Holy Week and the weeks preceding it are, undoubtedly, a busy time for most parochial clergy. It’s like tax season for an accountant or end-of-term for a teacher. It’s just busy: twelve services and at least five sermons within a span of just eight days. The fact is, I will see the choir and altar guild more this week than I will see my own family. Get the picture?
But here’s the thing: this is Holy Week, not Busy Week. Being busy does not make me a martyr, nor does being busy make me more important. It just makes me more anxious and stressed, and that is not how I intend to spend Holy Week.
When “busyness” becomes the defining characteristic of Holy Week, perfectionism, workaholism, and micromanaging threaten to replace true piety. So, let’s be clear – stress and overwork in Holy Week is not the choir or clergy’s equivalent of the Agony in the Garden. Our vocation is not our crucifixion. A busy Holy Week does not a martyr make.
There is a longstanding tradition in the church that, while martyrdom is not to be resisted, it is also not to be sought out. It is one thing to die for the faith, it is another thing altogether to have a death wish. Take, for example, the 3rd century saint and scholar Origen of Alexandria. His father was martyred for his Christian beliefs when Origen was still a teenager. Origen, willing to follow in his father’s footsteps, was eager to seek out martyrdom. However, he was prevented leaving the house by his mother, who simply hid his clothing. Martyrdom is not to be resisted, but it is also not to be sought out or self-inflicted.
This past year, as a part of my continuing education, I have been participating in a leadership initiative called the Stagen Integral Leadership Program. As a part of this program, I have had to identify and define my own values and guiding principles. I have learned that authenticity is integral to who I am as a person. Part of what authenticity means for me is that “I am learning to drop the pretense that I have to be a martyr who overworks in the church.” The church does not need me to save it, and I cannot save the church. To even think that I could is the pinnacle of sinful pride. This does not mean that I do not work hard, and give my very best to this vocation. In the alchemy of grace, our grit combined with God’s love somehow produces something beautiful. However, growth in the Kingdom of God is not determined by how hard I try, or how hard I fail. The growth is God’s.
Nowhere have I seen this more clearly illustrated than in Anthony DeMello’s parable in The Song of the Bird:
Uncle Tom had a weak heart and the doctor had warned him to be very careful. So when the family learned that he had inherited a billion dollars from a deceased relative they feared to break the news to him lest the news give him a heart attack.
So they sought the services of the local pastor, who assured them he would find a way. “Tell me, Tom,” said Father Murphy, “if God, in his mercy, were to send you a billion dollars, what would you do with it?”
“I’d give half of it to you for the Church, Father.”
When he heard that, Father Murphy had a heart attack!
DeMellow goes on to comment on the story:
“When the industrialist had a heart attack from pushing his industrial empire it was easy to show him his greed and selfishness. When the priest had a heart attack from pushing the Kingdom of God it was impossible to show him that this was greed and selfishness in another, more respectable disguise. Is it God’s Kingdom you are pushing or yourself? The Kingdom needs no pushing. Your anxiety betrays you, does it not?”
It is the love of Christ that makes this week Holy, not our efforts to make it perfect. Remember, the Kingdom needs no pushing.