Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Grape #7: Holy Week Reflections

This Sunday is Easter, which means that this coming Saturday is Holy Saturday, this Friday is Good Friday, and this Thursday is Holy Thursday. Together, they make up the holiest days of the Christian calendar, and when we include this past Sunday (Palm Sunday), they are called "Holy Week".

Okay, so what does that mean to you? Well if you're not Christian, you're probably not even reading this. Assuming you are though, or at least curious enough to some level about why I'm writing this, Holy Week is really worth some heavy duty focus.

I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my faith and spirituality in the last few years, and I'm still not sure I believe that Jesus was God. I know, not exactly a kosher belief for a professed Christian. Here's how I look at it though: Jesus and God want me to be a good soul, a caring man, and a love-filled child of God more than they care what I believe. If getting into Heaven was like being hired at a new job, believing that Jesus is God incarnate is akin to putting your name above the first line instead of below it. It's an inconsequential edit, and whether we're right or wrong about what we believe, it's meaningless if we're the right person for the job.

So regardless of what you believe on that topic, I hope you and I can agree that Jesus was a pretty awesome dude. He preached love of God and neighbor as the supreme commandment, wined and dined with the so-called dredges of society, stood up to an angry mob and encouraged the one with the least amount of sins to throw that first stone, all while having people hate him and call him a bad person. Now that's awesome in my book. He didn't just show faith in the principles he taught. He lived them too.

On Thursday that week, Jesus celebrated the Passover dinner with his disciples one last time. He washed his disciples' feet to show them how important it was to always stay humble. Note there was no ring kissing or expensive palaces involved. He basically told everyone there that Judas was about to betray him. And he was right, of course. Judas went out, and for a few gold coins, turned Jesus in to the authorities. Peter tried to stop them, even brandishing a sword and chopping off a soldier's ear. Jesus healed the ear and chastised Peter not to live by the sword. Funny when you think of how simple Jesus made his teachings and how we just don't learn. Don't live by the sword, give to Caesar what is Caesar's, don't judge others if you aren't pure yourself. Simple stuff really.

In the garden that night, Jesus is said to have prayed that he be spared of this fate (his pending death the next day). He was human after all. And yet not even Jesus' prayers were answered. C. S. Lewis put it best: "In Gethsemane, the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed."

The trial was pretty short. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus if he really was the king of the Jews, as people called him. "You said it, not me," was his response. He wasn't trying to be a smart-ass; he was literally just telling the guy that he never said that, other people were just saying it about him. Pilate washed his hands of the situation, in a signal that he didn't want to be blamed for killing an innocent man. He had the power to stop it, but he let it happen. History and scripture tell us Jesus spent about three hours on the cross before he died.

And why do we call this day "Good"? Because Jesus gave up his life on purpose, to show us all he had that much confidence in the Heaven that awaited him. Like a parent jumping in the pool to prove to their child that the water is safe, or eating a vegetable to show them it tasted good, Jesus gave up his life on purpose to show his disciples that he knew Paradise awaited him. John the Baptist had exclaimed upon seeing Jesus, "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" The Gospel authors and other New Testament writers speak of Jesus as dying for our sins, sacrificing himself, God sacrificing his only son for our sins. I'm not sure why it should matter how such an expulsion of sin would take place. What matters is that Jesus preached that we "go and sin no more", but he also said to the thief on the cross next to him that he would be with him that day in paradise. How this particular theology works or how you believe it is less important than how you live it. Know what Jesus did: that sin can be erased if we believe it can be, and paradise is a real place we can really go to when we die.

It makes sense that we have this in-between day. In Jesus' time as in ours, Saturday was the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week when God rested after creating all. As Jesus was meant to die on Friday and rise from the dead on Sunday, what was he doing on Saturday? Catching his breath? Catching up with dear old dad in Heaven before spending 40 last days on Earth? Maybe just "resting" in peace to honor the Sabbath? It's a mystery. More importantly, it doesn't matter. What matters is it gives us a day to reflect on the mysterious before and after, to be surrounded by the power of the divine. We "keep holy" this Sabbath before Easter when we use it to reflect on the unknowable, the amazing secrets we're not meant to know in this human life.


And finally the sun rises, as does the son. Christians wake up on Easter Sunday and celebrate the greatest miracle imaginable to any human being ever in the history of our planet: the conquering of death itself. Lent is over and Lenten resolutions for things given up can go back to normal. "Alleluia" can be sung once more at church. Pastel Easter colors are everywhere. And all because Jesus showed us that death is not really the end, just a new beginning.

It's the culmination of Holy Week, but of course more than that it's the culmination of Jesus' ministry on Earth, which lasted maybe three years in all. What better of an ending can this story have than to have Jesus kick back that boulder and exclaim, "I'm baaack!" Of course that's not what he did at all. Instead of showing up at Pilate's door and amazing everyone with his return, Jesus just appeared to his disciples. It would be up to them to tell others what happened in and after his life on Earth. Some will believe and some will not. People will just have to have a little faith.