by Pace Warfield-May
Holy week can be a troubling time for queer folx. Often Holy Week rituals are designed to emphasize our guilt and sinfulness—it is our sins that put Jesus on the cross (the refrain to “Ah! Holy Jesus” comes to mind, containing the line “I crucified thee”). This is certainly theologically important but can be lost on the queer community whose very lives are often at risk. It is counterproductive to remind someone they are a sinner when that is the primary and exclusive narrative they have heard from the church, that they are sinners simply because they are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. If there is no grace, no “Good News” for queer people (aside from repenting and sticking to cis-heteronormative gender and sexuality roles and practices as your one and only chance at salvation), then a reminder that they are sinners isn’t really going to have the same spiritual impact on queer people of faith that it has on many non-queer people.
So, then, does Holy Week offer anything for the queer community?
This question needs to be addressed by any church that is hoping to speak to the experiences and lives of queer Christians during Holy Week. The answer to this question is obviously yes (or else I wouldn’t be writing this post at all). However, the queer community is very diverse and, as such, the answer will look different on a person-by-person basis. For some, a complete rejection of any and all notions of atonement theology is needed. Others find rich meaning in the more traditional narratives of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I will begin this post with a brief overview of Holy Week, followed by three suggestions—three paths of queering Holy Week—that can be added to a queer person’s, community’s, or congregation’s toolbox to enrich the experience.
A Brief Overview of Holy Week and Ritual
The narrative of Holy Week begins with Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, celebrated on Palm Sunday, where crowds of people lay palm branches and cloaks along the road while he rides on a donkey (Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 28, and John 12). I particularly like John’s account, as crowds are coming to see Jesus enter Jerusalem as a direct result of word spreading that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead the previous day. Judas decided to betray Jesus and looks for an opportunity to do so (celebrated on Spy/Holy Wednesday). Jesus celebrates the Passover with his disciples, instituting the Eucharist, before going to the garden, where he is eventually betrayed and arrested (this is celebrated on Maundy/Holy Thursday). Jesus is then tried and crucified (celebrated on Good Friday). The Easter Vigil, celebrated at Sundown on Holy Saturday, begins in darkness and mourning but moves into light and the joy of the resurrection. Easter Sunday celebrates the discovery of the empty tomb by the women and celebrates that Jesus has risen from the dead.
Holy Week is full of ritual and is probably the most peculiar week to outsiders of the Christian tradition (even “non-liturgical” Christian traditions find many of the rituals performed during Holy Week quite strange). Palm Sunday often has parishioners of a church parading around with palm branches, singing about Jesus being king. Maundy Thursday usually will include foot washing of congregation members or, at very least, the worship leaders, in addition to the stripping of the altar of its colorful ornaments and linens. Good Friday will often include a Stations of the Cross service, involving icons of different moments of Jesus’ last few hours. Additionally, there usually is an adoration of the cross, where people will kiss a giant cross or even hammer nails into it and sometimes even a strepitus (Latin for “loud noise”) ritual with loud, dissonant sounds on the organ are played along with thunder sheets, rain sticks, or any other number of loud instruments. Easter Vigil often involves a parade around the Paschal/Christ Candle and, on Easter morning, many churches will gather at dawn for a sunrise service. All of these rituals have deep liturgical meaning and symbolism. I won’t discuss these rituals here but I encourage readers who aren’t familiar with Holy Week traditions to ask a pastor, lay leader, or other religious figure about Holy Week traditions and to observe the traditions at their place of worship. There are also about a million books on the topic of liturgical practices that vary by liturgical tradition. For ELCA Lutherans, Keeping Time: The Church’s Years by Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig is a good starting place for those interested in learning more about Holy Week rituals.
The following suggestions are meant to be seen more as additions or supplements to Holy Week rituals rather than replacements. These can be part of personal reflection or corporate worship; perhaps small group discussion would be good. Really, the following two suggestions are simply that—suggestions of how to queer Holy Week.
Queer Suffering is Jesus’ Suffering
Theology of the Cross is basically the idea that Jesus took the suffering of all of creation into himself on the cross. In other words, through Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus suffers alongside the suffering of all of humanity (and creation, too!). The phrase theology of the cross (more accurately, theologian of the cross), was coined by Martin Luther in his Heidelberg Disputations; however, it is a theological thread that runs throughout the history of the church, especially seen in the mystics. It is found in the Bible in Paul’s writings (especially I Corinthians 1) and in the story of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 (“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”).
Through theology of the cross, we can see that Jesus is the battered woman, abused by her spouse. Jesus is the impoverished child, dying of hunger. This is a theology that many liberation theologians have lifted up: for instance, the famous Maryknoll Icon by Robert Lentz, where Jesus is in a prison behind barbed wire, suffering alongside the many there.
In this way, the suffering of queer people—their bodily suffering as well as mental, spiritual, and emotional suffering—is Jesus’ suffering. Jesus is dying of AIDS, abandoned by his family out of shame (the controversial statement “the Body of Christ has AIDS” has been used by many churches and theologians to illustrate this particular point). Jesus is Matthew Shepard, tied to a fence and left to die. Jesus is the queer teen in an unsupportive house who completed suicide. Jesus is the black trans women who were murdered in record numbers in recent years. Jesus is too fem … Jesus is too butch … the list goes on. Our suffering is Jesus’ suffering.
By linking Jesus’ suffering on the cross to queer suffering in the here and now, it provides a tangible and powerful message to queer people: “I have heard the cries of my people and have come down to deliver them from the hand of the oppressor; your suffering is my suffering, you are not alone.” It shifts the spotlight from human sinfulness to human suffering and, also, puts the impetus on non-queer members of the congregation to both be present alongside queer people who are suffering but also to do something about that suffering.
Queer Bodies and Holy Week
Aside from perhaps Christmas, Holy Week is the most “body inclusive” time of the church year. By this I mean that Holy Week puts human bodies on display and says something positive about them. Christianity is so often ignorant of bodies—it’s heavily influenced by Greco-Roman dualism, focusing on the spiritual/soul/heavenly realm over and against the physical/bodily/earthly realm. This is problematic and not true to the Hebrew and early church’s understanding, which did not have such a clear dualistic split between the spiritual and the physical. But the amazing thing about Christianity is that it maintains that God became human—God became flesh and blood, “took on the human genome,” and lived among us as a mortal, prone to the same illnesses, weakness, and injuries of the human condition. Never is this more apparent than during Holy Week where feet are washed, the flesh and blood of the divine is consumed (whether symbolically, or actually, I’ll leave that up to the eucharistic theology of your tradition), and the actual physical body of Jesus Christ is tortured and killed. One particular ritual performed in some Catholic, Episcopal, and Lutheran traditions calls for the Paschal/Christ candle to be dipped into the baptismal font three times on the Easter Vigil, symbolizing the birth of the church … yes, there is actual symbolic sexual intercourse going on between Christ and the Church during Easter Vigil.
What this means is that bodies are important. And not some flawless, airbrushed, picture of Jesus on the cross with his six pack abs, but actual bodies—the body of the woman who dried Jesus’ feet with her hair after anointing them with oil, the physical tears shed by those gathered around Jesus at his death, the calloused feet of Peter being washed in the rough hands of Jesus, the broken and lifeless body of Jesus in the arms of his mother.
Holy Week is about bodies. But not just the bodies of men and women who lived 2000 years ago.
Holy Week is about our bodies.
Queer bodies are often under scrutiny. How queer bodies have sex, for instance, has been policed by both church and state, with it only becoming legal across the United States in 2003 for men to have sex with men (that’s 2003!!!!). Who queer people can marry, what bathrooms queer people can use regardless of their gender presentation—these are all up for debate in socio-political realms. If we take time during Holy Week to ritualize the queer body—see it as holy, as redeemed both now and at the eschaton—how powerful would that be? How can we tell queer people that their sex is just as holy as sex between married heterosexual couples that results in children? How can we touch queer bodies with a healing touch?
Incorporating anointing with oil into Holy Week may be a good place to start—it could be tied into the anointing of Jesus’ feet with oil and perfume, which traditionally was celebrated on Spy/Holy Wednesday. It could also be a part of a remembrance of baptism on Easter Vigil, reminding queer people that they are children of God, loved as they are. Touching a queer body as it is and saying that their body is holy and desired by God can go a long way in healing some of the harm to both body and soul.
This ties into the resurrection message of Easter, too. Just as Jesus is bodily raised from the dead in an appearance that was unrecognizable to even his closest disciples, so too will we be bodily resurrected. For trans, genderqueer, and nonbinary people, this can be an especially powerful message—the promise that our resurrection will be into a body that we recognize as our own but may or may not be recognized immediately by our friends and family. In other words, our bodies in the eschaton will be our true selves. This doesn’t mean that we will all come out with perfect bodies as defined by western beauty standards (I firmly believe that with all the heavenly feasting talked about in Luke’s gospel, that there will be plenty of fat people in heaven and that fat will be seen as beautiful and holy). No, queer bodies will exist in heaven, made whole but also made to match who we have discovered ourselves to be, and who God has known us to be from the start.
In conclusion, Holy Week is a holy time in the church year; it’s a time of reflection on God’s deep desire for humanity, a desire so deep that death could not stop it. Holy Week is a reflection on bodies, Jesus’ body, and our own. Holy Week is a time for mourning but also a time for hope. It is a time of rich and powerful symbolism and ritual. How can we queer these rituals so that they are first and foremost not harmful for queer people, but also spiritually enriching? These were just a few of my suggestions—please feel free to comment below with your suggestions, or any rituals or spiritual practices you have done in Lent or Holy Week that have been enriching for you or your congregation.
Pace Warfield-May (they/them/their) is a PhD candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and received their MA in systematic theology from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg (now United Lutheran Seminary). They are studying systematic theology with research interests in Martin Luther and the Reformation, queer theology, and deconstruction. Pace presently lives in Washington, DC with their husband and dog.