I spent the first 12 years of my life in the Netherlands. It was the custom in the Gereformeerde (Reformed) churches that six weeks before Good Friday, ministers would preach about the passages dealing with Jesus’ suffering. Coming to Canada I experienced the same practice. It brought the sufferings of Jesus more prominently into our awareness.
During my entire ministry, I have followed the same practice. There is so much in the gospels about Christ’s suffering. One of the books that I got a hold of early in my ministry was by the late Klaas Schilder. It is a sizable trilogy (translated from the Dutch) on Christ’s suffering, titled “Christ in His Suffering,” “Christ on Trial,” and “Christ Crucified.” It has an incredible wealth of material. These volumes are written in the solidly and historically Reformed redemptive form of which Schilder was a great proponent. It is also very exegetical, dealing with the terminology of the immediate text.
I still preach a fair bit. During Passion weeks I might speak about the title given to Jesus on the cross, or Christ’s disrobement, or Pilate’s wife’s dream, or Pilate’s “What is truth?” question, or Christ evaluated, or Christ before Herod, Israel before Esau, or Judas buying the potter’s field . This is all incredibly rich in terms of the gospel of Golgotha or Calvary leading up to Easter.
For years I have found an impoverishment of this kind of preaching on Jesus’ suffering. Interestingly, we often talk of Lent, the 40 days of fasting and penitence from Ash Wednesday until Easter, in terms of our own behavior. The word “Passion” makes more sense, as it refers to the sufferings of Jesus. Whatever I give up does not compare to what Christ gave up.
In the early New Testament church there was an emphasis on confession, self-examination, and later on fasting prior to Good Friday and Easter. Penitence is always necessary in the Christian life.
At the time of the Reformation the focus of the weeks before Easter shifted to preaching about Jesus’ suffering and death, the dying of Jesus leading up to the resurrection. Among the various characters in the Passion story, Jesus, the Lamb of God, must always be central. His substitutionary suffering is such a comfort and encouragement for Christians. Every detail of the Passion story has meaning and has to come out, whether in the Palm Sunday donkey, the crowing rooster, or the stranger from Cyrene. Trying to live into the immense suffering of Jesus for six Sundays can only deepen our love for our Lords’ unimaginable sacrifice.
Thousand, thousand thanks are due, dearest Jesus, unto you.