Tag Archives: Easter

Forsaken

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At 3 o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud shout, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, which means, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

There is a mystery behind this cry of Jesus from the Cross that we have not been able to penetrate. It is almost impossible to imagine Jesus utterly forsaken by God. We ask – how could it be? Jesus, always so sure of the presence of his Father God, how could it be that he should feel so abandoned by Him, just at the moment he needed Him most? In the course of my ministry I have watched people die and sometimes not without considerable suffering. There has been on their faces a light and a peace that spoke more eloquently than any words of assurance promising that God does not forsake us even as we draw our last breath; that He may be closer to us in death than we have been aware of him in life.

We are surprised and puzzled by those words of dereliction that reach out from the Cross. Very difficult to explain. So difficult some people say those words could never have crossed the lips of Jesus, that the writer of the Gospel, to make the quotation from Psalm 22 more palatable, has deliberately inserted it in the editing of the Gospel with the intent of giving it a more dramatic ring to impress upon the reader and listener how much was the cost of our salvation to Jesus. In one early manuscript, for example, the words are altered and read Why hast thou taunted me? The explanation for this change is that the copyist took offence at the words of the orthodox translation and edited it for what he considered a more appropriate utterance. There are biblical scholars who solve the problem with the theory that, since it is impossible to think of Jesus being left in the lurch by his Father God, the quotation from Psalm 22, this cry of dereliction, was appended to the story of the Cross by the Gospel writers to underpin the sentiment encapsulated in the words of a well-known hymn: what pains He had to bear and it was for us He hung and suffered there. Well, maybe to quote from the same hymn – we may not know, we cannot tell.

You knew something was troubling my old landlady when you heard her quietly reciting the words of Psalm 23 – The Lord’s my Shepherd, a favourite passage of Scripture for her because, she explained to me, of its soothing and assuring effect, it lifted her up! Perhaps Jesus was similarly reciting the Psalm to ease the pain, the agony of it all. Who knows? Dr Vincent Taylor, Principal of Wesley College when I was a student, presented the evidence for and against the authenticity of this saying of Jesus, and said: It is improbable that tradition would have assigned to Jesus such a saying, except under warrant of past testimony. What he is saying is that, for a moment or two, as He hung on the Cross, Jesus did have a feeling of being abandoned, not only by His nation and His friends, but even by His Heavenly Father.

Advertisements

Celebration

Easter Lilies-Lilium longiflorum

Easter Lilies by Cliff from Arlington, VA. [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D via Wikimedia Commons

Across the world two Sundays ago the majority of Christians gathered in churches, many of them gaily decorated with appropriate banners and, even more delightful to the eye, a gorgeous colourful display of spring flowers. Bells will have pealed their clarion chimes, with organ and voices attempting to raise the roof with their resounding songs of praise. In my earlier days of ministry it was not unusual for choir and guest soloist to perform a favourite cantata at this momentous time in the Christian year. Children played their part, they came in their new attire to celebrate the Anniversary of Sunday School. In more recent times, if you could overcome your inhibitions, you might swing a bit trying to keep up to the rhythm of the praise band. For Christians, Easter Sunday is the most glorious day of the year. A time to celebrate, Christ risen, Jesus alive – as close to us as he was to his broken mystified disciples that first Easter Day. Nowadays we tend to be more restrained in our worship at Eastertide, the format more or less the norm for an ordinary Sunday. However, drop in to any church on the great day and it could not be mistaken for anything other than Easter worship, the hymns alone would guarantee it and maybe a vase of white lilies competing with the Cross for a space on the Communion Table.

As I look back on my pilgrim way I recall occasions when I fondly imagined that living life with Jesus, side by side, face to face, in those far distant days in Palestine would have been much easier than my constant struggle. Hymns for younger people certainly encouraged that perspective; seeing him, being with him. Here is a line from one of them, “I would like to have been with him then!” James Simpson in one of his regular columns for the Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work, reckons that the day after the crucifixion, was a very dark one for the followers of Jesus. Peter J. Gomes, an American pastor and preacher, who died a short time ago, speaks much along the same lines; his theme the first disciples and Easter. Their Easter Day, he contends, was far less impressive than ours; their Easter Day was much duller than ours. There were no trumpets on their Easter Day, their Easter Day was far less compelling than ours and the other side of Easter saw them locked behind closed doors, afraid and utterly confused.

Now what if that was how they had remained – self acknowledged failures? What if Easter had meant the end of an exciting venture under the leadership of a charismatic and beloved brother, Jesus? Did God have some other plan? We will never know, happily no contingency plan was needed, a fact that shapes and colours our worship, not only on Easter Day. What we tend to forget is that each time we cross the threshold of our meeting place on a Sunday we are gathered to celebrate the joy and glory of Easter!

On the first day of the week, when the disciples were behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them “Peace be with you,” he said. (John 20: 19).

Coping with grief

“Mary stood crying outside the tomb.” The Gospel of John 20.11

Mary Magdalene by Bellini Image credit: Yorck Project

Mary Magdalene by Bellini
Image credit: Yorck Project

Many clergy will not forget the first funeral at which they officiated. I remember mine and how ill-equipped I was to deal with it. Granted I was young and my life story scarcely begun. A young woman was widowed in tragic circumstances. The death of her husband was tragic and unexpected and she was angry; angry at the injustice of it; angry with God. It grieved me to watch her hurting. At the time, I did not appreciate that God allows for our anger. I spent time talking to her, reasoning with her, assuring her of faith’s promise to us when we find ourselves trying to negotiate the journey through “the valley of the shadow”; trying to remember what I was taught in theological college about the pastoral care of my “flock” who were broken-hearted and sorely grieving – to no avail. On reflection she had ample cause to be angry with me.

“The patience of Job” is a saying in vogue more likely by the elderly than any others, many of whom would be surprised that Job is not always as patient as the saying makes him out to be. I hazard a guess; there might be surprise to be informed that the story of Job is to be found in the Old Testament. The story of a man’s desperate cry for relief; a man for whom life had ceased to have meaning. Stricken with physical and mental anguish he could find no reason for his fate. He wishes he were dead. Instead of giving birth to him, he wishes his mother had miscarried or that he had been still-born. “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (Job 3: 11 -12) Job had friends who, hearing him curse the day he was born and the night of his conception, tried to help him – to comfort him. Job was asking: why is God doing this to me? The friends thought it would help best to explain why God was doing it. That was their mistake. It was also mine! Like Job, my friend was not ready for, or interested in, a theological rationalisation of her dilemma. In those early years of ministry I learned that, to share another’s grief, words are often futile and unnecessary. A quiet, caring presence can be more therapeutic, more of a blessing than a well-intentioned homily.

Among the close friends of Jesus there was more than one Mary. His mother was Mary AND there was the interesting and enigmatic character – Mary Magdalene (Mary Magdala). From a historical point of view the information about Mary Magdalene (as indeed for the other Marys too) is slender. Who was she? What was her background? How did she become the close, intimate friend of Jesus? What role did she have in the disciple group? Interesting questions and equally fascinating suggestions, some of which were listed in a report in the Methodist Recorder of a BBC television documentary focussing on the life of Mary and hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Questions were asked; answers sought. Was she a prostitute? Was she a wealthy widow of independent means? Did she have a mental illness? Did she wash Jesus’ feet with her tears? Which of the speculative answers circulating throughout the centuries are fact rather than fiction, if any? Truth is, we cannot be certain – Mary remains somewhat of a mystery! Once upon a time I was perfectly content to hold to the idea that she was both a one-time prostitute and the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Today? I don’t know – it’s a topic about which I keep an open mind. Biblical scholars assure me of one thing about of which I can be certain: to Mary belongs the glory of being the first person to see the Risen Christ.

On the first Easter Morning, Mary goes to the garden and the tomb where Jesus was laid to pay her respects to her Master and Friend. She stands outside the tomb weeping. The tomb – empty! Jesus – absent! The scene preserved in the gospel portrays her as bewildered, distraught, broken-hearted, afraid. The full story of the Resurrection told by the Gospel writers indicates unmistakably how much, and how deeply, she would grieve for him. We are able also, reading between the lines and using our imagination, to monitor Mary coping with her grief. And some minor certainties emerge from Mary’s story. They can help us cope when it is our turn to grieve.

What are they? There is no shame in grief. Questions lead to answers. Doubt can pave the way to faith. Fear is not sin. Tears are allowed. And the major one? Mary Magdalene came to her disciple friends with her glorious news and testimony: “I have seen the Lord” she said. Mary was anxious to have a factual explanation of what happened to Jesus whom she mourned deeply. Mary stood weeping outside at the tomb – there stood with her One who conquered death and turns the night of mourning into the morning of gladness. The Risen, Living Lord, who doesn’t argue or even preach – who says, “PEACE BE WITH YOU.”

Welcome Eastertide

Judy Garland – remember her?  If you are a certain age, you will!  And – the song?  “Put on your Easter bonnet, with all the ribbons on it …. and join the Easter Parade.”   Easter is special in the song; the occasion for a grand parade.  Join the crowd, follow the band, dress up with your Easter Bonnet and all the ribbons on it.  But that was a film made in Hollywood!  When do you see women in hats with ribbons these days?  Or, for that matter, without ribbons?  At a wedding – maybe – but at Easter!  Well, hat or no hat, Easter is a happy festival occasion, a time for celebration in Church.  A time for ”euphonium, trombone and big bass drum”.  Although I didn’t always appreciate it when I was rudely aroused from my slumbers at 7 a.m. on Easter Sunday morning; woken by the Findochty Salvation Army band parading past my bedroom window, flag a-flying, big drum beating, heralding the event, proclaiming the good news,” Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia!”

The Way of the Cross at SunsetSource: Wikimedia Commons

The Way of the Cross at Sunset
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fred Pratt Green, the Methodist 20th Century hymn-writer gives his hymn, ‘This joyful Eastertide’  the refrain: Come, share our Easter joy, That death could not imprison,  Nor any power destroy, Our Lord who is arisen.’  But it wasn’t much like that at the dawn of the first Easter morning.  When news of the Resurrection broke, we can only imagine the anger and consternation it must have caused those who engineered the events of Good Friday. Even the close friends of Jesus were disturbed and perturbed by it.  Their response to the news that Christ was risen was slow, almost reluctant.  The women who visited the tomb were distressed, terrified, completely at a loss.  Mary was in tears.  There were many bizarre ways to explain the disappearance of a dead body – resurrection the least likely.  Thomas, the disciple, was not with his friends when the Risen Jesus was with them.  When given the news, it was all too fantastic for words – to be taken with a pinch of salt.  Later still, the Apostle Paul doing a stint of open-air preaching on Mars Hill in Athens must have been disappointed if he expected a rapturous reception.  The crowd listened respectfully at first – until he mentioned the resurrection, then a section of his hearers began to mock him.  Paul also found it difficult to convince the Church of the mystery and glory of the resurrection.  But, preach it he must; he is convinced that, “ If Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe.”  (strong stuff! 1 Corinthians, 15.14)

Good News BiblePaul, anxious to communicate and share the joy and assurance of Easter, acknowledging the need of some further explanation, writes in his correspondence with the church at Colossae – if you think of your baptism you will begin to understand the significance of resurrection and penetrate its mystery. ( Colossians 2.12; cf also Romans 6.4.)  In Paul’s day baptism would probably be mostly by total immersion in water The candidate would step into the water, probably a river and an Apostle (or some other) would plunge the convert completely under the water. In fact ‘to baptise’ is the translation of a Greek word meaning ‘to plunge.’  Paul’s linking of baptism with resurrection is simply that, apart from it being the rite of admission to the church, baptism was symbolically like dying and rising again. To be plunged under water was like being buried In the grave; when you rose out of the water – like rising from the grave.

What Paul is saying directs us to the very heart of the Easter message; when we are baptised we die with Christ and we are raised to new life with Him!  We are not meant to take it literally – we cannot go back in time or go through the awful pain and agony of crucifixion or put ourselves in the shoes of Jesus’ friends standing at the entrance to an empty tomb that first Easter morning. One more thing that ties the two together – baptism and resurrection:  in the first days of Christendom baptism was usually associated with a personal confession of faith.  Interesting as it may be to speculate, to debate, to posses a shelf full of theological tomes, the Easter message is to be believed rather than talked about.   Easter faith is not the preserve of one day in the year only, it is the faith in which Christians daily live. We are the Easter people.  Let us rejoice as Fred Pratt Green’s hymn  invites . . . . . . . . .  share our Easter joy!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Welcome Eastertide
Source: Wikimedia Commons