and Invitation to Solitude and Silence.


  1. Kim L. on April 25, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Reading this a week late, I realize it’s right on time. I have recently been through a “death and burial” experience and am expectantly awaiting the resurrection of a truer self because of it. I have found myself frustrated and confused by the process, but these words have provided explanation that gives comfort to my soul and peace in the waiting. My pridefulness has to be extinquished to allow true humility to come forth in my life. Knowing and experiencing are always worlds apart. Thankfully God finishes what He starts and will take over to provide the victory only after I’m totally depleted in my own self and willing to allow His work to be finished in my life.

    Thanks, Ruth, for sharing your experiences…you have become a treasured resource to me as I seek to savor the sacred moments of my life. Blessings to you!

  2. MaryAnn Wiley on April 21, 2011 at 7:49 pm

    Tonight I went to a simple private and personal Maundy Thursday service where confession was one of the stations for pondering where I am in Christ and what needs to die in me. My response was, O God,You know…….it is I, the self that I cling to so tightly. It’s frightening to open oneself so unreservedly, but I wait expectantly for what His response will be. What’s next?

  3. Kim Karpeles on April 21, 2011 at 9:23 am

    This process is indeed painful, exhausting, confusing, discouraging and bewildering at times. God has walked me through several of these cycles in the past 4 years where he revealed to me the wickedness and filth in my heart. I am overwhelmed at times and struggle to cling to the truth that God already knows these things about me and loves me anyway. I cling to God’s hand and stand on the rock of Scripture in the midst of an unsettling whirlwind. This process is part of God’s pruning, and perhaps his discipline, and I pray: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” Job 23:10

  4. Lesley Bruce Smith on April 20, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I often say to God, “Lord you know my heart and my desire to serve you…I invite you into those areas of my life that need to die…” and it is at that point that I begin to fear what might get killed in response to that prayer.
    I am reminded of God’s tenderness with me through all the past “killing fields” and am encouraged to press on. I am one of those folks who has experienced so much death that at times I even fear in life when the “shoe will drop”. May I embrace with less fear and more courage the life that follows death and resurrection…and in so doing not be so afraid of walking with Jesus through His dark night of dying knowing that Sunday’s a comin! It is the community that walks with me that helps to steady my steps….thank you all.

  5. sibyl towner on April 20, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Ruth thank you for this good word. I am reliving the journey of saying goodbye to a young friend a year ago from leukemia and going to a service tonight of a 17 young man who died in his sleep. Death, burial, and resurrection. He lives, they live. How then will I continue to live?

    • Ruth on April 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm

      Sybil, What an amazing and tender question. Brings tears to my eyes…

  6. Kelly Kastens on April 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

    For too long now I have found “endless disguises and excuses to avoid letting go of what really needs to die….”

    Weeping this morning as God tenderly reveals what needs to die in me in order for growth and transformation to happen. Difficult and painful. But, Jesus’ willingness to surrender compels me to do the same. For today I am able and even willing to enter the darkness of the tomb because of the promise of resurrection.

    Thank you…

    • Ruth on April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

      Yours is a courageous response. May God give us all the grace to enter into the tomb with the great hope that is ours.

  7. Daniel Harris on April 19, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks, Ruth. “Handing ourselves over’ to the events of this week” is a good image to hang on to. It’s tempting, even in reading the passages for this week, for me to be able to guard myself from them by thinking, “I already know the story.” I think that I just keep reading the story to let it sink in a little deeper, not to hand myself over to it.

    Those are very different approaches. One is a way for me to stay in control and distance myself from any death. The other is what Jesus did- knowing that death is coming, yet choosing to hand myself over anyway.


    • Ruth on April 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      Yes, this is a fine nuance but a really important one. Thanks for such a soulful response.

  8. Holy Week « An Unrestrained Life on April 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    […] a friend posts this blog  by Ruth Haley Barton on Facebook. A powerful reminder that Jesus was the first one crucified and […]

  9. Ernestine on April 19, 2011 at 6:00 am

    I will be praying Friday from 2:30-3:00 CST Mendenhall Mississippi

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