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

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

Holy Week is 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 prepare for Holy Week, 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.

An Invitation to Walk With Christ

Purchase the Stations of the Cross Prayer Guide by Ruth Haley Barton

Walking and praying through the stations of the cross is one way we can keep vigil with Christ during these holy days. Traditionally, there are fourteen Stations of the Cross—most of them taken directly from Scripture, along with a few that have been passed down in Christian tradition.

This 32-page beautifully produced Stations of the Cross Prayer Guide by Ruth Haley Barton has been used for many years in our Good Friday service and has been an often-requested Transforming Resource.

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[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.


Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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This Reflection reminded me of yesterday’s reading at Mass John 8:51 “Jesus said to the Jews “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death”. We should believe Jesus. He promised us that if we live and believe in him we will never die. He died on the cross so that we would suffer no more. If we love him then we must believe him. And I do.

I was reminded — when I was in seminary in my mid forties surrounded by so many young seminarians, the Dean spoke to all of us: “I hope you all have nervous breakdowns, and sooner rather than later.” As I understood it, it was his way of saying we all needed to die, to be brought to our knees, to be broken, in order to be remade in Christ’s image. Cross, death, resurrection.

Thank you all for such meaningful comments that let me know how deeply you are entering into the Lenten journey and the Paschal mystery. I have read these several times–prayerfully–and look forward with great anticipation to what God will do in an among us as we walk this way together.

Simply beautiful. so true it is a time of slathering off the old person and truly accepting the new whose will be rooted with God’s holy Spirit and walk that will be new.

As in entered into your story, I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a list given to us of the areas we need to die to?” And yet, I suppose in a way we do with Scripture guiding us, and we also have the drawing near to Him that allows us to gently hear the areas he wants to transform. And your writing gives a way to ponder what I must give up – what is He asking me to die to? This nearness may involve the journey we each walk – could it be thought of as the Great Adventure? Is this a paradox – Great Adventure and Death to Self with deeper surrender on the other side? Thank you for pointing us towards the process that needs to happen.

Perfectly timed, as I enter into my personal death throes, Ruth. Thank you.

Thank you for this meditation, Ruth. It has a quiet, somber depth to it– just right for Holy Week.

In another context this morning I heard a recitation of John Donne’s sonnet, “Batter My Heart”. It strikes me that the poet is coming at the same dilemma, the same need in us, but from a different direction, with a different metaphor. I find myself undone by it, and perhaps that’s the point.

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 

Thank you Mark for your posting of this sonnet. It probes deeply!

Ruth, you have such a beautiful and clear way of communicating what’s on your heart. I’m walking with Teresa of Avila this Lenten season, and your words remind me of her description of the process in the Interior Castle. Thank you!

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

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.

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

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?

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

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