How to preach during Holy Week

Posted Thu, 04/04/2019 - 14:07 by MCS

The Revd Nathan Eddy is completing a PhD in Hebrew Bible. He lives in London where he is active in Jewish-Christian dialogue and is the editor of the devotional book ‘Fresh from the Word: Bible for a Change’.


Holy Week can be daunting for Christian preachers, but with some preparation it offers unique opportunities for creative preaching and worship. This year, Good Friday falls on 19th April, the first day of Passover, and offers opportunities for Christians to speak on Jewish-Christian issues. Here, I will offer some general suggestions as well as particular thoughts on Psalm 22, a traditional Good Friday text.

Historically, Holy Week has not been a good week for Jewish-Christian relations. Even today, old tropes about Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death still filter through preaching and liturgy and persist in public imagination. Because of these lingering stereotypes, even a simple reading of the Passion story in a Good Friday service, when unaccompanied by preaching, can perpetuate old ideas about Jewish collusion in the betrayal of Jesus. In Holy Week Christians can, and should, confront this painful history in creative ways.

When preaching in Holy Week, it is helpful, first of all, to remember that the story of Jesus’ last days is remembered history – history which is retold and reimagined. And we must not forget that this remembered history is told within the framework of first-century Jewish dispute. The Gospels were written before the separation of Christianity and Judaism into the religions we know today, and Jesus’ story shouldn’t be cast as one religion versus another.

Ps 22 offers preachers rich resources for counteracting some of the traditional stereotypes: to reflect on the way Jesus’ cry from the cross, and his last days, build on (rather than overturn!) traditions of the Hebrew Bible.

First, Jesus’ quoting of Ps 22:1 from the cross (Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34; in Luke Jesus quotes from Ps 31) is one of the most poignant flourishes in the Gospel story. And the portrait of Jesus here also places Jesus firmly in Israel’s history. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ words in Aramaic, reflecting the language which Jesus probably spoke. The verse also captures the pathos of Jesus’ last moments: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ In expressing such pain, Jesus stands alongside Jeremiah, Elijah, Jonah, David, Hagar, Hannah, and many others in Israel’s traditions who felt abandoned by God, and confronted God about it in prayer.

The verse even embraces many more. The medieval Jewish commentator Rashi suggests that David here is preaching about the future, when Israel will be in exile. The suffering of Jesus can, and should, open our eyes to the suffering of others, including the suffering of Jews over the centuries. Jesus’ words, then, mark the power of human protest that he shares with so many figures in the Bible and in later Jewish tradition. And paradoxically, when we read Ps 22:1 as scripture, we express our abandonment by God with words God himself gives us. When we protest with Jesus, Jeremiah, Hagar, and Hannah, there is hope even in the depths of our abandonment.

Second, it is also likely, in my view, that the Gospel writers intended to reference the whole of Ps 22, not just the first verse. Students of Talmud and Midrash will be familiar with the practice of quoting just a few words of scripture to reference a whole passage of scripture. Laments like Ps 22 begin with real pain and suffering like verse 1 above, but they don’t leave us there; and neither should a Good Friday sermon. Ps 22 praises God for hearing the petition (v 24) but ends with a remarkable coda (verses 27-31) which might even reference God’s powers of life over death (v 29, although the Hebrew is difficult here). Along the way, Ps 22 also speaks positively about Israel’s traditions (in vs 4). Finally, the vision of ‘all the families of the earth’ (vs 27) joining Israel in praise of Israel’s God highlights the universal scope of this remarkable psalm. Christians should never forget, although they often have, that they are ‘grafted’ into the root-like faith of Israel, not the other way around (Romans 11:17-18).

For Psalm 22, in sum, as real as the suffering is, there is also remarkable hope in the power of God. For Christians, on Good Friday especially, that hope must never be expressed at the expense of Jewish sisters and brothers. As Passover begins, Christians might remember this in their Good Friday services this year, and mark it especially in their preaching.