Holy Week is a special opportunity to draw on Jesus’ empathy in new ways. You know that the last seven days of Christ’s life changed the world, but you may not have thought of them as filled with empathy for your pain and brokenness.
Empathy is tuning into what someone else feels, validating the bigness of it, and expressing compassion. People die for lack of empathy. The only perfect empathy in the universe is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, offered for all people in Holy Week.
The drama of Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and culminates in the Lamb of God taking away our sin on Good Friday and then rising from the dead on Easter Sunday to reconcile us to God and bring heaven to us. Let’s re-visit these daily events in a fresh, re-vitalizing way that helps us experience the Passion of the Christ to reconcile us to a love relationship with God.
My heart has been warmed and my life re-shaped by the stories of Jesus and his cross during Holy Week. I invite you to join me on the life-changing journey of my 68-page booklet: Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross.
The Empathy of Christ for Your Pain
When we hurt we often feel alone. Then we may slide into loneliness, depression, or anger. The Apostle Paul shows us a better way: when you’re suffering bring your emotions and needs to the Savior Jesus Christ, recall a similar pain or stress from his life in the Gospels and receive his divine empathy poured out at Calvary’s cross.
Paul calls this the companionship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10). What heavenly sweetness comes when we share a pain or injustice that we’re experiencing with our Lord and we’re drawn into a deeper appreciation of a particular way that Christ suffered with love for us! His empathy warms our heart and restores our soul. Then we can overflow with the compassion of Christ to other people who are hurting (2 Cor. 1:3-7).
My meditations on each day in Holy Week connect us with the divine empathy of Christ that we and the people in our neighborhoods need in order to be forgiven of our sins and raised to new life in the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead.
Palm Sunday of Holy Week
On Palm Sunday Jesus fulfills the ancient prophecy of the Messiah and rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as crowds of people wave palm branches and sing “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!” (Zech. 9:9; Matt. 21:1-11).
At the height of Jesus’ popularity he was actually totally alone, emotionally isolated from everyone except his Father in the heavens. On Palm Sunday no one understood Jesus, no one appreciated that he was the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 who was sacrificing his perfect life to forgive their sins. The crowds praised him because they wanted him to be their military and political king to lead Israel to overthrow the Roman empire.
When you succeed there are people who will praise you, but the excitement is short-lived. Soon you feel empty and lonely. You long to be known for who you really are and to be loved unconditionally. Jesus understands.
Monday of Holy Week
Jesus’ first order of business on Monday was to visit the temple and use a whip to drive away the corrupt priests and their workers who were ripping off people that came to buy a sacrifice and worship God. (Matt. 21:12-17)
Jesus’ anger gets all the attention in this scene and sometimes he’s even portrayed like he’s madman! But this is a scene of fierce compassion for the poor and needy. Jesus made space for them to come to him freely and receive healing. (He offers the same ministry to the hypocritical religious leaders and some did become his followers.)
How do you feel about anger? Your anger? Other people’s? It hurts especially when anger comes in the name of God. Jesus feels for you. He experienced religious abuse, even as a young person from a poor family visiting the temple and experiencing this injustice. On Holy Monday Jesus ministers the mercy of God to you.
Tuesday of Holy Week
On Holy Tuesday Jesus teaches on the Kingdom of God. He explains how he was able to do physical gardening in a fig orchard with his words: “If you believe you will receive what you ask for in prayer” (Matt. 21:22) Then on the Mount of Olives he confronts the religious leaders’ lack of faith in God, saying they’re “blind guides.” (Matt. 23:16)
Later a poor widow puts two cents in the temple offering and Jesus says she’s put in more than the rich hypocrites who made a show of their giving. Are these just nice words? No. She really did put in more because she alone gave with confidence in what God would do. (Luke 21:1-4)
Maybe your faith feels small to you. The poor widow felt this way. Jesus himself was often accused by the religious leaders as having bad faith. Genuine trust in God comes from the heart and is often unappreciated, if not scorned, by other people. Jesus knows your hidden heart and honors your confidence in God and his reign of love.
Wednesday of Holy Week
It seems that Wednesday was a quiet day for Jesus, the calm before the storm of Thursday and Friday. Probably he spent his day resting in Bethany (just two miles outside of Jerusalem) with his dear friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Here Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume and he honored her for this delightful ministry to him (Matt. 26:6-13). More than most of us realize, Jesus often withdrew from active ministry to enjoy a few close friends or to be quiet and alone in prayer.
When Jesus relaxed he often heard criticism from others who wanted him to get busy and help more people! (e.g., Mark 1:37)
How do you feel when you rest from work or ministry? When you say no to what other people want you to do? Jesus understands how it feels to have people pressuring you or criticizing you.
Thursday of Holy Week
On Maundy Thursday Jesus spiritually gives his body and blood to his disciples at the Last Supper, instituting communion for all people who would follow him. He shares his last words with them, teaching them to abide in his love like a branch in a vine, and praying for them and us too! In the Garden of Gethsemane he watches and prays to prepare for his cross. (John 13-17, Matt. 26:17-46)
This is a painful day for Jesus. He’s betrayed by Judas. He predicts that Peter will deny him three times. In the garden his apostles all fall asleep when he asks them to support him in night prayer. And as he travails in prayer he is assaulted and nearly killed by Satan.
When a family member or friend rejects you Jesus has empathy for you. When people you’re depending on emotionally disappoint you Jesus understands. When the devil lies to you and attacks you the Lord Jesus is with you to protect and encourage you.
Friday of Holy Week
Good Friday is the completion of Jesus Christ’s sin-cleansing and life-saving empathy that brings eternal life to all who put their confidence in him.
How far will Jesus go to enter our pain? On Good Friday the Son of God who always loves everyone is betrayed by Judas, falsely accused and condemned by the religious leaders and Pilate, scourged almost to death, abandoned by his disciples, mocked by the crowds, and tortured to death on the cross. Far worse than these humiliations and sufferings, he who never sinned takes on the hideousness of humanity’s sin, choosing to receive the punishment that we deserve so that we could be healed (fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53).
The Lord Jesus had the power to call down thousands of mighty angels to defend his righteousness and deliver him from his enemies (Matt. 26:53), but he chose to suffer and die for you and I. The cross didn’t happen to Jesus — he seized hold of it out of love for us!
The most horrific of Jesus’ sufferings is expressed in his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” (Matt. 27:46) He was separated from God. Did God stop loving Jesus? Was God being mean in punishing Jesus?
“God is love!” (1 John 4:8). He would never stop loving Jesus, you or I, or anyone! (His holiness, anger, wrath, and judgment are an expression of his love.) And yet, by becoming a sin offering, the mystery of the atonement is that in some real way that we can’t explain, Jesus experienced a separation from his Father. We know that sin is separation from God; it is a rejection of him as God and as the Love of our lives. Jesus never sinned, he never stopped loving and relying upon God, but for us he experienced the awful consequences of our sin.
(See “Jesus and Abba at the Cross” for more thoughts on the love of the Father for Jesus and us as Jesus suffered. Also there’s an inspiring icon/picture of the Trinity at the cross.)
As individual sinners we have experienced the pain of separation from God and the accompanying guilt, shame, emptiness, isolation, and fear, including the fear of hell. And apart from our sin, we may experience the feeling of God’s absence, crying out with the Psalmist, “How long, O Lord, will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1 and elsewhere) A season of this painful desolation is called the Dark Night of the Soul.
To experience separation from God is the worst pain to endure but Jesus understands and he empathizes with our pain because he suffered this way and in far greater measure than us.
The Good News is that our sin will not separate us from God’s love and life if we put our trust in Christ, what he did for us on the cross to forgive our sins and who he is: the Sovereign Son of God who loves us completely and offers to live eternally in and through us.
Three hours after Jesus died and spilled his blood his body was taken down from the cross, anointed with spices, covered, and put in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two Pharisees of the ruling Sanhedrin who became disciples of Christ. Then Roman soldiers enclosed Jesus’ body in a sealed tomb.
But Jesus went from the grave into hell, but Satan couldn’t hold him there because he was completely righteous (Eph. 4:9, Acts 2:24). With the precious blood of Christ, the spotless Lamb of God, God paid the ransom to deliver us from sin, death, and hell (1 Peter 1:18-19).
We may fear dying, even going to hell. But Jesus Christ has empathy us — we’re not alone in death! — because the Lord went into the dark void ahead of us. His eternal light-life awaits us at death; he is there to embrace us in love! Death and hell could not hold the righteous Christ and so they cannot hold us who put our trust in the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ promise for us is that “anyone who keeps my word will never see death” (John 8:51). In other words, as a disciple of Jesus when you die physically you won’t experience death, you won’t even know that you “died” until later! Your person will be alive and well for eternity, thriving in the presence of Christ and the love of God your Father.
(Our article “You Will Not Experience Death!” features an expanded discussion of the hope we have in the face of death, including an excerpt of Dallas Willard’s teaching on this.)
The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter is the culmination of Holy Week and the crux of the Christian faith. It is the dominant, joyful theme of the Bible.
Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!
Early in the morning on the first Easter a group of women, including Mary Magdalene, went to the tomb of Jesus and found it empty! An angel proclaimed, “Don’t be alarmed… Jesus has risen! He is not here… Go tell his disciples… ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'” (Mark 16:6-7)
Wherever you need to go today or tomorrow you don’t need to be alone or helpless because the risen Christ goes ahead of you. Hold his hand. Put all your confidence in him. He will comfort you and strengthen you. “My peace I give you,” Jesus promises. “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27)
At the Cross of Christ You are Forever Unforsaken!
You can go deeper in your appreciation for Christ Jesus. Forgiveness, unfailing love, and the power to become like the Lord are available.
The path is laid out for you in the Gospel stories, meditations, and prayers of Unforsaken: With Jesus on the Stations of the Cross by Bill Gaultiere.
This 68 page booklet will warm your heart and inspire your faith. It’s great for personal devotions, small groups, and retreats.