Saturday Vigil Reflection: The Lamb Before Its Shearers Is Silent

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I never know what to feel on Holy Saturday.  The liturgical Holy Week is brilliantly designed to take us through the emotions of Jesus’ last week.  Palm Sunday lifts our spirits.  Jesus’ teachings on Monday through Wednesday confuse and frustrate us.  The foot washing and Eucharist of Maundy Thursday comfort us.  The cross on Friday saddens us.

But then what?  What is Saturday supposed to do to us?  I have no idea.

My home church growing up did an Easter egg hunt on Saturday before Easter.  I protested one year, claiming it was wildly out of place and such festivities should wait for Sunday.  My pastor rebutted that it was strangely fitting.  When else should we have an Easter egg hunt?  The Saturday after Good Friday represents life returning to normal after a rather disappointing and absurd Friday.  Easter egg hunts, with their complete lack of any sort of sacramental backing, show the absurdity of it all in ways nothing else can.  I don’t know if he really believed this, or if he was trying to keep the peace with people who were not as liturgically minded as us and so came up with a clever logical argument to justify their silliness.

But his argument resonated with me and still does today.  What else should we do on this Holy Saturday?  Hunting eggs with chocolate in them seems almost as absurd as the fact that yesterday we just killed God so why not.  .  .

And today, a decade later I am getting a haircut and cleaning my house.  What other ways are there to commemorate this day of silence?

Speaking (or writing) of this day of silence, after a week spent studying Jesus’ final teachings, it is worth noting that right before his death he was silent as well.  Matthew 26:53 reads, “But Jesus remained silent.”  He did so again before Pilate.  Now Jesus was not exactly silent.  He did speak a few words but his silence was a response to the accusations.  He gave no defense.  He called no witnesses.  He sat there and took their accusations.  He rested his case before even offering one.  He remained silent and gave no answer.

This is quite profound.  On Palm Sunday he was called, “prophet.”  He spent the week teaching in the temple courts.  Particularly in Matthew, Jesus never was lacking for words to say.  But now he has nothing left to say, no logical argument to make, no defense.  Just silence.

There are different arguments for why he remained silent.  The most shallow argues that he was just fulfilling prophecy and nothing else.  The most elaborate has to do with legal rules and precedents.  Everything you say and do can and will be used against you after all.

However, I think he was silent because of the absurdity of it all.  What else can you say when you are the adult in a room full of angry children?  To speak is to play by their rules and to stoop to their level.  They will always beat you there.  At least by remaining silent in the midst of their childishness, Jesus remained adult.  At least thousands of years later we can say, “See how mature he was.  See how resolute in the face of absurdity!”

And like the centurion, we can look at the silent dignity he portrayed while being crucified and say, “Surely he was the son of God.”

So here on this silent Saturday may we recover in ourselves some of the dignity that Jesus portrayed.  In the face of the ridiculousness of Good Friday, may we be silently dignified as we go through the motions of yet one more Sabbath day.  Tomorrow, like the women, we will put ourselves together and bring spices to the tomb to finish off what the authorities started.  The linens themselves are signs of dignity in the face of absurdity.  It was as if the women were saying to each other, “They killed him for no reason but at least we can adorn him for the sake of respect.”

But before we join them there, let us lift our heads, hunt silly eggs, get haircuts, clean our house and rest a bit while we wait to see if hope just might break through again tomorrow.  .  .

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Holy Wednesday Reflection: Bags of Gold and Virgins Who May or May Not End Up Being You

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“It is finished.”  That is one of the more confusing things Jesus said from the cross.  If only we knew what “it” was or is or will be.  Does “it” refer to his life or to our sins or to Jesus’ mission or to the reign of evil or all of the above?  If only we knew what “finished” meant.  Is it “finished” in the way my car was finished when its engine caps cracked or is it finished in the way I finish a dresser top or is it finished the way I cross a “finish” line.

Unlike some of the other things Jesus said from the cross, we don’t have much Biblical context to help us out on this.  Unlike some of the other popular ones, it isn’t a line from one of the Psalms.  The word “finish” is too common in both Testaments and in the Greco-Roman world for any word study to be of much help.  However, the actual Greek word refers to a paying off of debts so there is some help there.

Putting all the confusion aside, the statement is still quite profound.  After all, it is not uncommon, especially in Evangelical Protestant Circles, to look at the cross as a beginning and a wonderful one at that.  The crucifixion happened in the Spring and so Easter has always been celebrated during this wonderful time of the year when everything begins, or rather springs, anew.  This event is about newness, not finished-ness.  It is about beginnings, not endings.

Yet here on the cross Jesus declares an end, a last day if you will.  And it has not been uncommon in 2,000 years of church history to refer to the time after the cross as the “end times.”  “End times” as it was originally used did not refer to destructive times or collapsing times or apocalyptic times.  Instead the word “end” is the Greek word “telos” which refers to something reaching its goal or being fulfilled.  After the cross, we live in times of fulfillment, the times when creation has reached its purpose.  After the cross we stand on the “finish line.”

Therefore, it may not be surprising that Matthew, Mark and Luke record for us that Jesus taught about the “end times” during his last week.  The days before the crucifixion, Jesus told stories and taught parables about the end times, the finishing times.

Matthew 25 records two such parables for us.  The first is about virgins waiting for a bridegroom.  Five forgot to bring oil and so were out buying more when the bridegroom showed, missing him entirely.  The others had enough oil and got to join the wedding party.  The second parable is about investors.  Some of them took the bags of gold the master gave and invested it wisely, doubling their share.  One of them foolishly buried his bag, refusing to invest it for fear of losing it.  He was punished most severely.

At first glance these parables don’t really belong in Holy Week.  In fact, we have another season of the church year where they are taught, namely Advent, which commemorates Christ’s first coming and Christ’s second coming.  The church, through the lectionary, has us read these in December to remind us to be ready for Jesus’ second coming.

Yet in their original context they were some of Jesus’ last teachings before taking up the cross and finishing “it,” whatever “it” was.

Therefore, maybe what we need to hear in these parables during this week is not judgment or warning but promise.  To be sure, the parables were told for judgment, particularly against the religious elite of Jesus’ time.  But we now live in “finished” times.  We now live in the time when the master’s presence is with us through the Holy Spirit.  We confess that God is here, walking and dwelling among us.  But the Holy Spirit is merely a deposit which means God is not yet fully here.  We live at the beginning of the “end times” but still with a deposit, a promise, a guarantee of our inheritance.

Therefore, those of us who have spent this week and the entirety of our lives fasting, praying, longing, studying and, most importantly, loving need to hear the assurance from these parables.  Unlike those who fall asleep or do not prepare, our oil will not run out before the groom’s coming.  Unlike those who have buried their gold in the ground, our bags of righteousness will multiply.  Our faithfulness and our readiness to do good will not go unnoticed.  In fact, the one who notices and rewards them is all ready at the door!

Therefore, I think I can say with confidence, keep on keeping on.  For like the wise investors and the smart virgins, the cross has guaranteed our reward.

Tenebrae Friday Reflection: Who’s On Trial Here

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To Read: Mark 12:38-43

Today is Tenebrae Friday, a day of shadows and darkness where we remember that our God died.  Today we make much of the trials of Jesus before the Chief Priests, the Jewish governor of Galilee and the Roman governor of Judea.  We talk a lot about the accusations against Jesus and how that all led to the horrible moment when Jesus spoke the final words, “it is finished” and breathed his last.  We do this in various ways.  Some of us attend a traditional candlelight service.  Others pray through the stations of the cross.  Others watch various film depictions of the event like the Passion of the Christ or the Jesus film.  Still others read the Passion narratives in the four gospels, taking special note of the 7 last words Jesus spoke while on the cross.  The truly super spiritual do all of the above!

But no matter how we commemorate Good Friday, we are prone to realize again that the real trial at the heart of the crucifixion was not Jesus’ but ours.  All of humanity was put on trial before the throne of God.  After all the God who loves us, who created us, whose very presence sustains our being, pitched his tent and camped out among us and we killed him for it.

My devotional reflections this week have been following Mark 12 where Jesus is repeatedly questioned by various members of the Jewish scholarly elite during the last week of his life.  Jesus successfully parried attacks by the Chief Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and one over confident teacher of the law.  These various tests serve as a precursor to his upcoming trial.  Even though they had yet to arrest Jesus under the cover of darkness and serve up a mock trial to reaffirm their own prejudices, they publicly tested Jesus in the hopes that the surrounding crowds would be the jury and judge.

It didn’t work.  In fact, after Jesus successfully answered their questions and avoided the traps they had set, he turned the attack on them.  In chapter 12, verse 38 Jesus says, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.  They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Right after that he contrasts them with a very poor widow who offered two tiny pennies to the temple system.  Her offering, Jesus says, is worth more than all the others.

This image of the humble widow becomes a forerunner to the image of the crucified God.  The arrogant chief priests and teachers of the law respond to the presence of Christ by trying to trick and trap.  The widow responds by giving all she has.  It is her two mites that become the image of true humanity, a humanity formed and shaped and called to the image of the sacrificial and self giving God.

Days later, Jesus as fully God and fully human magnifies the image of the widow for us as he hangs on the cross.  This image of sacrificial and self giving love is who we are supposed to be.  Such an image shames the know it alls and the proud and the arrogant and the powerful.  The cross is a verdict on our own ability to save ourselves by pretending to be more than we are.  It is a sentence of “guilty” for those who “walk around in fancy clothes and soak up the praises bestowed upon them while sitting in the most important seats in public gatherings but who devour widows’ homes.”

And it is a call to repent from our arrogance and pride and embrace the sacrificial giving of a poor widow.  Only by picking up our own crosses of shame and following Jesus can we arrive at a Resurrected morning.

Heavenly father, restore unto us the joy of our salvation as we gaze upon your self giving cross.

 

Good Friday Reflection: What Kind of God?

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When my wife and I were still dating, I was visiting her parents for Thanksgiving.  There I found a book called “Life of Pi” by Yann Martel.  It looked interesting enough, so I read it and was blown away by it.  It is still one of my favorite books.

Towards the beginning, Yann writes about a young Hindu boy named Pi wandering into a Catholic Cathedral and searching the paintings for a depiction of the Catholic God.

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He sees a painting of women crying and angels hovering overhead and a dove.  He studies it awhile, trying to figure out which one of these creatures is “The God.”  Then his eyes rest on the crucifix and slowly it dawns on him, “This is their God.”

Little Pi finds that idea both horrific and magnetic.  Pi tells us, “If the Son is to die, it cannot be fake.  If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the farce of Christ.  The death of the Son must be real.  And Father Martin assured me it was.  But once a dead God, always a dead God, even when resurrected.  The Son must always have the taste of death forever in His mouth.  The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God our Father.” (Life of Pi, 68)

This poetic paragraph captures the harrowing irony at the heart of our faith, that our God died.  Whatever it means to die (whether going to hell, Hades, nonexistence, becoming a ghost, separation, etc) our God experienced.  And by going all the way to death and descending all the way to where dead souls go, God redeemed all death and all life.

That experience of death is now integral to the Trinity.  God dying was not a tangent theology in our faith.  It was not a fun little story to tell our kids every Spring.  Nor was it a silly business transaction that was soon forgotten amidst all the other heavenly business.  Instead, it was a world altering, earth shattering event.  It forever changed the way we relate to God and the way we relate to each other and even the rest of Creation.

But the irony goes deeper than that.  Our God didn’t just die.  We killed him.  One of the great ironies of the Christian proclamation is that the Creator of the entire universe lived among us.  He walked where we walk and talked like we talk.  But He did it all in the right way.  He lived a perfect, sinless, authentic life.  .  .and we killed him.

If you read the gospels you find we mostly killed him out of envy and fear.  We were scared he might take over and depose us.  We were envious because he had more followers and could do cool magic tricks.  And so we killed him before He could do any real harm to our fragile egos.

And yet, in the killing, in the death, we accidentally crowned him King!  After all, the crown (albeit of thorns), the purple robe and the sign above his head on the cross are all typical markers of a coronation.  The trial and crucifixion, read another way, are the movements of a coronation ceremony.  So, scared that Jesus just might become King, we killed Him and in so doing, made Him King.  It is quite the irony.

And it is this irony we celebrate today.  Our God has come.  Our God has died.  We killed our God.  But in so doing we unleashed the very power of love to all creation.

Today as we join little Pi in our churches and stare up at the cross wondering, “Could this really be God?” and as we wonder at the love that held Him there, while certainly calling to mind our own sinfulness, may that almighty grace flow forth from the King who forgives, who reconciles, who redeems and who gives out eternal and abundant life!