Via Dolorosa

Tomorrow, (Sunday, March 29th), marks the beginning of Holy Week—a time of heightened reflection as Easter approaches. (My post from this time last year describes the events of Holy Week, in case you are interested.)

Some churches hang “Stations of the Cross” during this season as visual reminders of Jesus’ steps as He was led out of Jerusalem to be crucified. Each station portrays an event from the time Jesus was convicted to when He was laid in the tomb.

Stations of the Cross are often made of wood, metal, or stone and are placed one after the other on the walls of a church’s nave so that worshippers can “walk with the Savior” through the last moments of His ministry on earth. This “path” is traditionally referred to (in Latin) as Via Dolorosa, which translated means “Way of Sorrow,” “Way of Suffering,” or “Way of Grief.”

The stations can range in number from nine to fifteen. Why such a range? Some versions incorporate legendary, extra-biblical events, such as Jesus falling multiple times or a woman (Veronica) wiping His face. This is where being (or becoming!) familiar with the eyewitness accounts recorded in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) comes in handy.

Duke Chapel in Durham, North Carolina, hangs Stations of the Cross in its vaulted nave. Haitian artist John Sylvestri created these relief sculptures—fourteen in all—from recycled oil drums.

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In the vaulted nave of Duke Chapel, Stations of the Cross hang beneath the stained glass windows. (Durham, NC)

For several years now, I’ve walked the Stations. Although Duke Chapel’s collection uses the aforementioned “creative” (a.k.a. extra-biblical) license, I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—when I come to one of those, I simply move on to the next station.

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Station 12 depicts Jesus dying on the cross.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. — I Peter 2:24 (ESV)

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Station 14, Jesus is laid in the tomb.

Walking the Stations of the Cross does not in and of itself confer special blessings, but the “journey” can be spiritually edifying. Reflecting on these last moments of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth might raise the question, “Why did He walk this way?”

The short answer—and the response upon which each of our lives personally hang—is this: Every one of us fails to keep God’s Law (i.e. the Ten Commandments) perfectly. I fail. (Translated: I sin.) Respectfully, so do you. We need a sinless Savior. Jesus was—and is, and always will be—that perfect solution. (He is fully God, but He is also fully man.) He suffered and died the death that each one of us deserves. He sacrificed His life so that we could live forever. Believe that, and we will. Believe that, and we will fall on our knees, repentant, begging God our Creator to forgive us of our sins. And He will.

Holy Week is a good time to reflect, prayerfully and thankfully, on Jesus Christ’s suffering on our behalf. Come Easter Sunday, sorrow will be turned to joy in celebration of the risen Savior.

Blessings to you during this Holy Week.

Reflections on Holy Week & Easter

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“The Last Supper Of Our Lord Jesus Christ” — illustration: The Holy Bible, 1938 edition

I was 30 years old when I first heard the expression “Maundy Thursday.” At first, it sounded like my co-worker was saying “Monday Thursday.”

I was well acquainted with Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter, but terms like “Maundy Thursday,” “Holy Week” and “Christ’s Passion” were not part of the religious language used in the Brethren church where I grew up…or even in the Baptist churches I had been attending since college. (Nor had The Passion of the Christ movie hit the silver screen yet, at which time some of these expressions entered into the consciousness of mainstream culture.)

My co-worker took the time to explain the meaning behind some of these phrases, and I soon realized that we were speaking the same language—just using different terminology. What came out of that conversation was not so much the “labels,” but rather the spiritual hunger that is satisfied through reverencing and reflecting upon the week that we are now entering: a week that really happened and that is recorded for us, (as inspired, eyewitness accounts), in the Bible.

With that thoughtfulness and reverence in mind, I’d like to offer a high-level timeline of the last week of Christ’s life for reflection. This is by no means an exhaustive list of events and theological observations. God’s Word is inexhaustible and the life of Christ can best be read and studied there. Additionally, there are several fine resources that go into greater detail than my blog post will, and I provide links to a couple of these faithful and instructive resources at the end of my post.

…This life-giving, life-changing Holy Week journey of our Blessed Savior begins on:

Psalm Sunday
Palm Sunday (sometimes referred to as Passion Sunday) commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem five days before He was crucified.

Christ entered the city at the same time that Jews were making their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover festivities. This is significant because Jesus, the Lamb of God, was beginning His final journey to His preordained “altar of wood” as the Sacrifice for mankind.

Jesus was greeted by the loud praises of a large crowd waving palm branches in His honor and calling Him “Son of David”—their long-awaited Messiah and Heir to the throne of King David. Their words of praise were derived from the Psalms. Their shouts of Hosanna! were cries to “Save us!”[2]

All four Gospels record this event, (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1- 11; Luke 19:29-44; John 12:12-19), and it is the fulfillment of several Old Testament prophecies. For example, Zechariah 9:9 foretells that Jesus would arrive in Jerusalem on a donkey.

Monday
On Monday, Jesus cleansed the temple as prophesied in Malachi 3:1-5. (The previous day, He had inspected and observed the activities of the temple.)

Jesus saw that genuine worship had been disrupted and that the temple had turned from “a house of prayer for all the nations” to a “den of robbers” who were lining their pockets (Mark 11:17). Specifically, merchants were selling animals for the Passover sacrifices right in the outer court of the temple, and moneychangers were charging high exchange rates to travelers who needed to exchange their money for the local currency. Christ was outraged. His response set forth the proper attitude of worship for both then and now: He is the focus of our prayers and the focus of our service.

Tuesday
On Tuesday, Jesus returned to the temple and faced the religious authorities, namely the scribes and Pharisees who had been entrusted as stewards but were failing miserably in the sacred duties entrusted to them. They were more focused on outward appearance and laying heavy burdens of manmade rules on top of God’s good commandments as opposed to sincerely addressing that never-ending battle with sin that must be attacked with (and only with) the full teaching of God’s Word. Matthew 23 records the “seven woes” that Jesus pronounced against them. These woes stand in contrast to the blessings (or Beatitudes) that Jesus promised (during His earlier ministry) will be God’s gracious gifts to the truly repentant.

Later in the day on Tuesday, Jesus and his disciples ventured outside the city to the Mount of Olives, where Jesus delivered His Olivet Discourse concerning the end times. This discourse can be found most extensively in Matthew 24:1 – 25:46, but is also recorded in Mark 13:1-37 and Luke 21:5-36.

Wednesday
Scripture does not record what took place on this day, but I trust that it would not be adding to the biblical account to say that preparation was being made—both seen and unseen to human eyes—for what was to come. This day is sometimes referred to as Silent Wednesday.

Maundy Thursday
Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday) reflects upon the events in the Upper Room the night before Jesus died. These Upper Room events are described in Matthew 26:20-30, Mark 14:17-26, Luke 22:14-35, and John 13–17: namely, the eating of the Passover meal, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, some of Jesus’ last words, and His washing the feet of the disciples.

Maundy Thursday marks the last day of Lent (also referred to as the Lenten fast, or Lententide). Although there is some disagreement over the origins of the word “maundy,” most scholars agree that “maundy” is derived from the Latin “Mandatum novum,” which means “a new commandment,” and refers to Jesus’ words in John 13:34: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (ESV)

The Supper that Jesus shared with His disciples in the Upper Room began as the traditional Passover meal—which typically consisted of a sacrificed lamb, unleavened bread, bitter herbs with puree sauce, and wine—but by the end of the evening, Jesus had transformed this commemorative event into a “new meal”: the Lord’s Supper, a meal of forgiveness and salvation fulfilled in and fully offered to us through the breaking of His body (the bread) and the spilling of His blood (the wine). This celebration, which has been observed by Christians ever since, reminds us of His death on our behalf and points to the future hope of the marriage feast of the Lamb in Christ’s eternal kingdom of glory.

Most Maundy Thursday services emphasize (and celebrate) the Lord’s Supper—because it was on this night that Jesus instituted it. At the end of the service, the altar is often stripped in preparation for Good Friday. This symbolizes Christ being stripped by the Roman soldiers prior to His crucifixion. Some churches, going as far back as ancient times, also perform a foot washing ceremony in memory of Christ washing His disciples’ feet. [2] (A bit of denominational trivia: In the Grace Brethren church where I grew up, we washed one another’s feet during every Lord’s Supper, not just at Easter time.)

Good Friday
On this day, Jesus was arrested, tried repeatedly, crucified, and buried.

The events began in the wee hours of the morning. When all was said and done, Jesus was tried a total of six times (with a final appeal by the Jews, which some consider the seventh trial). His first trial was before Annas (John 18:12-14), and was followed by trials before Caiaphas the high priest (Matthew 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:54, 63-65; John 18:24), the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-71), the Roman leader Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14; Mark 15:1-5; Luke 23:1-7; John 18:28-32, 33-38), King Herod (Luke 23:6-12), and Pilate a second time (Matthew 27:15-23; Mark 15:6-14; Luke 23:13-22; John 18:39-19:6).

Pilate concluded that Jesus was innocent, but the Jews who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover demanded “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:23; Mark 15:13-14) How quickly they turned from praising Jesus on Palm Sunday to condemning Him! This appeal by the Jewish people to kill Jesus was granted (and was ultimately a step closer to the fulfillment of a sovereign God’s plan of salvation for sinners). Jesus was sentenced to Roman crucifixion.

Jesus was reviled, rejected, and falsely accused. He endured mockery that included great physical and emotional pain. Despite His innocence of the charges made against Him, He was nailed to a cross in obedience to His Father’s will in order to pay the tremendous (and perfect) price for sin. Only Jesus, who is 100% God and 100% man, could have accomplished this! (John 3:16)

From noon to 3PM, there was darkness over the whole land, (Mark 15:33), a representation of sorrow and judgment. Jesus cried in agony as He was separated from His Father, bore our sins, and endured the total abandonment that we deserve (Matthew 27:45-56).

The Savior died. (In our place!) The curtain in the temple that separated the Most Holy Place from the Holy Place tore from top to bottom, signifying that there was now and forever open fellowship between God and man through Jesus Christ. The earth quaked and a Roman officer declared, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Then Jesus was placed in the tomb.

Since medieval times, some churches (including the one that I currently attend) hold a “Service of Shadows” on Good Friday to contemplate Christ’s suffering. As passages of Scripture are read and songs that portray His sacrifice on our behalf are sung, the lights increasingly dim to signify the death of Christ, who is the Light of the World. The service ends in silence and darkness, with worshippers returning on Easter morning to a lighted sanctuary and to joyful proclamations that “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”

Holy Saturday
Holy Week officially ends on the evening of Holy Saturday. Some churches hold a “Service of Light” Vigil to symbolize Jesus as the Light of the world. This celebration is in preparation for the predawn joy of Easter—a commemoration of the joy that the women visiting Jesus’ tomb experienced when they found the stone rolled away and the tomb of Christ empty.

Easter Sunday
Behold the tomb. Empty!
Behold the Lamb. Alive!
What of my sins? Forgiven!
Through His resurrection, I’m justified! [3]

Easter Sunday is a day of great celebration both for this present life and the life to come. Christ did not die in vain. His bones did not rot in the grave. On that first Easter morning, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty! (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20)

Without the resurrection, there would be no salvation. That Christ arose is essential to the Gospel! Christ completed His work: He reigns victorious over sin, death, and the devil.[4]

Hallelujah. Hallelujah!

I leave you with the words from Robert Lowry’s 1847 hymn entitled Low in the Grave He Lay. It’s my favorite Easter song.

Low in the grave He lay,
Jesus my Savior;
Waiting the coming day,
Jesus my Lord!

Refrain:
Up from the grave He arose,

With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
 Hallelujah! Christ arose!

Vainly they watch His bed,
Jesus my Savior;
Vainly they seal the dead,
Jesus my Lord!

Refrain

Death cannot keep its Prey,
Jesus my Savior;
He tore the bars away
Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave He arose,
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes,
He arose a Victor from the dark domain,
And He lives forever, with His saints to reign.
He arose! He arose!
 Hallelujah! Christ arose!


[1] They were looking to “King Jesus” to set up a physical, mighty kingdom on earth right then as opposed to an eternal Kingdom for all nations and all generations.
[2] See John 13
[3] LLS, 2014
[4] See I Corinthians 15 regarding Christ’s resurrection, the eternal life of believers, and Christ’s victory over sin, death and the devil.

Helpful Resources:

Old Familiar Carols Played

When I was in seminary, one of my professors would sometimes point out the error in what might otherwise be considered a beloved hymn of the faith. Being the eager and impressionable soul that I am, I tried the exercise on my own and found that, sure enough, lyrics don’t always square up with Scripture.

Consider the carol In the Bleak Midwinter for example. I love that song, especially when James Taylor sings it, yet I find myself asking: “Was Jesus really born in winter?” Probably not. Could the bleak midwinter be a metaphor for a cold world in need of a Savior, yet so hardened as to not even know its need? Maybe. And what of the last stanza? Does one really give their heart to Jesus? This seems to imply an element of human goodness apart from and reaching toward God, when in fact the Bible says we are born enemies of God and at war with Him–that by God’s grace (and by the gift of faith), it is His Spirit who enables us to see our need for Jesus, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead for our justification. (See John 6:44John 6:65Ephesians 2:1-9; and Romans 4:25 for starters.) This is not giving, but rather receiving God’s free gift.

I understand the importance of truth, really I do, but sometimes the constant call for discernment—and the differing opinions of what that is, for in fact you could think that I am wrong and you may well be right!—has me wailing (often audibly, I might add), “Marantha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”  And so I turn to memories of a simpler time—when the miraculous birth of Jesus, His perfect life, and His death and resurrection for a sinning world that scorned Him was the complex yet uncomplicated truth as I knew it.

Quite simply, one of my favorite memories of Christmases past is this:

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Mom and her three girls singing Christmas carols ’round the old upright. Christmas 1976

Our old upright piano was an eyesore of an instrument. Secondhand. Broken off and discolored keys. Never quite in tune. (It and me.) None of that mattered, really. Especially at Christmas time.

My older sister, Beth, would take requests. Mine was always I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. For better or worse, my favorite verse was this one: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.'” …And Lori sang loud.

Good Medicine: The Coming of Light

Duke_Holiday_Concert_2013I enjoy working on a beautiful university campus every day, but some days are even more special than others. Such was the case on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, when the Duke Medicine Chorus performed for faculty and staff at the Duke Chapel (Durham, NC) from 11:30 a.m. to 12 noon.

By conductor Allan Friedman’s design, the theme that tied all the songs together was “the coming of Light”—Jesus Christ, who is the Light of the world.

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Duke Medicine Chorus (Duke Chapel, 2013)

The concert began with a rousing a cappella call to Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, (which reminded me of the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25), followed by German carols such as Deck Thyself, My Soul, With GladnessThe Eyes of All Wait Upon Thee; and Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming. The next two songs had their roots in Spain, the first one depicting nature’s exuberance over Christmas time, and the second containing imagery of a wolf and a sheep with a River (God) separating the two. Another lively number was in honor of the 6th day of Hanukkah—it was a Yugoslavian song in Ladino and entitled Eight Little Candles for Me. Another piece was a Zulu tune depicting a mother (Mary?) holding her son (Jesus?) and dreaming of his future. The audience joined voices with the choir on In the Bleak Midwinter and Silent Night. The concert concluded with the well-known Ukrainian carol Christmas is Here.

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As the throng dispersed to various corners of the Duke campus, everyone was given a sweet treat—a giant chocolate chip cookie. The cookie was yummy, but the real treat for me was the midday reminder that the coming Light (Jesus) is the source of hope and joy.

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Duke Medicine Chorus performing at Duke Chapel on December 3, 2013