MEDITATIONS FOR HOLY WEEK
We are approaching Holy Week, the most solemn week, liturgically, of the Christian year. Whether we are in Year A (Matthew), Year B (Mark and John), or Year C (Luke), all who follow the Common Lectionary hear the same lessons each day, from Monday through Friday. On Palm Sunday we begin the week with the royal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. He is acclaimed by his disciples and the Passover holiday crowd with the words of Psalm 118.26: Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD. This psalm very likely was used to celebrate a king returning from victory in war who comes to give thanks to God in the Temple. But now this King Jesus enters the Holy City not on a war charger but on a donkey. Not in warlike splendour but still in the simple, dusty clothing of a man who has traveled in peace along the roads of Judaea. We also hear the hymn of Philippians 2, which reminds us to imitate the mind of Jesus, the same humility and obedience that Jesus shows by fulfilling Zechariah’s upside-down prophecy of a triumphant king riding upon a donkey.
But the most striking thing about Palm Sunday is not the readings but the way the service ends, or rather doesn’t end. Every other Eucharist of the year ends with a dismissal but this does not. We are not dismissed to return to the world outside the church doors this Sunday. Instead we simply depart without being sent back. And so some part of us remains within the liturgy, waiting upon God, upon the events that are about to unfold before our eyes in God’s kairos, God’s good time, at the appropriate moment.
The lectionary calls us to imaginatively enter into the last week of Jesus’ life through the daily Gospel readings and that imaginative action is strengthened by the liturgical awareness that we are engaged in something that will not end until the Easter Gospel. But it also calls us to explore the deeper meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice of obedience on the Cross through the four servant songs from Isaiah, which we hear on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday of Holy Week.
I will be posting each day during this Holy Week, based upon the lectionary readings for that day. Please join me in walking together on the Way of the Cross.
Monday in Holy Week
Today our readings are the first servant song from Isaiah; Hebrews’ description of the sacrifice of Christ’s obedient death; and John’s description of the prophetic sign carried out by Mary of Bethany when she anointed Jesus in the same act both as Messiah and for his burial. If we want to walk with Jesus this week, we could do a lot worse than to look at the Servant to whom we are introduced in Isaiah.
In this song God both calls and commissions God’s Servant. The Servant is upheld, called, and given; he has strength and endurance enough not to grow faint nor be crushed until he has established justice and yet he is gentle and peaceful enough not to break a bruised reed nor quench a burning wick. He is a covenant to the people and a light to the nations. This Servant is God’s gift to all to bring about God’s righteousness all over the earth.
In calling this extraordinary Servant, God emphasises the newness of what God is doing. All this resonates with Jesus’ final journey: in his obedience to the Father’s will Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem with strength and endurance and also gentleness and peace. We will see all of this exhibited in his last days. And why? So that he can show himself to be God’s chosen, establishing justice, bringing life, establishing a new covenant, releasing all of us who are captives to this world and its injustices.
Mary of Bethany recognised that Jesus was God’s Servant and God’s Messiah and she knew what that meant: as Servant and Messiah Jesus would do God’s will, putting him on a collision course with the powers-that-be in our fallen world. His faithfulness to God would likely lead to his death, but it also proclaimed him as God’s Messiah, the true Shepherd for God’s people. Thus she anoints him, prophesying both his approaching death and his incredible vindication.
Following her lead, we bear witness this week as he fulfils the promise of his ministry of healing and proclamation. On Thursday evening and Friday afternoon Jesus, the Servant of God, will establish a new covenant, sealed in his own blood, by his obedience even in the face of death, his submission to brutality and judicial murder rather than to betray his relationship with the God who loves and chooses and delights in him. And on Sunday morning God will have the last word.
Tuesday in Holy Week
Today our readings all focus in on a single theme: God through his Servant Jesus opens a way for the nations, the Gentiles, that is, most of us, to become part of God’s covenant people. Yesterday in the first Servant Song we learned that the LORD is sending the Servant to judge the nations, but today in the second we learn much more when the LORD says to the Servant, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
How the LORD will carry this out is not said in Isaiah; we get a hint from today’s epistle, with its emphasis on the apparent foolishness of God’s plans in the face of human beings’ apparent wisdom. Much more becomes clear when we read today’s Gospel, again from John. There the Greeks — Greek-speaking Gentile God-fearers from the Jewish diaspora — approach Jesus through two of his disciples because they are drawn to his teaching. Upon hearing this Jesus immediately declares that his hour has arrived, the hour in which he will be glorified. But he goes on to speak about that glorification in terms that few of us would associate with any kind of glory: he will die like a seed planted in the ground and he will be lifted up by Roman executioners, on a cross, from which he will call all people to himself.
Here is the foolishness of God, that one man by dying a horrible kind of death, by judicial murder, could hope to bring all people to God. But it worked. God vindicated the Servant’s act of obedience in the Resurrection, in which the Servant was glorified as Messiah and Son.
That small group of “Greeks” were a prophetic sign for Jesus that the nations — all people — were aware of his teaching and seeking him, and this was the sign he had been waiting for. Now he can truly fulfill his mission as Servant by being a light to the nations and calling all people to himself and through him to his Father. In keeping with that image of light, he goes on to exhort his hearers to walk while they have the light and to believe in the light. That is the way we become children of light.
This small group of “Greeks” is also the second prophetic sign we witness this week — there will be more. The first was Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus with burial ointment. Each sign lights us on our own Way of the Cross as we follow Jesus to Friday afternoon and beyond. May we walk in the light as children of light and be drawn to Jesus as he is lifted up on a cross on Friday and from the grave on Sunday.
Wednesday in Holy Week
Today in our Gospel reading we confront the betrayal and broken relationships that set up Jesus’ arrest and condemnation. We don’t know why Judas acted the way he did. What we do know is that he betrayed his friends — Jesus and the remaining eleven apostles — and received money for it, that he later, much too late, regretted bitterly what he had done, despaired of repentance, returned the blood money, and killed himself. In purely human terms it is a compelling story — the picture of the small band of men dedicated to a leader and a cause who are betrayed by one of their own is a mainstay of fiction and drama. It resonates with us because, in one way or another, we have been there — in our human brokenness we have been in the course of our lives betrayer and betrayed.
We will find Good News not in the story of Judas himself, but in the way that Jesus responds to betrayal. We see that response clearly both in today’s Gospel and in our first reading, the third Servant Song from Isaiah. The prophet came to see his own role not just as being a prophet but in becoming the Servant of God, serving both his own people and the nations by doing God’s will. And in ways that foreshadow the later life and death of Jesus, we learn through his own words and those of his followers how he suffered persecution and death because of his resolve to answer God’s call to ministry as God’s Servant.
In this lesson we hear how the Servant, taught by God, is not rebellious, nor does he turn back. Instead he accepts shame, insult, and mistreatment as part of his task as Servant. He says: “The Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord GOD who helps me; who will declare me guilty?” Confident in God and God’s help, the Servant can face pain and disgrace without flinching, indeed without betraying a reaction. It is an action of faith and courage that few could aspire to.
Jesus has modeled his ministry on the Servant; he and later his followers will use the Servant’s words and the Servant’s followers’ words to explain who he is and what kind of a Messiah he is. In today’s epistle, taken from the letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds us that Jesus “endured the cross, disregarding its shame”, surely drawing upon this Servant song. It is with those ancient words in our hearts that we must turn again to today’s Gospel. In it, John tells us about an event at the Last Supper.
Jesus knows that he is going to be betrayed and he knows who is going to do it — our reading begins with Jesus’ revelation of that fact to the disciples at supper. However he knows what Judas has decided, Jesus does know, and in a curiously intimate little conversation (for only Jesus and Judas know what Jesus is talking about) Jesus sends Judas off into the night to carry out the role Judas has chosen for himself. And then comes the really extraordinary thing. Jesus says to those that remain: “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.”
Sending Judas off essentially to ‘get it over with’ seems understandable — as we might want a painful and difficult surgery or treatment to just get started, so Jesus wants the now-inevitable betrayal and its consequences to begin to unwind. We recognise in this action the same spirit as the Servant, who accepts pain and disgrace when it is inevitable and relies upon the help and vindication of God. It is another prophetic sign for us as we walk this week. But here again Jesus speaks of glory — as we heard him also speak of glory in yesterday’s Gospel. Nothing appears to be further from glory than a Roman crucifixion. And yet the author of Hebrews also speaks of the joy that was set before Jesus as the reason he endured the cross.
What is this glory, this joy? Jesus reveals his oneness with the Father and the Father reveals his oneness with Jesus — this is the glory to which Jesus’ death is the gateway. Why? Because in the daily acts of obedience and faithfulness that brought him to that death Jesus revealed his Father, his Father’s love for the world and humankind, the life of love that Father and Son share with the Spirit. By revealing it and by showing us the way of obedience and faithfulness, Jesus invites us also to share in that divine life of love. So having set his feet inrevocably on the path to Calvary, “the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.” Now the final three days can begin — everyone knows their role, everyone has made their choices. The saving work of Jesus is about to reach its conclusion and we are invited not just to watch, but to take part, to claim a share in the divine life that Jesus has opened to us. That is the good news in this gospel and in this and every Holy Week.
On Thursday the atmosphere changes, just for a while. As Jesus stopped in his inexorable path to Calvary’s hill to celebrate the Passover with his friends, so we stop in our Way of the Cross to remember both what the Passover means and what Jesus did to make that Passover unique. The readings are quite different from what we have heard the previous three days. No Isaiah excerpts, no Servant Songs; Instead the Old Testament lesson is from Exodus, and relates how Passover is to be marked with a lamb or kid and unleavened bread. Further we are taught to remember that this night marks the Lord’s Passover and a terrible judgement on Egypt — a judgement and a warning.
In the epistle we hear the voice of St Paul as he recounts for the Corinthian Christians, and for us as well, the tradition that he received (perhaps from James and other leaders on his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem) about the Last Supper. From Jesus’ words that Paul recalls for us, we take three lessons: first that a new covenant, the covenant foreseen by Jeremiah in which our sins are forgiven and remembered no more, has been established by Jesus. Second that, just as our spiritual forebears were told to remember the Lord’s Passover, we are to remember Jesus’ actions in blessing and offering the Passover bread and wine. Third that by our act of remembrance we recall “the Lord’s death” until he comes. That death, which we mark tomorrow, represents the sacrifice of obedience and love that brings the covenant into effect so, in recalling it, we necessarily recall the covenant in which we have new life in Christ.
And then in the Gospel John reminds us that more happened at the Last Supper than the repurposing of the unleavened bread and wine of Passover into the New Covenant meal. So far we have seen each Gospel of Holy Week reveal a prophetic sign of Jesus’ saving work for us: on Monday, Mary anoints Jesus, on Tuesday the Greeks seek Jesus out, on Wednesday Jesus tells Judas at supper “Do quickly what you are going to do”. Tonight the easy choice for the lectionary would have been to follow St Paul’s description of the First Eucharist with one of the three Synoptic accounts that tell that familiar story. Instead we see and hear Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, enacting his love for them as he gave them the new covenant’s new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
This is the prophetic sign for us on Maundy Thursday, that on the last Passover he spent on earth Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. We don’t know who all the disciples present that night were but no doubt that some of the female disciples were there, if only to ensure that room and the meal itself (including the ritual parts of it) were properly prepared and served. And we know that Jesus washed all their feet, taking upon himself the duty given not just to a servant or slave but to the lowest servant or slave in the household “pecking order”.
On Friday afternoon on the Cross Jesus will show his love and obedience for the Father who sent him and for us, his siblings, in a final act of love. Now on Thursday night among his friends, Jesus shows us the way to obey his commandment of love every day in our relationships with one another and with God. Let’s learn from it how to be like Jesus even in the small ways of everyday living. I think for myself that it can be harder to wash one another’s feet again and again than to make some ultimate unrepeatable sacrifice. May the Lord help us all to follow Jesus’ new commandment in love and take part in his new covenant of love.
Our walk with Jesus on the Way of the Cross has finished. We have come as far with him as we can, but this is a road which ultimately he must walk to the end alone, as someday we all must as well. So like the woman at the cross, or the Beloved Disciple and the mother of Jesus, we wait a little distance from the Cross and look on.
Our gospel reading, from John 18 and 19, shows us what happened that Friday, and it is not pretty. An observer suddenly brought in to watch would see a travesty on display: followers and friends who betray, deny, and flee; men in authority on every side who panic, pass the buck, and deny responsibility; soldiers so dehumanised by their service that they torture, mock, and try to degrade their prisoner; bystanders so dehumanised that they’ve come out to see a public execution as we might watch a terrible storm or a war on television, for entertainment. Jesus is one of the few people involved who seems to keep his humanity, there at the eye of the storm.
The Old Testament lesson tells us not what happened, but what it means. This apparently sordid and shabby story of judicial murder and licit torture is not what it appears. It is an atoning sacrifice, made vicariously. That is, Jesus suffers not for anything that he has done, but for what the rest of us have done. Jesus confronts the powers that want to keep us from right relationship with God and one another, what St Paul in Romans calls Sin and Death. He confronts all the unintended consequences of bad decisions or good ones gone wrong, all our mistakes and the missing the mark that dogs our footsteps, and he overcomes them, he clears them away. By his love and obedience, by following the path that leads to the Cross without turning back, he acts out what the prophet describes when he writes about the Servant in the fourth and last Servant Song, which we hear today. As a man of suffering and acquainted with grief we discounted him and thought of him as stricken and afflicted. But instead, as the prophet wrote, “he poured out himself to death” and so, as the LORD says, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”
That Jesus goes to the Cross without resisting or escaping, without slipping away from those trying to arrest him as he had done before, makes this the fifth and final prophetic sign of the week. Jesus enacts for us what the prophet Isaiah foretold of the Servant centuries before and this sign makes us righteous. Now it is done. Jesus has fulfilled the LORD’s will for the Servant and also for us who follow and look on: “upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” As Friday comes to a close, we can with confidence and hope in the resurrection say “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore let us keep the feast”. A blessed Easter to you all.