Holy Week is finished for now. I am faithful in the observance but for me it is always a time of tension. I’m glad when it’s over and I can relax. Until next year.
That’s the thing about cyclical events. They repeat over and over again until we begin to get a glimmer of understanding. The repetition can cause anxiety, but that’s actually a good thing. Holy Week is an observance which is not linear, not understood in the sense of the present receding into the past in an orderly way. Holy Week is liturgical, celebrated by the church in a never-ending cycle of communal rites – liturgies – which provide a response to the sacred. Time ceases to exist in the liturgical cycle but timelessness is true not just for liturgy but also for the mythical.
The cycle of the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus is mythical. It’s mythical not in the sense of fictitious but in the sense that the passion and resurrection are eternal and because they are eternal they make up the “mythology” of Western culture.
When something is eternal it means that it has no beginning and no end. It just is. The human mind has a spiritual dimension which seeks the eternal. The mythical is eternal and therefore positive. The titanic battles between good and evil, between life and death, fought by the paramount hero of the culture are eternal and they become our founding stories. They become our mythology.
Devout people do not like to think of Bible stories as mythology. But that is because they do not understand eternity and the absolute necessity of myths.
Unbelievers also need to understand myth. Many unbelievers will say, “Oh, all that is just religious and doesn’t apply to me because I’m not religious and I don’t believe in those things.” That’s the easy way to stop the tension. But for inquiring minds and hearts Holy Week is not just a religious thing. This is not to say that religious things have no value. They do. But if Holy Week is more than religious what more is it? To understand this both believers and unbelievers should recognize that knowing myth enhances the experience of religion.
Myth and religion can be difficult because there’s mystery involved. The mystery is that we can never fully grasp myth which underlies religion. We believe, but ultimately human consciousness is incapable of comprehending the resurrection. The resurrection is what makes Holy Week mythological. To be concrete, we know of the torture and death of Jesus because all four of the gospels describe the passion. This is the historical dimension of the story but that is just the top layer. The story is mythical. This means it is deeper, more true than any historical account.
Myth plumbs the depths of the human heart where rationality cannot go.. Myths commonly have heroes who must suffer terrible trials to win a boon. In our mythology, the hero struggles and then dies. He succumbs to evil. In dying he wins a boon – heaven for his people. Once this is done he defeats death. He comes back to life. He rises from the dead. The resurrection is the myth. The New Testament story is a myth even if particular to one religion because it transcends religion.
It is perhaps the most powerful version of a universal story.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.