Holy Week Reflections 2021
He Loves Us to the End: A Reflection for Maundy Thursday
The Loving, Open, Broken Heart of God: A Reflection for Good Friday
Death Has a Way of Telling the Truth: A Reflection for Holy Saturday
– On Maundy Thursday, when we hear the gospel lesson read, we hear that Jesus loves us and that he loves us to the end. I don’t know about you, but in relationships, I’m really good at the beginning, and I’m really good with the middle, but so often in my life, when some sort of chapter comes to a close, it’s the ending, it’s the leave taking, it’s the time at the end of time when I can fumble, when I can be distracted, when I can be discouraged, and somehow the relationship falters and wilts, because I did not love well to the end. Maybe you’ve experienced that as well, maybe that’s who you are as relationships end. Jesus is God in flesh. We know him to be without sin, but we also know him to be fully human.
A part of the power of the story of Maundy Thursday is Jesus is aware of what is about to face him, the cross. This is a time when he could have said, “I’m distracted, I’m not at my best,” and yet, even in that moment, as the cross is facing him and he knows what is ahead, he is mindful of those who have been with him, and he is mindful that he wishes to love them to the end. He is not distracted by what’s ahead. Even in that time of what’s ahead, what is clear to him is the way in which he has loved, the way in which he has brought people together. He needs to see that through, and see that through to the end. And what does he do? Does he give another teaching from on high? Does he do another miracle? In many ways he does both. He does not go up to a mountain. He kneels and washes the feet of his disciples, and it’s less of what he says and more of what he does. In washing their feet, it’s a kind of miracle. The teacher is becoming the servant, the master is becoming the servant. The one who leads is serving. The one who knows is showing what is not with, to be known with words, but to be known with actions. He is loving them to the end by serving them, by noting in their life what they need. They need to be touched once more by the wise teacher, and to be touched in ways that are humiliating and humbling, allow them to be made clean, and to know that the God who has come to them through Jesus will continue to love them, even as the God who is known to them through Jesus will now be placed on the cross.
On Maundy Thursday, as you and I continue to walk the way of Jesus and the way of the cross in Holy Week, it’s easy to be distracted, to find ourselves fatigued and exhausted. And yet it’s a time to also consider what it means to love each other and to love God in return to the end, to keep ongoing, to keep on moving in this way of Jesus and this journey of faith. So often we find ourselves in the way of faith excited as the new convert, loving God and loving others, excited to learn about the Church, to enter a new parish. All is new, all is possible. And at some point, maybe on the middle part of the journey, you find a way of continuing to move, continuing to know God. But then we hit a patch, a conflict or a hurt, or we find ourselves simply fatigued, and we find ourselves distracted, and at some point disconnected from each other and from God. We are not perfect, we are not God. We cannot always love well to the very end. It’s why, on Maundy Thursday, God comes to us again and again in this story, seeking to serve us, not asking to be served by us, to wash our feet, to allow us to begin again and again, to serve each other, and in that serving, to perform a kind of miracle of restoration and reconciliation, and to find that true love again, to find the love that we met at the beginning, the love that took us through the middle, and the love that now will restore us as we keep on loving in a world that continues to be broken, continues to at times to surprise us with new harm and new hurt, but God calls us to keep loving and loving to the end.
We can do this, not because of our own power, but because of the gracious love of God who forgives us, who reconciles us, who restores us, both in the pain of the cross and in the posture of kneeling and washing our feet. We are called to wash each other’s feet, to be in a place of humility and service to others, and to love, love, love to the end. This is our call now in this time. We are called as a people in the Church to continue to remember what brought us to this moment. It wasn’t our own work, our own ability. It was the love of God. It was the love that will take us here, into tomorrow, and to the end, amen.
– I would like to share a poem with you by Christina Rossetti, entitled “Good Friday.”
Am I a stone, and not a sheep that I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross to number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss, and yet not weep? Not so those women loved who with exceeding grief lamented Thee; not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly; not so the thief was moved; not so the Sun and Moon, which hid their faces in a starless sky, a horror of great darkness at broad noon. I, only I. Yet give not o’er, but seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock. Greater than Moses, turn and look once more and smite a rock.
Several years ago when I was living in Berea, Kentucky on a Good Friday morning, I went out for a long walk. And as I was walking, I came across a friend, a good friend in Berea who was Roman Catholic. We were speaking that morning about a variety of things and then he mentioned that it was Good Friday. And not too much farther into that conversation, he began to weep, began to be moved emotionally at the day and what the day held for the church. At the time, I remember being envious of his tears. On that very day, just the power of the day brought him to full emotion and to tears. I remember thinking I should be crying, I should be emoting, I somehow should be a better Christian in this moment. That’s why this poem by Rossetti is so helpful.
Good Friday, Jesus on the cross is a time when the world is turned upside down. When the women that gather are moved to tears and moved by the pain of the cross. When the sun and the moon respond and Peter even in his denial weeps, is moved emotionally, Rossetti in that poem is that rock standing at the bottom of the cross, numb, not moved, hoping like Moses striking the rock in the wilderness that somehow God, through Jesus, would touch her and water would move in her life. You and I are living in a time of COVID, praying for a time that is post-COVID, knowing that maybe our emotions this year have been so tapped that we maybe are rocks standing at the foot of the cross. Knowing this is a time of deep emotion when the love of God was so clearly shown on the cross, that should move us to tears, should move us to grief, should move us to some kind of joy in the face of what God has done for us. But if you find yourself that rock, not moved, it does not mean that you are doubting, it does not have to mean that somehow you’re not responding well enough to God’s gift. God’s gift on the cross comes to us regardless of our response. We don’t have to get Good Friday right but to know that all of us together, the women crying, the sun and the moon, Peter weeping and the rock standing still, all of us are found in those places on Good Friday.
On this Good Friday, as we begin an April that hope we will move into a deeper and deeper spring, a time of deeper renewal for our country, for the church, for possibility and process ahead, know that we do so with all of our emotions, even the emotions at time that are tamped down, where we can’t feel. But God comes to us and touches us. He does not strike us like a rock in order to hurt us, but touches us like eyes that have been blind to allow us to see, touches ears that allow us to hear, touches mouths that allow us to speak and also touches those eyes that allow us to weep. The gift of tears comes to us in the right time when we are moved to know that God’s grace and God’s mercy were shown to us on the cross and in the empty tomb. On this Good Friday, wherever you are, holding whatever you’re holding, be it a heart that is open and weeping, or a heart that is like a rock, still and not moved, God made your heart, God loves your heart. God will continue to move in and through your heart because it’s on the cross that we also encounter the loving and open and broken heart of God shown in Jesus’ life with blood and tears and sweat.
My brothers and sisters, together we are moved, moved from cross to tomb, from tomb to resurrection garden, to resurrection garden to Pentecost and to renewed life and church ahead. But first, we stand at the cross, whether weeping or numb, we are there, you are there, I am there with the Christ. Amen.
Death has a way of telling the truth.
On Holy Saturday, we remember a time when Jesus was dead, in the tomb. This is not Good Friday and this is not Easter Sunday. This is the lifeless space in between.
Yet, even this time, when we are numb now with the full knowledge of Jesus’ suffering and death, or rather weighted down with the dread that his life and teaching all were for naught, we learn something about the truth because of how Joseph and Nicodemus responded once all the life had left Jesus.
During Holy Week, the Church makes much ado about how many followers left Jesus’ side as the cross approached. But on this Holy Saturday, it is worth remembering that, in his death, new followers also emerged because of the cross.
Actually, they weren’t new followers. In secret, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had counted themselves as followers, or at least fellow travelers of the way of Jesus. Yet, while Jesus was alive, while he was teaching publicly and healing widely, Joseph and Nicodemus kept their interest in Jesus a secret.
Why was it a secret? Well, they were people of position and power. They were, as we would say when I was a child, muckety-mucks. Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God was breaking into this world, into the world as it had been. If you liked the way the world had been, then Kingdom of God talk was threatening, or at least required you to change, to be converted.
So, from our knowledge that Joseph and Nicodemus were quite private about their interest and devotion to Jesus’ teachings, we can assume that they both found themselves in settings where friends and peers spoke ill of Jesus and his followers.
Joseph and Nicodemus kept their interest in Jesus to themselves, so as not to lose power or influence, not to lose face or their place in the club. They would follow him, but in secret, in their private hearts. If we wanted to feel smug and superior, we might call them hypocrites or cowards.
That is, until Jesus died. At that moment, Joseph and Nicodemus chose the worst possible time to become public followers of Jesus.
Now that the one who called himself the Messiah, the Son of the Living God is dead, now that his public followers have cut and run, now that the full power of corrupt religious officials and violent Empire have rained down upon the head of Jesus, we have decided to let you all know we are with him. Now that the church building has collapsed, now that the congregation has disbanded, now that the cause is lost, Joseph and Nicodemus are eager to sign up and pay membership dues and get involved.
It is a ridiculous time to get involved with Jesus.
From all the Jesus movies I have ever seen, no matter how family-friendly or piously gory, crucifixion is an awful thing. To be crucified is to die violently, loaded down with all matter of public shame. To ask for the body of a crucified person is to ask for their pain and shame to touch you, to be attached to you. If you have ever gone to prison, to visit an inmate, you may have experienced the feeling that the prison guards are looking at you with a bit of suspicion, too.
Yet, when Jesus was at his least powerful, two people of power chose to lose themselves and their old identities and to ask for the body of a publicly disgraced, executed man.
Upon receiving that body, Joseph and Nicodemus treat the dead Jesus as if he is a person worthy of a royal burial. A lavish amount of spices and clean linen and new tomb await the dead body of the crucified Messiah. His body is not left to decay, or thrown out into a garbage dump to send a message to any would-be Messiahs. Rather, because Joseph and Nicodemus have gone public with their devotion to Jesus, he is buried like a King.
Granted, he is still dead, the cause for which Jesus came into the world is still lost. But because Joseph and Nicodemus got involved with Jesus at his death, because of the spice and the linen and the new tomb, they were able to show others, both the grieving and the scornful, that they believed the one they were burying was a good and beautiful man and not a criminal.
The ancient hymn from Philippians teaches us that Jesus was willing to be emptied of all power in order to be with us and to die for us. At his death, Joseph and Nicodemus, two people of much earthly power, were willing to use that power and lose that power in order to be witnesses, to proclaim a foolish belief that the way of Jesus was still true, even if it was a lost cause.
When confronted with the death of Jesus, Joseph and Nicodemus stopped keeping secrets. They told the truth about themselves. And even before Jesus was free, they were.