A Week of Light, Shadows and Darkness

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Lords Passion
April 02, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Holy Week is a journey from light to darkness, one that forces us to face our own betrayals, weaknesses, denials and acts of injustice. But Jesus is always with us, as the light of the world.

We are going on a journey this week: A voyage into darkness. Our trek begins in the light of Palm Sunday, the day Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, with a large crowd spreading branches on the road and shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!"1 In our imaginations, we can see Jesus in bright sunshine, mounted on a donkey and surrounded by supportive disciples. As Holy Week begins, it is clear that Jesus is the light of the world.

But then, dark clouds begin to gather. Shadows lengthen as the chief priests and elders of the people begin to question the authority of Jesus. Then they devise a plot to kill him. Judas agrees to betray Jesus, and the light of Christ is quickly snuffed out by weakness, denial, injustice, ridicule and crucifixion.

This is an uncomfortable journey for us to take because we can see ourselves in many of the characters in the story: Disciples, people in the crowd, religious leaders, soldiers. None of us can be, like Jesus, the light of the world. Every one of us has a mixture of darkness and light within us. Inside us are shadows.

Fortunately, there is a Christian tradition that can help us to accept this reality. Called the Celtic Christian tradition, it arose in Scotland, Ireland and northern England in the Middle Ages. Celtic Christians are aware that life is a mixture of good and evil, strength and weakness, light and darkness. They do not see themselves or other people as being all good ... or all bad.

Holy Week is an appropriate time to embrace the Celtic Christian tradition. According to a scholar named Esther De Waal, when we pray in the Celtic way, we are aware of both darkness and light. Celtic Christians refuse to deny darkness, pain and suffering, even as they celebrate the light, the fullness and the goodness of life. Darkness and light are both a part of Celtic Christianity, just as they are a part of our full humanity.2

Enter the shadows

As you enter Holy Week, look for light and shadows and darkness. Realize that you carry some shadows that can be removed only by the forgiveness that Jesus offers you. Accept that there is some darkness within yourself that needs to be filled with the light of Christ. Keep your heart and mind open to illumination, as you enter the shadows.

First, the shadow of betrayal. One of the 12 disciples, Judas Iscariot, goes to the chief priests and says, "What will you give me if I betray [Jesus] to you?" They pay him 30 pieces of silver, and Judas immediately looks for an opportunity to carry out his betrayal. The shadow of betrayal falls on us whenever we are unfaithful to a spouse or a friend, or when we abandon our principles in order to enrich ourselves monetarily.

"Judas may be the most intriguing of Jesus's disciples," write Ed Cyzewski and Derek Cooper in Christianity Today. He has been characterized as a "heartless miser, a power-hungry schemer, or a green-eyed apprentice overshadowed by a more talented master." But the truth of Judas may be that he was simply a disciple who discovered that the vision of Jesus did not align with his own vision of what a Messiah should be and do. When Jesus the Messiah did not fulfill his expectations, Judas "craftily bailed out when there was still time."3 Like Judas, we betray Jesus every time we put our own will in front of our Messiah's will.

Next, the shadow of weakness. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his disciples to sit in the garden and wait for him while he prays. They immediately fall asleep, leading Jesus to shake his head and say, "the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Each of us has had times in which we had the best of intentions and wanted to do the right thing. But we found ourselves overcome by exhaustion, worn out by stress or stymied by physical or emotional limitations.

Such weakness is discouraging, but it is part of being human. When we experience the shadow of weakness, our challenge is to turn to the light and strength of God. Celtic thinker J. Philip Newell prays that he will be able to glimpse God's light in the middle of "the weakness and distortions" of his own life. Then, as he sees divine light, he will "be recalled to strength and beauty deep in [his] soul."4 Weakness is an opportunity to put our faith in God, instead of in ourselves.

Then we face the shadow of denial. After the arrest of Jesus, the disciple Peter is sitting in a courtyard, and a servant-girl says to him, "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." But Peter denies it, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about." Then, when confronted again and again, he says, "I do not know the man." We do the same whenever we make a joke about the Christian faith or fail to acknowledge that Jesus means much to us. When people listen to what we say or look closely at our actions, they come to the conclusion that we do not know Jesus. The shadow of denial appears whenever we fail to let the light of Christ shine through us.

Many churches offer a Holy Week service called "tenebrae," which means "shadows." The lights in the Sanctuary are dimmed and the shadows lengthen as the story of the death of Jesus is read. Tenebrae forces us to face the shadows - in ourselves, and in the Holy Week story. It forces us to look at the light and the darkness that exists within us all. Fortunately, the Celtic Christian tradition reminds us that this is all a part of our true humanity. Esther De Waal writes that Celtic Christianity shows both "the depths of penitence and the heights of praise."5 As Christians, we are invited to experience both penitence and praise. Both are important parts of our Holy Week journey.

Accept the darkness

The story now moves from shadows to darkness. Jesus is brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and Pilate questions Jesus. The governor realizes that Jesus has done no evil, but he cannot summon the courage to release him. Instead, he asks the crowd, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" The crowd asks for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. Both the crowd and Pilate fall into the darkness of injustice. We do the same whenever we fail to treat people fairly, in a court of law or in our own personal dealings. We enter this darkness whenever we fall in with a crowd that mocks, abuses or hurts an innocent person.

Next, the darkness of ridicule. The Roman soldiers strip Jesus, put a scarlet robe on him and mock him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" Then the Jewish religious leaders call out, "He saved others; he cannot save himself." While most of us would never openly ridicule Jesus, we sometimes think that the challenges of God are impractical, or even ridiculous. We fail to take a stand for our faith or make a sacrificial gift. Instead of trying to help others, we help ourselves. We turn away when Jesus says, "For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."6 It is never ridiculous to give our life for the sake of Christ.

Finally, we face the darkest of moments: The crucifixion. Jesus is nailed to the cross and he cries out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He cries out again with a loud voice and breathes his last. Jesus experiences the darkness of feeling abandoned by God, overcome by pain, alone in the world. And yet, after just a few moments, the light of Christ begins to return to the world. A Roman centurion, who is an eyewitness to the crucifixion, makes a statement of faith, "Truly this man was God's son!"

Find nourishment for the journey

As human beings, we have a lot of shadows within us. At times, we even fall into deep darkness. But no matter where we are or what we do, we have a savior who will always be the light of the world. The Holy Week journey takes us to some uncomfortable places, some that fill us with guilt and regret. But the trek ends at the cross, where Jesus offered a perfect sacrifice to bring us forgiveness and new life.

This week also offers us nourishment for our journey, through the meal that Jesus instituted at the Last Supper. "Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'"

The bread and the cup are the meal we need in order to move through a life of light, shadows and darkness. In his book Liturgy Made Simple, Mark Searle says that Jesus was right to use food and drink as symbols of his self-giving, because "food and drink exist not for themselves but for other living creatures. They surrender their own existence to enter into the lives of others."7 You might say that food and drink sacrifice themselves so that others might live - just as Jesus did.

Through the course of this week, remember that Jesus is with you always. He wants to forgive you when you fall into the shadows of betrayal, weakness and denial. He wants to shine his light into the darkness of injustice, ridicule and crucifixion. And he wants to nourish you with his own body and blood, so that you can be the body of Christ, the physical presence of Jesus in the world today.


COVID-19 and Proclaim Sermons: We are very aware of the innovations pastors are making to bring their preaching directly into homes. We want to help in every way we can. Please feel free to use Proclaim Sermons in any way you need to in your efforts. This includes copying it into emails, using it in video broadcasts or on your website ... frankly, please use it however you think will best serve your congregation.