Posts tagged ‘Holy Week’

A Holy Week for Unholy Times

art-cathedral-christ-christian-208216.jpgThis week is the beginning of what is, in the history and tradition of the Christian Church, called Holy Week. It is a commemoration of the final week of Jesus’ life before His death on a cross in anticipation of His victory over death on Easter.

Yesterday, we celebrated Palm Sunday, which recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey while crowds hail His arrival by laying palm fronds at His feet (John 12:13). Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. On Palm Sunday, the crowds are hoping that, just as their Greek oppressors were taken down almost two centuries earlier, Jesus will be the revolutionary who takes down their Roman oppressors.

Then, this Thursday, we will observe Maundy Thursday. The word “Maundy” is a derivative of the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” On this night, Jesus gives His disciples two commands. This first command is one of love:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. (John 13:34)

The second is a command given when Jesus institutes a supper, which we now call the Lord’s Supper. Jesus instructs His disciples:

Do this in remembrance of Me. (Luke 22:19)

Thus, on Maundy Thursday, Christians across the world will partake in the Lord’s Supper – not just to obey a command, but to receive what Jesus promises in this holy meal: “the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

The day after Maundy Thursday is Good Friday – the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything good about it. Jesus is arrested by His enemies and condemned to die not because He has committed a crime, but because the religious elites of His day hate His popularity among the crowds in Jerusalem. Even the man who condemns Jesus to death on a cross, Pontius Pilate, knows that it is “out of envy that they had delivered Him up” (Matthew 27:18). This is a dark, unholy moment. As Jesus says to His accusers when they arrest Him: “This is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53). And yet, even in this dark, unholy moment, holiness cannot and will not be defeated. Righteousness will reign. For even though Jesus’ enemies commit an unholy crime against Him, He is giving His life for them. His sacrifice is what makes Holy Week truly “holy.”

The times in which we are living right now feel dark and unholy. “Stay-at-home” restrictions are getting stricter. The curve of infections and deaths from COVID-19 is rising steeper. For millions of people, life is getting harder. And yet, this week – Holy Week – can remind us that holiness is found in the most unholy of places. After all, an ancient instrument of torture and execution – the cross – has now become a worldwide symbol of consolation and hope. And so, even if this week feels unholy, this week can still be a Holy Week – not because we live in a holy world, but because we have hope in a Holy One.

April 6, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

“I am thirsty.”

File:Gerard de la Vallee - Longinus piercing Christ's side with a spear.png

Credit: Gerard de la Vallée, “Longinus piercing Christ’s side with a spear,” 17th cent.

This Friday, Christians around the world will commemorate the death of Jesus Christ.  At the church where I serve, we will hold services centering around the traditional seven final phrases that Jesus speaks from the cross.  Many of these phrases are extraordinarily well-regarded and famous.  For instance, when Jesus prays for His executioners, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), we are treated to a tour de force in what true forgiveness looks like.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:34) we hear in His words both an ache for God’s presence in suffering as well as a separation from God because of sin.

One of my favorite phrases from Jesus on the cross is one that can sometimes be overlooked:

“I am thirsty.” (John 19:28)

This hardly seems like a profound statement.  It seems more like a mundane request.  A man who is baking in the hot ancient Near Eastern sun while hanging exposed on a cross has developed a case of cotton mouth.  And yet, these words represent not only the cry of a parched mouth, but the yearning of a scorched soul.

The Psalmist once said:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for You, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  (Psalm 42:1-2)

The Psalmist describes his desperate thirst for God.  And how does God respond to his thirst?

Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls; all Your waves and breakers have swept over me. (Psalm 42:7)

God not only gives the Psalmist’s soul spiritual water, He offers the Psalmist a superabundance of this water in the form of waves and breakers.

Jesus invites anyone who has a thirst like the Psalmist’s:

“Let anyone who is thirsty come to Me and drink.  Whoever believes in Me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”  (John 7:37-38)

But this takes us back to Jesus’ words from the cross.  For when Jesus, who offers all men refreshment for their souls, Himself complains of thirst, how do men respond to Him?

A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips.  (John 19:29)

God responds to human thirst with refreshing water.  Humans respond to God’s thirst with bitter vinegar.  What a contrast.

And yet, the incredible thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that sin’s vinegar never quite manages to strip Him of His life-giving water:

One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  (John 19:34)

The water of life stubbornly remains, flowing from the side of the One who died.

This week, as we reflect on and remember Jesus’ death, may we drink deeply from the water of His life.  For the water of His life gives us eternal life.

April 15, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Greatest Show On Earth

20150329_100138This past weekend at the church where I serve, we presented our annual Palm Sunday pageant depicting the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a lot of work for all involved, but I always come out of the pageant with a deep sense of satisfaction and awe, for I have the privilege of working with amazing people who have amazing gifts and know how to use them in amazing ways.  I am deeply thankful for the people with whom I get to work.  They are a blessing to me.

In one way, our pageant can be characterized as a spectacle. It has moving music featuring a live orchestra and choir, well-choreographed lights, lots of actors, and a graphic enough depiction of Christ’s death that we make available an alternative worship service for small children who may be unsettled by what they see. But, of course, it isn’t the spectacle of our Palm Sunday pageant that makes it valuable and powerful. It’s the message. There is simply no better message than the gospel message – that Christ was crucified for sinners. Our prayer is that this message – as it is presented in the pageant – leads hearts to repentance and faith, even as God has promised in His Word.

In Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion, there is an interesting reaction to His death from the bystanders: “All the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48). The word for “spectacle” in Greek is theoria, related to our English word “theatre.” This is a most appropriate word because crucifixions were indeed gory theatre. If someone was an enemy of the Roman State, the governing officials, though they could have executed such a person in other, more efficient and less gruesome ways, chose crucifixion. Why? Because crucifixion served as a public, humiliating spectacle. In fact, most criminals were crucified naked so as to shamefully expose them. Jesus is no exception. His crucifixion is meant to be theatre. It is meant to be spectacle. It is meant to be theoria, just as Luke says.

But in the middle of this spectacle, something unexpected happens.

When the crowds see the darkness that covers the land, when they hear the news that the curtain of Jerusalem’s temple has been torn in two, when they hear Jesus commend Himself into His Father’s hands, and when they are startled by the testimony of one of Jesus’ executioners saying, “Certainly this man was innocent” (cf. Luke 23:44-47), they “return home beating their breasts.” In Jewish piety, this is a sign of repentance (e.g., Luke 18:13). What begins as theatre and spectacle becomes a life-changing event that testifies to the truth of Jesus’ identity and to the promise of God’s salvation.

At many churches this Holy Week, there will be a certain amount of spectacle. There will be Maundy Thursday services that conclude dramatically with a reading of Psalm 22 and a stripping of the church’s altar to remind us of Christ’s humiliation on the cross. There will be moving Good Friday Tenebrae services that turn sanctuaries black with darkness to remind worshipers of the darkness of sin and of Jesus’ death. And, of course, there will be energetic Easter services, complete with Easter lilies, rafter-shaking music, and the historic, thrilling Easter greeting, “Christ is risen!” to which the congregation will respond, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Yes, there will be plenty of spectacle this week. And this, I would note, is great. I love the spectacle of this time of year.

My prayer, however, is that even as spectacle may be an inevitable and helpful part of Holy Week, we remember that it is not all of Holy Week. For the spectacle is meant to point to something better – and to Someone greater. The spectacle is meant to point us to the cross – and to the One who died on it. And Jesus is more than a spectacle. He is your Savior. That’s what those bystanders at Jesus’ cross discovered as they beat their breasts. And that’s what we are called to believe.

March 30, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments

Not Just Any Old Crucifixion

"Calvary" by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

“Calvary” by Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1500

In the ancient world, crucifixions were a dime a dozen.  Hardly a day passed without one.  Consider these statistics:

  • 519 BC: Darius I, king of Persia, crucifies 3,000 of the leading citizens of Babylon.
  • 332 BC: Alexander the Great crucifies 2,000 people after invading the city of Tyre.
  • 100 BC: Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, crucifies 800 Pharisees.
  • 71 BC:  A great uprising of slaves against the Roman Empire, led by the great gladiator Spartacus, leads to the crucifixion of 6,000 of his followers along a stretch of highway from Capua to Rome, totaling 120 miles.
  • 4 BC: Varus, governor of Syria, crucifies 2,000 Jewish rebels who were leading a Messianic revolt.
  • AD 70:  The Roman general Titus sweeps into the city of Jerusalem, sacks it, and begins crucifying 500 people a day he runs out of wood to make crosses.

Crucifixions happened all the time.  In fact, according to one estimate, as many as 30,000 people were crucified just in Israel by Jesus’ day.[1]

This Friday is Good Friday – a day when we commemorate a crucifixion.  But with crucifixions being so commonplace in the ancient world, it’s worth it to ask:  Why do we commemorate one particular crucifixion?  Why don’t we commemorate the many crucifixions of the citizens of Babylon, or of Spartacus’ followers, or of the Jews under Titus’ reign of terror?  Why do we commemorate only one crucifixion – Jesus’ crucifixion?

The Mishnah, an ancient compendium of Jewish rabbinical teaching, explains that if a criminal was condemned to execution, which would have included crucifixion, he was to say, “Let my death be atonement for all of my transgressions.”[2]  The idea was that if a person’s crimes were so heinous that he was deserving of death, only death could save him from those crimes.  Crucifixion, then, was connected not only to punitive punishment, but also to personal atonement.

Jesus’ crucifixion, however, was different.  Rather than making recompense for His own sins by His death, Jesus asks for forgiveness for others’ sins:  “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And rather than seeking atonement for Himself by His execution, the apostle John says Jesus makes atonement for the world:  “[Christ] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).

This is why we commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion.  For we remember not only that Jesus was crucified, but why Jesus was crucified.  He was crucified not for His own sins, but for ours.  Jesus’ crucifixion did what no other crucifixion could do.  It saved us.  And that’s worth remembering…and celebrating.  And that’s why this Friday is not just any Friday, but a Good Friday.

______________________________

[1] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary:  Matthew 24-28 (Chicago:  The Moody Bible Institute, 1989), Matthew 27:27-37.

[2] m. Sanhedrin 6.2.

April 14, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Clothing the Naked

Arrest of Jesus

“The Taking of Christ” by Caravaggio, 1602

It must have been a terrifying ordeal.  The man who twelve men had followed, loved, learned from, and staked their lives on was being arrested by an angry mob, led by a man who used to be among their ranks:  Judas.  Mark depicts the scene like this:

Judas, one of the Twelve, appeared.  With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders.  Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”  Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Rabbi!” and kissed Him.  The men seized Jesus and arrested Him.  Then one of those standing near drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture Me?  Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest Me.  But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.”  Then everyone deserted Him and fled.   A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus.  When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind. (Mark 14:43-52)

This final detail about this young man who flees naked is unique to Mark’s Gospel, leading many scholars to believe that it may have been Mark himself who, overcome with fear, fled the scene.  But what is recorded here is more than an incidental historical detail.  What is recorded here is a tragic historical pattern:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as He was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”   He answered, “I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:8-10)

Mark wasn’t the first to flee the Lord naked and afraid.  Adam did too.

In the Bible, nakedness is often used as a symbol of shameful sin:

  • “Your nakedness will be exposed and your shame uncovered.  I will take vengeance; I will spare no one.” (Isaiah 47:3)
  • Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean.  All who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. (Lamentations 1:8)
  • “I am against you,” declares the LORD Almighty. “I will lift your skirts over your face.  I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.” (Nahum 3:5)

Sin and nakedness go hand in hand.  But the promise of Scripture is that when sin leaves us shamefully naked, Jesus clothes us with His righteousness:  “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of His righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10).  Even as we flee from the horror of the cross naked in sin, Jesus draws us back to His cross, covering our nakedness with His atoning blood.  The death on a cross that once caused everyone to flee now beckons all to its promise of salvation.  During this Holy Week, this is what we remember.  And this is what we believe.

March 25, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Holy Week

Every year, I receive many questions concerning the significance of Holy Week.  Because Holy Week began yesterday, I want to share with you a brief overview I wrote a couple of years ago covering the biblical basis, historical underpinnings, and common customs of this most sacred time of year.  May God bless you this week as you commemorate and celebrate Christ’s life, death, and ultimate, triumphant resurrection!

In retail, it’s the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. In college basketball, it’s the month of March. For the IRS, it’s April 15. We all have months, days, and moments which are especially poignant to us and fill our hearts with anticipation and excitement. For Christians, Holy Week is just such a time.

“Holy Week” is a term used to denote the final week of Jesus’ life. It holds a special place in a Christian’s heart, especially since the New Testament gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – devote more than one-third of their pages to this single week. Indeed, the gospels have sometimes been called “Passion stories with introductions.” Their focus is unmistakably on Jesus’ final week of life.

Holy Week began to occupy a prominent place in the Church’s life very early in history. The Apostolic Constitutions (a fourth century manual of church practice for pastors and bishops) calls Holy Week the “Great Week” and calls on Christians “to fast these six days”[1] in memory of Christ’s sufferings. The six days referred to here are Monday through Saturday of Holy Week.

Holy Week is highlighted by four high holy days: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. The Monday, Tuesday, and Saturday of Holy Week, though churches sometimes hold worship services on these days, are relatively minor in comparison to the others. Because of their significance in the life of Jesus, it is well worth it to consider each of the high holy days of this sacred week.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday recounts Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as He is welcomed by adoring throngs:

The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem. They took palm branches and went out to meet Him, shouting, “Hosanna!” “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.” (John 12:12-15)

Palms were a symbol of Jewish nationalistic pride. In 164 BC, after the Greek tyrant Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had persecuted and murdered many Jews, was defeated, the Jews waved palms in celebration of their victory. A history book from that time recounts Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ demise: “Carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success.”[2]

When Jesus comes riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the Jews are again being oppressed – not by Greeks, but by Romans. And so, the Jews break out their palms once more in the hope that Jesus might be the One to deliver them. Even their cry of “Hosanna” betrays their strident nationalism. “Hosanna” is from two Hebrew words: hosha, meaning “to save,” and nah, meaning “please.” Thus, the Jews cry to Jesus: “Save us please from our Roman oppressors!”

This scene of adoring crowds singing “Hosannas” captured the imagination of those in the ancient church. Dramatic reenactments of this scene were introduced in Spain, Gaul, and England, in the fifth, seventh, and eighth centuries respectively. Such reenactments continue in churches today, where congregants wave palm branches and sing, “All glory, laud, and honor, to You, Redeemer King!”

Maundy Thursday

The crowds of Palm Sunday may have loved Jesus, but the members of the religious establishment hated Him. Already on Palm Sunday, the religious leaders were plotting how they might silence Jesus. When they saw the palms and heard the crowds, they sniveled: “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after Him” (John 12:19)!

As the week progresses, the tension between Jesus and the religious leaders rises to a fever pitch. By Thursday, “Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love”(John 13:1). Jesus, knowing that He would soon die, demonstrates His love for His disciples in two ways. First, Jesus washes His disciples’ feet in an act of service to them (cf. John 13:1-17). Second, Jesus shares with His disciples a final meal:

Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way, after the supper He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:19-20)

On Maundy Thursday, churches throughout the world share Communion as a way of both remembering Jesus’ final meal with His disciples and solemnly rejoicing in how Christ comes to us modern-day disciples with His body and blood in, with, and under simple bread and wine for the forgiveness of our sins. As Jesus washed His disciples feet, some churches also include a foot-washing rite in their Maundy Thursday services as a reminder that our Lord “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

As Jesus has shown us love through His service to us and through the sharing of His body and blood with us, we are to show God’s love to others, even as Jesus commands shortly after He washes His disciples’ feet: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The Latin word for “command” is mandatum, from which the name “Maundy Thursday” is derived. Thus, Maundy Thursday is a day of love – the love that Christ has for us and the love in Christ that we have for each other.

Good Friday

The apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul says that Christ and His cross is the very center of the Christian message. Good Friday, then, the day on which Christ hung on a cross, is a most sacred day.

Because Good Friday is both sacred and solemn, it is traditionally a day of reflection. It is called “Good Friday” not because the suffering, scourging, ridiculing, and death which Christ endured was “good” in and of itself. These things were carried out by evil men. Rather, Good Friday is called “good” because of what these terrible things accomplished – the forgiveness of our sins. As Paul writes, “In Christ we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Ephesians 1:7).

Good Friday worship services take several forms. A popular late-medieval devotion known as the Way of the Cross has fourteen stations in which the events of Christ’s Passion are acted out in the streets of local communities. Worshippers proceed from one station to the next and remember Christ’s sacrifice for them. In the seventeenth century, a service spanning from noon to 3 pm, the hours during which Jesus was on the cross, became popular. This service usually focuses on the so-called “seven last words” of Jesus and includes devotions on each word. Then, in an evening service called Tenebrae, a Latin word meaning “shadows,” worshippers quietly reflect as candles are extinguished and lights are lowered over the course of the service until the sanctuary is completely blackened in remembrance of the dark day of Jesus’ death.

As somber a day as Good Friday is, it is not without a glimmer of hope. For we know that the darkness of evil and even death cannot overcome the light of hope that Christ has come to bring (cf. John 1:5).

Easter Sunday

The word “Easter” was originally a pagan word, referring to Austron, the Saxon goddess of fertility and sunrise, whose festival was celebrated in the spring. The eighth century scholar Saint Bede the Venerable explains how Saxon Christians commandeered the pagan name “Easter” and used it to refer to their celebrations of Christ’s resurrection.[3] Blessedly, the Church’s use of the word “Easter” has remained, while its pagan use has long since faded into the recesses of history. It is no surprise that Christian Easter celebrations have stood the test of time. After all, the Easter story is unforgettable and gripping:

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen!” (Luke 24:1-6)

Luke captures the excitement and unexpectedness of the scene. The women, finding Jesus’ tomb empty, wonder what could have happened. Even though Jesus had foretold His resurrection on multiple occasions (cf. Luke 9:22, 13:32, 18:33, 24:7), the idea that a man could rise from the dead was so over-the-top, the women failed to call to mind our Lord’s words. Indeed, they thought His body had been stolen (cf. John 20:15). But then a question from two men dressed in white snaps their attention to the reality of what has happened: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The angels accuse the women of being walking oxymorons. Looking for the living among the dead? That’s like writing an obituary instead of a birth announcement when you have a healthy, happy child. That’s like taking your spouse to divorce court on your wedding day. It makes no sense!

The resurrection of Christ was central to early Christian preaching and teaching. The apostle Paul explains:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 17-19)

Paul is crystal clear in his estimation of Christ’s resurrection. It is “of first importance.” It is so important, that if it is not true, all of Christianity is a ruse and we have no hope for eternity. Thus, on Easter, the Church both defends the historicity of Christ’s resurrection and celebrates its significance. For Christ’s resurrection is an historical guarantee of the promise that when Christ returns, we too will rise from the dead to share in eternity with our Lord.

The Church, over the centuries, has gloriously celebrated Easter. Many churches hold “Easter sunrise services” commonly beginning shortly before sunrise at approximately the time the women would have come to Christ’s empty tomb. Although not practiced by the early church, a tradition developed called an “Easter Vigil service.” This service takes place Saturday night and anticipates the coming resurrection of Christ.[4]

Traditionally, the worship services for Easter are the largest and loudest of the year. This is surely appropriate. For “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep…So in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 22). Christ’s resurrection is the hope of our resurrections!


[1] Ante Nicene Fathers, VII:45

[2] 2 Maccabees 10:7

[3] The Venerable Bede, De Ratione Temporum

[4] For more on the Easter Vigil, see Luther Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy 
(Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1947) 462-463.

April 2, 2012 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Holy Week Sorrow and Celebration

Right now in my personal devotions, I am reading through the book of Lamentations, a sorrowful song written by the prophet Jeremiah, which describes Israel’s defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Some of the language Jeremiah uses to describe Israel’s demise is grotesque and gut wrenching:

  • The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst. (Lamentations 4:4)
  • Their skin has shriveled on their bones; it has become dry as wood. (Lamentations 4:8)
  • The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people. (Lamentations 4:10)

Clearly, this is a tragic, despairing time.  Indeed, even for a professional prophet such as Jeremiah, who has seen much sin and tragedy, the despair of the exile seems overwhelming.  And Jeremiah places the blame for this despair squarely at the feet of God.

In chapter 3, Jeremiah laments his plight:

I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of His wrath; He has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me He turns His hand again and again the whole day long. He has made my flesh and my skin waste away; He has broken my bones; He has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation; He has made me dwell in darkness like the dead of long ago. He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; He has made my chains heavy; though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer; He has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; He has made my paths crooked. He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding; He turned aside my steps and tore me to pieces; He has made me desolate; He bent His bow and set me as a target for His arrow. He drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver; I have become the laughingstock of all peoples, the object of their taunts all day long. He has filled me with bitterness; He has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes. (Lamentations 3:1-16)

Notice the pronoun Jeremiah employs again and again to describe who is responsible for his misery: “He.”  “He” has brought Jeremiah misery, trouble, pain, and despair.  It’s “His” fault that Jeremiah’s plight is what it is.  Who is this “He”?  None other than God, of course.  God has afflicted Jeremiah in the most miserable of ways.

And yet, even in his misery, Jeremiah has not lost all hope: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:21-23).  Jeremiah believes that finally, ultimately, God’s steadfast love will prevail.  Indeed, it’s interesting the way Jeremiah describes this steadfast love just verses later:  “Though He cause grief, He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love; for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:32-33).  Though God does afflict and grieve people because of their sin, Jeremiah says, He does not willingly do so.  God’s will is not to pour out His hot wrath, but His steadfast love.  The Hebrew word for “willingly” is milibo, a word meaning, “from His heart.”  Thus, Jeremiah is saying that from God’s heart does not come affliction.  Rather, from God’s heart comes His steadfast love.  God’s will is wrapped in love.

Luther describes God’s wrath at sin and God’s will of love by making a distinction between the “alien” and the “proper” work of God:

We must know what is meant by the work of God. It is nothing else but to create righteousness, peace, mercy, truth, patience, kindness, joy, and health, inasmuch as the righteous, truthful, peaceful, kind, joyful, healthy, patient, merciful cannot do otherwise than act according to His nature. Therefore God creates righteous, peaceful, patient, merciful, truthful, kind, joyful, wise, healthy men…But He cannot come to this His proper work unless He undertakes a work that is alien and contrary to Himself…Therefore, since He can make just only those who are not just, He is compelled to perform an alien work in order to make them sinners, before He performs His proper work of justification. Thus He says, “I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal.” (AE 51:18-19)

God must judge us before He can justify us, Luther says.  His alien and His proper work go hand in hand.  Thus, both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in Jeremiah’s life.  And both God’s alien work of judgment and God’s proper work of love are needed in our lives too.  But lest we forget, through faith in Christ, God’s proper work prevails!

The alien and the proper work of God meet most clearly in the death and resurrection of Christ, which we remember during this Holy Week.  Luther explains:

God’s alien work is the suffering of Christ and sufferings in Christ, the crucifixion of the old man and the mortification of Adam. God’s proper work, however, is the resurrection of Christ, justification in the Spirit, and the vivification of the new man, as Romans 4:25 says: “Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification.” (AE 51:19)

God judges His Son on the cross, killing Him for the sins of the world.  This was not something He delighted in doing – it was alien to Him – but it was necessary.  For Christ’s crucifixion satisfied God’s righteous wrath at sinners…sinners like you and me (cf. Romans 3:25-26).  And with God’s wrath satisfied through Christ’s suffering and death on the cross, God could now move to His proper work:  Giving to His children His steadfast love which never ceases.

This Holy Week, spend some time meditating on both the alien and the proper work of God.  For both are needed.  But finally, one prevails!  For God’s work does not end in an alien way.  Rather, it ends in its proper way.  It ends in our salvation through faith in Christ.  Praise be to God!

April 19, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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