1. Questions of Identity
The season of Lent is brought to an end with the beginning of Holy Week which starts with Palm Sunday; the joyful procession of Jesus into Jerusalem. When an important person visits a town or city, there is a lot of organisation to be done before hand; the route needs to be prepared and security checked, venues have to be cleared, itineraries and photo opportunities are planned to the second. The more important the person, the more disruption to the locals. EU summits, G8 conferences and state visits are prime examples. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was to be no exception.
Three years of ministry had gained Him a large following and a large amount of critics and He was unable to go to the towns without attracting huge crowds. It was a massive inconvenience for the apostles who spent time trying to organise food, maintain orderly queues and provide transport for Him. When Jesus was to enter Jerusalem for the last time, it was to celebrate the Passover and the city would have been full; this was going to be a difficult one to pull off.
Imagine Aladdin entering Agrabah as Prince Ali for the first time for the pomp and ceremony that would have been going through the Apostles heads because for them this was the victory parade. Jesus had made clear this would be the start of the end and the beginning of His kingdom on earth. The Apostles understood this as claiming the kingship and setting them free from Roman rule. The people were expecting this, palms at the ready and coats taken off to lay before Him in the manner of a king. Jesus was finally going to reveal who He truly was!
The question of Jesus identity is at the very core of His ministry and of the problem Christianity poses us. During His temptations, the devil twice prefixes the temptations with”If you are the Son of God”. Jesus had to truly believe He was the Son of God; an identity crisis leading to a difficult decision is one we can all relate to. He faced those questions that cut to the core of who He was and after overcoming them, the angels came and ministered to Him, reinforcing this truth.
The disciples and those Jesus met continually questioned His identity, giving Him many names, some pleasant, others not so; Son of David, Master, Joseph’s son, Son of Man, Elijah, Holy One of God and Beelzebub to name a few. No one knew what to make of Him, He did not fit into any box they had in their minds. The Messiah was supposed to come to bring freedom and justice, but He preached mercy and forgiveness. The Son of David broke the laws of the Jews and yet maintained He did not come to change one dot of them. He performed miracles only God could do and yet associated with those outcast from society. He was a complete set of contradictions and paradoxes that logic could not explain!
So when Jesus speaks of the hour being near, his disciples are understandably excited. This was to be it; the big reveal, the moment they will finally know who this man they had given their lives to truly was! The word would have spread and the crowds were gathered, the talking would be over and the truth would be revealed. When Jesus tells them to go and get a donkey to ride in on, it may raise a few eyebrows, but He has been unconventional all this time so why change now? A King riding a donkey is not going to send the majestic image the marketing team required, but this was it.
His kingdom, His ways, His thoughts are not our ways or our thoughts. They are the completion of the plan that was started at the beginning. They are the truth and beyond our logical mindset. If we could work it out, then where would the mystery and the excitement be? The people came out to welcome as king someone who rode on a donkey, an enemy of the religious elite who was coming to celebrate the main religious feast of the year, someone who was about to turn the world upside down!
2. On A Different Level
Last year, Pope Francis washed the feet of 12 asylum seekers outside of Rome on Maundy Thursday. They were Muslim, Hindus and Christians, men and women and did not need to have their feet washed, but the act was a symbolic remembrance of Jesus’ actions during His celebration of Passover. It is a strange act to understand in a culture where wearing shoes is the norm, but was also difficult for the Apostles to comprehend.
At a time when sandals were worn, feet were regularly in need of cleaning and so the act was one of a necessary, if unpleasant physical service. Peter’s understanding belonged at this level and after overcoming his uncomfortable feeling of Jesus washing his feet, asked to have his head and hands washed as well! It was a sacrificial act more appropriate for a servant than a rabbi. It involved getting down on your knees and overcoming any physical inhibitions that may occur when dealing with other people’s feet.
Yet Jesus makes light of Peter’s request, saying one who is clean already does not need a bath and draws light to a deeper understanding of this simple act. Pope Francis says we are all children of the same God and share the same brotherhood. By washing the feet of his Apostles, Jesus has put Himself on the same level as us to share in our brotherhood. St Paul says Jesus did not cling to His equality with God, but emptied Himself to be as a servant. He came down from His throne to share in our humanity. He was showing us the nature of God.
By washing His disciples feet, Jesus revealed that God wants to join with us where we are. He wants to share the joys and sufferings, the hopes and fears, the love that is present in being human. He lowered himself to our level, to set himself alongside us, rather than above us, to lead as a brother rather than as a dictator. When He wrapped the towel around His waist, He shows us that God wants to have an intimate relationship with us.
One of the beauties of Christianity is a God that we can be close to. A God whose hands hung stars in space and whose hands have washed our feet. A God who brings life into being and whose chest we can recline on as John did during the Last Supper. A God who brings the dead back to life and who cries with His friends when their brother dies. He changes our perceptions and our relationship with Him by working on a different level.
His act of washing our feet gives us a solution to many problems in our world. It allows us to see each person, whether they agree with us or not, as a brother in humanity. Jesus washed all His disciples feet even Judas who was to betray Him, making no distinctions for those who need to feel the intimacy of God. This inclusivity breaks down the walls that we erect through demonising others and stereotyping those we do not know. It draws us into compassion for those suffering in places we are not familiar with.
This servant’s act can only be undertaken with humility and a setting aside of titles and power that come with being a leader. It is in direct contrast to the pride and power that leaders are prone to have as they lord over those who they are supposed to serve. All of us need this humility to remember no servant is greater than his master. This is not a new issue as Jesus warned His disciples about it, but is a stark reminder of the dangers of holding leadership.
It also reveals again the love that is held by Jesus for us. The whole celebration of the Passover meal is the final time that Jesus will spend with His disciples before He dies. He chooses to spend it sharing a meal, talking to them, serving them and enjoying being with them. He desires this intimate love filled relationship with us and asks us to remember Him in the same way in the Eucharist at church each week.
So when we read the story of Jesus washing His disciples feet or see our priest doing it in church or read about Pope Francis’ choices this year, look beyond the menial cleaning and see the One who is sent by God to join us on our level to share intimately with us in a deep loving relationship regardless of whether we deserve it or not.
3. The Ultimate Paradox
Good Friday appears to be the worst named festival on the Christian calendar. The brutal crucifixion of an innocent man who had made the blind see, the lame walk and brought people back from the dead was a major miscarriage of justice. The fact it was brought about by a betrayal by one of His closest friends and followed by the subsequent abandonment of the majority of the rest of His friends only adds weight to the case against this inappropriate name. The fact that Christianity then takes the cross, a symbol of torture and execution, as its main image only adds to the madness. It made no sense even at the beginning.
St Paul describes a crucified Christ as a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. It makes no sense that the Messiah who came to save His people should submit to this painful, humiliating, public death. One who has power over death itself could easily have stopped this at any moment by calling an army of angels to save Him if He truly was the Son of God. This was not how it was suppose to end. Logic dictates that a story of victory should not end with the death of its hero. It signifies weakness and suffering in vain that does not look like winning. Human wisdom would suggest this is a story of tragic failure rather than victory. How could this possibly represent a “good” day?
On this day, after the celebration of the Passover meal with His friends, Jesus faced His darkest moments. He suffers in mental turmoil, sweating blood and tears as He comes to terms with what is about to happen; a mental and emotional distress that is all too common in our day. He is betrayed by a kiss as soldiers come to forcibly take him away, hurt by those He held dear. He is tried by the religious court, a victim of pride and power hungry elders, abused by those who claim to worship the same God. He is handed over to Romans who torture him in a brutal and violent manner while releasing a murderer; a fate suffered by many across the world today. He is publically humiliated, rejected and excluded by those He loved and called His own. Finally He is killed in the most painful way, bearing the scorn and hate of those who do not know Him.
Richard Rohr makes the observation that these events encompass the majority of the sins in our world; abuse, exclusion and violence. These being the worst that humanity can do to each other and Jesus takes them all upon Himself. He opens Himself to freely receiving them without retribution or retaliation, but suffers in a way only a human can suffer. The Son of the all powerful God suffered just like we do. It does not answer the paradox of why God allows suffering, but gives us the strength that we uniquely have a God who knows what it is like to suffer. He has been there and is there with us in those moments or days or years when we inevitably will suffer. It may not bring relief to the suffering but gives us comfort in our darkest moments.
Christian traditions speaks of laying our burdens down at the foot of the cross because Jesus has borne all our crosses and can help us as we bear ours. This does not mean we should stand by and let others suffer, not lifting a finger to alleviate their pain, but means we have someone who we can turn to, who understands our pain, who cries alongside us. We have a God whose heart and body bear the scars of being human in the same way we do, a God who can relate to us in every way which is unbelievably amazing. It is incredible to think that the One who created the universe has felt the same sufferings we have which can only be a good thing.
Yet why did He do it? Why subject Himself to this just to be able to empathise with us? It comes down partly to the whole purpose of His ministry: to reveal God to us. In His willing acceptance of all that was thrown at Him, he offered forgiveness not condemnation, mercy not revenge, faithfulness not rejection, love not hate. He suffered it all to let us know how much we are loved. St Paul again says no man has greater love than to lay down his life for his friends and yet He died for us while we were still sinners. Christian tradition says He would have undergone all of this even if it was just for one of us. It is an ultimate act of attention seeking behaviour, to get our attention, to let us know that He loves us. This revelation of true love is definitely good and yet it is not the end of the story!
4. Everything Has Changed
After Jesus’ body had been placed in the tomb on Good Friday, Holy Saturday gave us time to breath and reflect on what has happened. For the disciples, this reflection lead to fear and hiding, the end of an exciting adventure that had started with such hope and was now ended in the cruellest fashion. The religious elders and Romans had suppressed their little uprising, sacrificing one man for the good of the people to maintain the status quo.
Everything was supposed to go back to normal, everyone was supposed to know their place again. It had been a dangerous message; a God who loves us unconditionally, forgives everyone and dies for us even when we are sinners. It was a message that could change the world, overturn the power structures and bring hope to those with none. It had to be stopped. The elders knew this and took the unprecedented step of having the tomb guarded by Roman soldiers as well. This had to end now before it really got out of control.
Yet on that first Easter morning, Mary is faced with an empty tomb. There are no soldiers, no stone, no body to be found and she is faced with a reality that changes everything. Jesus was no longer dead and was alive again. It had been done before; Lazarus and Jairus’ daughter were both brought back to life, but this was different. This was a victory that could be shared by all humanity.
Humanity in its very nature is united by a start and end point; you are born and you die. A lot happens in between but this is common to all, rich and poor alike. It is unavoidable. The mystery of life concerning why we are here is mirrored in the question of what happens after we die. In the Easter story, this question has an unavoidable answer; life carries on. Not in a way that has yet been revealed, but in a glorified, redeemed way, the way it was first imagined, the way we were meant to be.
It is a revelation that should bring hope and joy into the hearts of every person. Death is not the end, it is merely a gateway into something greater. It is our journey into eternity, our path to heaven. We get glimpses of the kingdom of God on earth, but the eternal feast of the Lamb where every tear is wiped away and swords are turned into ploughshares is our ultimate goal. The world is renewed and we can experience the fullness of God’s love for eternity. It is incredibly liberating and exciting and is something to be shared with others.
Although the historical evidence for the existence of Jesus is strong, a recent poll found 23% of Christians do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. This is a worrying sign. St Paul writes that without the resurrection, Christians are a people to be pitied above all others. Without the resurrection, our hope is still constrained by death, we are still enslaved to this ultimate suffering. Our God is limited in His power to save us and the life we live, with all its struggles and suffering is all there is. The resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity; it is the ultimate sign that Jesus is the Son of God and is the source of our joy, hope and faith. Without it, the story ends.
The empty tomb faces each one of us and poses a question to each one of us which cannot be ignored; it is completely unavoidable and has to be faced. You can choose to dismiss it, believe the body was stolen, claim the stories of sightings are fabrications. You can say the people who gave their lives to spread this message were deluded, tricked and manipulated. You can say that it has only spread due to powerful institutions imposing it upon the common people. You can dismiss the miracles as placebos and the lives changed as stories of the strength of human nature. You can choose to say death is the end and religion is there to make life easier.
Or you can choose to believe Jesus rose from the dead, that the final victory is won. You can choose to believe that as Jesus walked out of that tomb, the sun rose on a whole new world. You can choose to believe that God has the power over everything even death. You can choose to see that love is the driving force of life. You can choose to live with this hope and joy in your heart that makes you want to share it with those you love. You can choose a God who walks with us, suffers with us, dies with us and rises with us. You can choose to see that everything has changed.