Holy Week approaches, a week I love for the story it tells and how it enacts the story – with bread and wine on Maundy Thursday, with candles extinguished on Good Friday, with Scripture readings on Holy Saturday, and, on Easter, with declarations of “Christ is risen indeed!”
Though Holy Week’s retelling of Jesus’ betrayal, death and resurrection enchants me, I often feel distant from its meaning. I’ve struggled over the years to feel the power of Christ’s death in a personal way. This Holy Week, after nearly six months of a medical leave of absence, is different. Meditating on Christ’s death broke open for me deeper understanding about my pastoral vocation, especially in regards to pastoral care
As a pastor, I am privileged to walk with people in moments of pain, grief, suffering and death. This part of my vocation is packed with meaning. I stand in awe of the invitations I receive to engage with people in the most difficult moments of their lives.
This work of pastoral care simultaneously exhausts me. I’m a sensitive person and I feel people’s pain, often without intention. Even viewing movies with intense plots of pain or sorrow or broken relationships leave me feeling spent. Somewhere along the way, I perceived that empathy meant walking in another person’s shoes. I did not need to solve people’s problems, but it sure did help to try to feel what they were feeling. When I read in Galatians 6:2 that we are to “bear one another’s burdens,” I assumed this meant we were supposed to bear the person’s pain, so that it wouldn’t feel so heavy.
My wise friend and mentor, Lynne Baab, reflected with me about the dangers of this misconstruction of care. It inevitably wearies us, as we find ourselves carrying crosses that aren’t ours. More so, Lynne mused, we forget, when we try to bear the pain of others, that Christ already suffered that pain. Christ bore our chronic illnesses, our anxieties, our cancer diagnoses, our unemployment, our divorces, our confusions, our most searing losses when he hung on that cross at “the Place of the Skull.” Why would we take up what Christ has already borne and made whole?
This Holy Week, I have made one of the verses of the old hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns” my prayer:
Crown him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where he hath trod, crown him the Son of Man,
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast
And takes and bears them for his own that all in him may rest.
Perhaps I’ve had the wrong image of pastoral care. I’ve imagined my caring role like Samwise Gamgee carrying Frodo up Mount Doom in the “Return of the King” by JRR Tolkien. Sam says something like, “I can’t carry the ring for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you.” A moving scene in both the book and the movie, but not sustainable if you’re trying to bear the burdens of an entire congregation.
Maybe the better image is that of a lantern bearer, shining light – the light of Christ’s redemptive death and restorative resurrection – on the dark, seemingly endless and unknown path of suffering. Instead of carrying the pain of others, we take notice of Jesus, who has been walking with us all along, burdens already carried to the cross long ago.
Rachel Young is the associate pastor of spiritual formation at Clear Lake Presbyterian Church, in Houston, Texas. She is married to Josh, who also serves on staff at Clear Lake Pres. as the Director of Contemporary Worship and Media.