Our worship services have been suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and we all have been impacted and taken the safety precautions necessary to mitigate its spread. Our social distancing has become part of daily life, but with today’s social networking and even our basic telephone usage, we are able to stay in touch with our loved ones and friends. As Prime Minister Trudeau encourages us daily, “We continue to look out for each other.”
Lent has been the season of spiritual preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From its start on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday, Lent has been a traditional time for fasting or giving up something. This year, we all share something specific that we have had to give up, and that is face-to-face spiritual interaction, gathering together for Sunday worship and social hour afterwards.
I prepared my Reflection for Palm Sunday, as I was originally scheduled to lead Morning Prayer at St. George’s and deliver it at Christ Church, as well. Rev. Bryce asked me to combine the Gospel readings for Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday to bridge the events of Holy Week.
On its “Spiritual Resources During the COVID-10 Pandemic” page, Harvard Divinity School offers a timely message:
If we strive to transform our collective isolation into an opportunity for communal solitude, we might discover that it is, as it has always been, the seedbed for growth in holiness and wholeness, for communion and connection, for resistance and renewal.
In the suddenly altered pace of our lives, we might discover the stillness we all crave, the stillness from which all true wisdom and justice issue. What we love rather than what we fear may come into sharper focus—and just in time. (hds.harvard.edu)
– Nancy Wright-DeKuyper, Lay Reader, Christ Church
The Journey to the Cross
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
Have you thought about the social expression we use when saying good-bye the couple of weeks before Easter Sunday? It is quite common to say “Happy Easter.” We are anticipating this most important Christian celebration, almost pre-empting it.
Let’s pause and process: how are we to address this whole upcoming week?
Do we wish people a “Happy Holy Week?” Because, until Easter Sunday, it isn’t yet Easter, along the same lines as wishing people “Merry Christmas” before December 25th.
It’s kind of confusing: there are a lot of different things going on this coming week.
Holy Week is also known as Passion Week, from the Latin passio: to suffer. God’s passion is the conscious suffering that Jesus willingly takes on to face and absorb the hard truths of human violence and pride and weakness — and to love and forgive and stay with us anyway, so that sin and death will have no more power. His passion is not sentimental, but fierce. It goes all the way.
This week is the culmination of Jesus’ life – the reason he came as God’s son, and we experience a wide range of emotions as we move through the week, a week that brings betrayal, denial, a trial, crucifixion and finally, resurrection.
Passion Week is a valuable time to reflect ahead of Easter and these days can act as a useful tool to prepare our hearts and spirits in the run up to Easter Sunday.
So let’s take a journey through Holy Week according to the Gospel of Matthew.
It is the time of the Jewish Passover, one of the three pilgrimage festivals during which the entire population of the kingdom of Judah makes their way to the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover is the remembrance of Israel being freed from slavery to Egypt and specifically when the angel of death passed over the homes of the Israelites that had lambs’ blood over the doors. (biblestudytools.com)
So the scene is set.
For almost three years Jesus has been teaching his listeners about God’s Kingdom with stories we call parables, performing many miracles, forgiving many sins, training his disciples and sending them out.
But, as Jesus preached, his contemporaries became less and less enamored with him. Why? Because Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of God laid bare the hypocrisy that had run rampant in the culture of the day. The clarity of his message – “I am the Messiah” – aroused accusations and threats as well as loyal followers.
Jesus’ last week was filled with precious moments and evil plots led by priests and other leaders.
Today on Palm Sunday we traditionally process with our palms and hymns. We celebrate Jesus triumphantly riding into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, nearing the end of a long journey toward Golgotha.
If you use your imagination for just a moment, you can place yourself in the scene. You can feel the press of the people as they gather along the road from Bethany to Jerusalem. You can smell the dust, and the donkeys, you can hear the crowd. You can see the brightly colored holiday clothes of festive pilgrims gathering in Jerusalem. You can feel the excitement in the air; you can hear the cheers of the people as they greet the messiah who they believe has come to save them: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (21:9; The Problem with Palms by Kenny Ashley, thejourneylw.com)
It was a great celebration! People were happy and joyful, celebrating life. But so much was to change in the next several days.
Following his arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus entered the Temple which was the centre of worship for the Jews. God’s law demanded that his people bring animal offerings during Passover and because many Jews came from long distances for this event, it was common for them to purchase sacrificial animals when they arrived. Sellers then began profiting from the system.
This misuse and desecration of the temple system of worship was what angered Jesus so much that he drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you are making it a den of robbers.” (21:12-13) Jesus also cured the blind and lame in the temple and was praised by the local children.
He spent Sunday night in Bethany, the village at the foot of Mount of Olives. (21:7)
On Monday, as Jesus returned to Jerusalem with his disciples, he was hungry and noticed a fig tree that had produced leaves ahead of season and therefore he expected to find figs, yet it was fruitless. Jesus cursed the tree and it immediately withered up. He said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt…Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (20:18-22)
Some scholars believe this cursing of the fig tree represented God’s judgment on the spiritually dead religious leaders of Israel. Others believe the symbolism extended to all believers, demonstrating that genuine faith is more than just outward [devoutness]; true, living faith must bear spiritual fruit in a person’s life. (various sources including The Church at Junius Heights Blog, April 11, 2019)
Holy Tuesday was a busy day.
When Jesus returned to the temple the religious leaders aggressively challenged his authority, attempting to ambush him and create an opportunity for his arrest “but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”(21:46)
Conspiracies to trap Jesus escalated. If this meant cooperating with a lifelong enemy, any means would be justified. So the Pharisees—who opposed Rome and its intrusion on the Jewish way of life—and the Herodians, supporters of Herod the Great, joined forces. Even the Sadducees—religious liberals who denied a resurrection, angels, or spirits—attempted to discredit Jesus.
Jesus warned the crowds and disciples about the hypocrisy and unbelief of the nation’s religious leaders. Tuesday would also be the day Jesus spoke His eight “woes” against the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!…You snakes, you brood of vipers.” (23:13–36) He foretold the destruction of the Temple: “Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (24:3-8) and that evening Jesus delivered the Olivet Discourse, an elaborate prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem and end times. (24:3-8)
Wednesday was a day of betrayal when Judas Iscariot conspired with local authorities to sell out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, even though the actual betrayal wasn’t to take place until the following day.
Our Holy Week journey takes a sombre turn on Thursday, also known as Maundy Thursday. The word Maundy is from the Latin word mandatum – or commandment.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples, his final meal, and what is now called The Last Supper. Two important events occurred. First, Jesus explained to his disciples that one of the twelve would soon betray him. They all denied this, including Judas. “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so” (26:25) and predicted what will happen the next day.
Second, Jesus blessed the meal and then broke the bread and shared the wine with the disciples and explained to them how the bread was a symbol of his body, broken for them, and the wine a symbol of his blood which would be poured out for their sins to be forgiven. (26:26-28; biblestudytools.com) The Last Supper provides the scriptural basis for the Eucharist.
Maundy is the name of the Christian rite of foot washing. Only the Gospel of John describes Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the beginning of the Passover meal and later issues to them a new command “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13) Anglicans and many other Christian denominations include the washing of feet in our Maundy Thursday liturgy. (Book of Alternative Services, page 304)
After supper Jesus and his disciples went out to the Mount of Olives where Jesus predicted that his disciples will desert him and Peter will deny him three times before “the cock crows.” (26:34)
Then Jesus, with Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, went to a grove called Gethsemane to pray, urging the other disciples to stay awake, keep alert and pray; but they fell asleep, much to Jesus’ anguish and deep distress. (26:36-46)
Later that evening, in Gethsemane, Judas arrived with a large crowd of priests and elders. Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, the sign he had given to the new arrivals saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” (26:48)
Jesus was arrested and one of his followers drew his sword, striking the high priest’s slave, and cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (26:52)
All of Jesus’ disciples deserted him and fled. Jesus was taken to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest, where the whole council had gathered to begin making their case against him. Jesus refused to acknowledge the falsehoods raised against him and when the high priest demanded that he tell them that he was the Messiah, the son of God, Jesus said to him: “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (26:64) Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy. “Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him.” (26:67)
Meanwhile, Peter had followed the crowd into the courtyard and when he was questioned about his relationship with Jesus, he denied Jesus three times. Then he remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times. And he went out and wept bitterly.” (26:69-74)
On what is now called Good Friday the priests and leaders met again to discuss how to persuade the Roman government to sentence Jesus to death because, according to Jewish law, they were not permitted to do so themselves. They bound Jesus, and led him away, and handed him over to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. (27:1-2)
Judas the betrayer realized their intentions and was filled with remorse. He made his way to the Temple and attempted to return the bribe money but the chief priests refused. Judas threw down the thirty pieces of silver, went out and hanged himself. (27:3-5) The priests picked up the silver but, since it was blood money, couldn’t lawfully return it to the treasury. Instead “After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (27:7-8)
Pilate questioned Jesus and the chief priests and elders levelled accusations against him, but Jesus did not answer, “not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.” (27:14) Pilate reluctantly found him guilty and condemned him to die – “I am innocent of the blood of this man,” he said, and he washed his hands before the people. (27:24)
At that time the governor was accustomed to releasing a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. They asked Pilate to release the notorious prisoner Barabbas and replace him with Jesus. The same crowds that had sung “Hosannas” at Jesus’ arrival, shouted “Let him be crucified!” (27:25)
Jesus was turned over to the Roman soldiers, who spit on him, tormented and mocked him, and pierced him with a crown of thorns. He was then forced to walk to the Hill of Golgotha which means Place of a Skull (27:33) where he was nailed to a cross between two criminals. The soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes by casting lots while keeping watch over him and “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’”(28:37)
It is generally accepted that Jesus’ crucifixion began around noon. At about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46) He was given a sponge filled with sour wine. Then he cried out again and breathed his last. (27:48-50) The Bible says that during this time, darkness came over the whole world, the earth shook, and the rocks were split. (27:45-51)
“Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” (27:55-56)
As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate to let him take away Jesus’ body. He was given permission and wrapped Jesus in a clean linen cloth. He laid him in his new unused tomb and rolled a great stone to the door.
The following day the chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to place a guard at the tomb as they recalled what Jesus had said to them: “After three days I will rise again.” (27:6) So they went with the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone. (27:66)
Holy Saturday is a day of waiting for the resurrection on Easter Sunday; it ends the season of Lent.
The death of Christ on the cross—along with His bodily resurrection—is the paramount event of the Christian faith.
The only path to the hope of Easter is through the struggle of Holy Week. In the church it seems that we too often try too hard to let Palm Sunday be a bright spot in the Lenten darkness in ways that may not allow us fully to absorb the dynamics here. We need to look deep into those eyes of Jesus on this day. We need to see the sadness just behind the cheerfulness, the deep pity that undergirds the larger celebration. Because in seeing that on the face of Jesus, we find yet another way to identify with him—or perhaps better said, we find another way in which Jesus is able to identify with us.
Think about each of the days and what preparation you can make to be ready for the festive celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
Most of us prefer to come to a celebration, but how many want to do the hard work of getting to the very reason we have to celebrate to begin with?
As author Christian Piatt says, “Journeying through Holy Week is challenging; the way to the crucifixion is dark, hard, and kind of depressing. And we have to face our own inner darkness, which none of us gets particularly excited about doing.… But, like the assurance offered in the 23rd Psalm, we’re not given a shortcut around the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
The only way out is through.” (Dear Christians: Don’t Skip Holy Week On the Way to Easter by Christian Piatt, March 23, 2016, sojo.net)