Ember Days

“…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God…”  Ephesians 6:12-13

I think that one of the greatest failures of true religion is the lack of discernment regarding that which is evil.  Christians confine their spiritual vision to the earth, and too often miss the spiritual struggle that is even now working itself out in the heavenly places around us.  We tend to discount the new pagans, attributing far too little power to their rites and beliefs.  But Paul makes it clear in our opening scripture that there is a vast host of dark spiritual forces arrayed against the people of God, and it is to the heavens, as well as on the earth, that we must press the battle under the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds…”  II Corinthians 10:3-5.

Throughout the ages the Church has sought to place such mighty weapons in the hands of her saints that they might strive mightily against the gates of hell and prevail.  One such weapon was the seasons of fasting  known to the Church as the Ember days.

The Origins of the Ember Days

One tradition holds that the name “ember” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means the completing of a circuit, the coming round of a recurring time or season.  In modern terms we might liken it to the keeping of an anniversary date in which something of significance is remembered and celebrated each year.  The scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to us of the nature of God, that His word and order is proclaimed throughout the heavens, that the recurring passage of time reveals knowledge of His ways to us (read Psalm 19:1-6 for instance).  It’s unfortunate that the Christian Church has forgotten such lessons in which the heavenly plan and will of God are made manifest in time and place.  It is a lesson that the pagans have not forgotten, for in their “earth religion” they seek to tap into the cycle of creation which is by heritage the rightful property of the Christian Church.

Consider, for example, the great significance attached by the new age pagans to the keeping of the Vernal Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 23) and the Winter Solstice (December 22).   Equinox comes from the Latin meaning days on which daylight and night are equal, and Solstice comes from a word meaning when the “sun stands” at its greatest extreme.  The summer solstice is the longest daylight period, the winter solstice the shortest daylight period.   Such celebrations were historically tied to the three great harvests of wheat, grapes and olives by the ancient Romans.  But the Church was quick to note that these times were also periods in which demonic evil and wickedness seemed to flourish and peak in a cyclical regularity.  This is not surprising; for if, in the times of abundance,  man’s heart does not rise to his Creator in thanksgiving, it falls to prideful sins of ingratitude and idolatry.  Said another way, where grace is not at work in restoration, sin is at work in degradation.  Because heathen practices and rituals were so active in these times, the Church instituted its own seasons which were intended to stir up the saints to spiritual activity.   Such spiritual legislation is not forbidden by the scriptures and is part of the spiritual liberty which we possess as heirs with Christ.

Thus were born the so-called Ember days of Christianity.  Another tradition holds the origin of their name to have been derived from a corruption of the Latin “Quatuor Tempora”, the quarter tense or the four times.  Regardless of the origin of their names, the Ember Days were established from the start as days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and increased almsgiving that by the weapons of righteousness the deeds of darkness might be exposed and overcome.   The Church also saw the added benefit in the observance of cyclic fasting in all the seasons of the year.  It continued to remind the saints of their need for repeated purification under the hand of God.  Then too it reminded each man that earthly life was not the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and the balancing of the days of feasting and celebration against the days of fasting and penitence brought a Godly harmony to daily life.  As Paul states in Philippians 4:11-13:

“…in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

The lessons which the ember days sought to teach were that men ought to thank God for the gifts of nature in each of its seasons; that men were to make right and moderate use of the abundance of God’s bounty; and that from this use they were to remember and assist those in true need of Christian charity.

Seasonal Disciplines Like Fasting Are Ancient

The practice of seasonal Church fasting is ancient.  The Roman Archbishop Callistus in A.D. 222 wrote in his first epistle:

“Fasting, which you have learned to hold three times in the year among us, we decree now to take place as more suitable in four seasons; so that even as the year revolves through four seasons, we too may keep a solemn fast quarterly in the four seasons of the year.  And as we are replenished with corn, and wine and oil for the nourishment of our bodies, so let us be replenished with fasting for the nourishment of our souls…”

Leo the Great in his Sermon 19 delivered around A.D. 450 declared:

“This profitable observance [i.e. self restraint and abstinence] is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times.  Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction.  For when the prophet says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge..’ what is there then by which the Truth does not speak to us?”

He continues later on to infer an apostolic origin for this practice.

“Let us therefore fast on Wednesday, and Friday, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed apostle Peter….[performing] our supplications and fastings and alms which the Lord Jesus Christ presents…”

The observance of Ember Days is therefore fixed and at the same time variable.  They are fixed in the sense of occurring always on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and variable since they occur in the week after Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), September 14 (historically the exaltation of the cross), and December 13 (the remembrance day of St. Lucia).  Thus the Latin verse was phrased to help the faithful remember their timing “Post crux, post lux, post ignes, post cineres”, or in a rough translation, “after the cross, after the light, after the fire, after the ashes.”

The seasons of God’s creation are ours by inheritance.  Let us reclaim them from the pagans so that their line may go out through all the earth for the glory of God; and let us not despise the Godly disciplines whereby the saints in ages past have wrestled to keep themselves undefiled in the world and persevering in the promises of God’s covenant.

Baccalaureate 2016 at Red Door

At significant moment’s in our lives it is appropriate and even expected to take time to reflect upon the past and the future, and to celebrate achievements.  At the same time, it is right and good to ponder the changes that lie ahead and to remind ourselves of what is most important.

On June 5th, at 4:00 p.m. at Red Door Church in South Royalton we will have one of those significant moments as leaders in business, education and spirituality from our local area will gather to surround and support South Royalton’s graduating senior class.  Our goal is to propel them into the next chapter of their lives and to give them a positive vision for their future.

In the past it was customary for schools to put together a religious service to give space to spiritual leaders (and students) to address the graduating student body as they prepared to enter the world.  At the university level, because most schools were originally founded for the education of ministers in the propagation of the Christian gospel these services would have been a normal part of the ebb and flow of university life.  Schools like Dartmouth, Lafayette, Wake Forest, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many, many others all have Christian roots and their graduation ceremonies in the past would have reflected that.

While I had trouble finding an authoritative source on the subject, it seems that Baccalaureate services began during times when graduating oratory students would deliver sermons in Latin as part of their training.   The services were times to celebrate and worship God for lives dedicated to learning and the pursuit of wisdom.

Today, it is mainly the responsibility of churches and the students themselves to put together these services.  The services themselves have evolved quite a bit.  Our service is intended to be a time of celebration, inspiration, motivation and enrichment involving peoples of various backgrounds and traditions. Through video, music, song, prayer, speeches, and gifts we hope to put wind in the sails of graduating students as they embark on a new chapter in life.

We are honored to be working with the students of South Royalton school and other community leaders to put together a service that will be a treasured memory in the lives of the students, their friends, and family for many years to come.

We hope to see you there!

“From Dust”, A Lenten Reflection

We live in a world that highly values power, the power to dominate, the power to control, the power to change.  But often, when we consider our own circumstances and our current lifestyle, we feel powerless to do anything to make changes for good.  It is difficult for us to admit this personal weakness, but we have to realize that it is the way that God intended for it to be.  In Genesis it records that God formed man of the dust of the earth.  There must have been a dozen other things that we could have been formed of, but God chose the least impressive of all building materials to form our bodies.  But then, and here is the miracle, He breathed His very spirit into this insignificant dust, and it records that man became a living being.  We remain even so today, dust held together by the very breath of God.  The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us of this created frailty, “Remember O’ man, (or woman), you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  Without the power of God to hold us together we are no better than the dust we were made of, without form, without life, without purpose.

During this Lenten season we need to recognize that these two things are at war within us. The dust that we are made of drags us always down into the earth where we are quickly lost; the breath of God lifts us upward and gives us a vision of a heavenly kingdom where justice reigns.  In the garden of Eden our humanity received two gifts.  From our father Adam we inherited original sin that always seeks to corrupt, to break down, to kill.  From our Father Almighty we received His very image and likeness pressed into our hearts, and it is that divine spark of life that makes us eternally who we are intended to be.  Which of these will we listen to during this season, which of these will we give the control of our lives over to?  Each day is a new choice, to allow ourselves to be dragged down into the earth and return to the dust or to be called up to the throne of God in heaven and become His sons and daughters

Silent Night, Lonely Night

For many, Christmas is not merry; it’s not a time of good cheer and joy.  It’s a poignant time where sorrow and loneliness are palpable, even overwhelming.  Many will sit down at a table filled with delectables as they do every year, but will do so without someone they love.  In many homes financial frustrations will abound and family discord will often resurface.

This is what you might call common grief.  A grief that a great swath of us know and experience year in and year out.  It’s the grief of illness, or loss; the grief of painful memories from the past or disappointment.  These griefs are intensified during the holidays.  Sahaj Kohli, a blogger with the Huffington Post comments in a recent article introducing their new forum “Common Grief” for folks who are suffering:

“For people dealing with grief and loss, the holidays can magnify loneliness, sorrow and social isolation — all potential factors leading to depression.” 1

But there is a deeper grief that some experience that you and I know little about.  Folks who will not be able to access internet forums, counselors, or conference rooms.  These people lay down in cold alleyways to sleep with no presents and nothing to eat during Christmas.  They will have no family to smile at them, to give love to or receive love from.  They will listen to the sounds of distant Christmas parties, laughter and carolers from a distance.  From their shopping carts, park benches, or trash heaps, they will shed tears that nobody is there to wipe away, forgotten by the whole world.

They are the homeless.

No amount of tinsel or lights could ever fix such sorrow.

Operation Silent Night

But these are the very folks that the team over at Silent Night ministries will seek out this Christmas Eve.  From their website:

The holiday rush is over, the shops are closed. It’s Christmas Eve and the city streets are seemingly empty. But wait…not just this night but every night there are over 700,000 homeless in the United States. Over 250,000 of these are unsheltered, sleeping on our streets.  Operation Silent Night takes place every Christmas Eve when we gather a few friends and go to the streets to be with those forgotten homeless.

Preparations have already begun for this year’s push and soon these volunteers will storm the streets of Washington DC to share the love of Jesus Christ with these precious forgotten souls who also bear the image of God.  Sue Thomas, the founder of Silent Night ministries writes on her blog:

“Yes, tonight begins the journey to Washington, DC where over 8,000 people are homeless and over 600 sleep on the streets on any given night. What began ten years ago with two single women serving 25 hot sandwiches continues to grow each year!

The lunch truck will be packed tonight along with the shuttle bus holding the backpacks, pillows, comforters, coats and hoodies. Tomorrow the gas tanks will be filled and propane filled to have the ovens and large coffee maker ready for hot chocolate.” 2

Christmas Commercialization

The commercialization of Christmas has only made the problem worse, frankly.  While tangible items can help some, Santa Claus cannot bring a present big enough to take these deep sorrows away.

Only one can do that: Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is “the reason for the season,” and it’s absolutely critical that we never lose sight of that, because Jesus, unlike our modern day genie-in-a-bottle Santa, was a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  From the moment Jesus left his heavenly home to come into the world all the way up to the day he died, his life was surrounded by tremendous pain and suffering.  This is the Jesus that the folks at Silent Night ministries hope to bring to the homeless each Christmas.

At birth Jesus was welcomed into this world by a King who was seeking to kill him because he felt threatened by prophecies and signs that suggested Jesus was to be a great King.  He was born into a family surrounded by the scandal of a mother who was pregnant before marriage in a highly religious culture with a story that few believed.  As Jesus matured and stepped out into a life of ministry, he was rejected by his family who thought he was a lunatic.  Jesus had few friends and often had no place to stay.  The power brokers of his day hated him and were constantly seeking to expose him and trip him up.  His friends and followers were made up primarily of a bunch of rag-tag nobodies, with little money or influence; men and women who were constantly questioning him, doubting him and failing him.  Virtually the whole Israelite nation at the time failed to grasp the teachings of Jesus and misunderstood his entire ministry.  Finally, after a life living in complete love and self-forgetfulness, Jesus is abandoned, betrayed, and wrongfully killed.  All but one of his original disciples not long after Jesus death were eventually killed too.

Whatever your grief is this Christmas, if there ever was one who could understand the pain you feel at Christmas, it is Jesus of Nazareth.

Come to him with all your sorrow. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).  He will love you.  He will weep with you and help you to carry your pain.  And, if you trust him, he will one day bring you to himself in Heaven, where he has prepared a place for you.  A home.  An eternal dwelling where you will never want or lack.

  1. See her post titled “Introducing Common Grief: You are Not Alone”, found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/common-grief_56731341e4b0648fe302a328?utm_hp_ref=common-grief.  Accessed on 12/22/15.
  2. See the full post at http://suethomasministries.org/2015/12/21/21-december-2015-1653/. Accessed on 12/22/15.

Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.

Pentecost Sunday

“Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things.  Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry at the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”  Luke 24:46-49

God chooses to work through created means to bring about divine purposes.  This is a mystery to us, but Paul gives us some understanding of why it is in II Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”   The divine gifts of grace, repentance and remission of sins in Jesus Christ are divinely powerful to the salvation of the soul.  No mere human philosophy, science, logic, or natural religion can ever bring such salvation about.  That is why Paul clearly states in I Corinthians 2:1, 4-5 “…I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God….and my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”  This power of God of whom he speaks is also the Third Person of the Trinity whom we call the Holy Spirit, and it is His sending into our world that we celebrate on Pentecost.

Pentecost derives its name from the Greek word which means the “fiftieth day”.  In Hebrew times it was called the feast of weeks (Shavuot, Deuteronomy 16:9-10) and was counted from the feast of the firstfruits when the barley harvest began (Exodus 23:16).  Leviticus 23:15-16 says “and you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath…seven Sabbaths shall be completed.  Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath…”  This marked the beginning of the grain harvest.  The Rabbis further taught that this day commemorated the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the children of Israel were led out of Egypt (Exodus 19:1), the event that was foundational in forming the nation as the people of God.  In the New Testament the day of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Resurrection of the Lord (I Corinthians 15:20 says He is the first fruits of those risen to new life), and ten days after He ascended to the right hand of power.  From that position He sends forth the Holy Spirit even as He promised (John 14:16-17, 16:7-15).

The sending of the Holy Spirit is an empowerment of each individual believer to fully live the Christian life, and more importantly, the empowerment of the Church to proclaim the testimony of Jesus Christ with power and authority.  It is the formation of the Church as the people of God.  We must not lose sight of the divine truth that the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church as a whole, with each member receiving Him in particular.  The modern stress on individual expressions of the Holy Spirit as a personal, rather than corporate gift, finds no place in the text of the New Testament.  As the Apostle Paul says so clearly in I Corinthians 12:7, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”

The sanctuary color for Pentecost Sunday is red, the symbol for divine fire, and the lectionary readings remind us that the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Father now poured forth to bring about the New Covenant inaugurated by the shedding of the blood of His Son Jesus.  It marked the transition from the gospel ministry of Jesus to the Acts of the Apostles according to the promises of Jesus in John 14:12 “the one who believes on Me, greater works than these shall he do because I go to my Father.”, and Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”  Pentecost is the beginning of the work of God within each of our hearts to make a people chosen for His purpose and sent out to proclaim His salvation in every corner of our world.

Ascension Day, May 14, 2015

“When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive and He gave gifts to me.  He…ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  Ephesians 4:8-10

In Acts 1:1-3 it records that for the forty days between Resurrection Sunday and Ascension Thursday, Jesus Christ presented Himself alive with many infallible proofs, spent the time instructing His disciples concerning the Kingdom of God, and gave them final commands.  Of the day of Ascension, the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts offer the following details.  Matthew records that Jesus met His disciples on a mountain.  There He declared that all authority had been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and He commissioned them to go to all nations, baptizing and making disciples in His name.  He left them with the promise that He would be with them until the end of the age.  Mark declares that after He spoke, He was received up into heaen and sat down at the right hand of God, and that the apostles went about preaching the word in power with the Lord confirming their words with signs and wonders.  Luke indicates that He led them out as far as Bethany and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  In Acts he adds that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles in Jerusalem and that it would be the power that they required to be His witnesses.  As He was received up into the clouds, angels appeared to the apostles with the promise that just as Jesus had ascended into heaven, so He would return to the earth in the same manner.

This is an important day within the Paschal cycle.  When the Lord took upon Himself human flesh and ultimately went to His death on the cross, He humbled Himself as it says in Philippians 2:6-8, “although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”  Philippians 2:9 continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every other name…”  This supreme glorification of Christ took place in part when He ascended and sat down at the right hand of the Father in glory.  Daniel 7:13-14 may give us a glimpse of that moment.  “I was looking in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven, One like the Son of Man was coming.  And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him, and to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.”

Four major things were accomplished at the Ascension of Jesus.  First, Jesus entered into the glory that was rightfully His from all eternity (John 17:4-5 and Psalm 110:1-2).  Second, from heaven He sent forth the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15).  Third, as the Great High Priest He entered into the Holy of Holies not made with hands to make intercession for us (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:11-15, 24-28; and 10:19-22).  And lastly, He went into heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:1-4).  We commemorate Ascension Day by looking to the skies as the apostles did on that day and recalling His promises.  The day is intended to remind us, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:4-7, that Jesus is head over all things to His church, and that we, with him, have been seated in the heavenlies awaiting the culmination of the age and the inauguration of the everlasting Kingdom.  As we look to the heavens may our prayer always be, “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus Christ” (Revelation 22:20).

Good Friday and Holy Saturday

“Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross.  And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews….and it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.”   John 19:19, 20b

The chronology of these days is gleaned from the scriptures.  The gospel of Luke tells us that as soon as it was day (the Jewish day watch begins at 6:00 am), the Sanhedrin rose up after their trial of Jesus in the night, and led Him to Pilate for judgment.  The gospels record Pilate’s deliberations and Matthew tells us that finally he washed his hands of the whole matter and handed over this innocent man (his words) to the crowd to crucify.  Mark further records that they crucified Jesus at the place of the Skull at the 3rd hour (in the day watch this would be 9:00 a.m.).  And Luke tells us that from the 6th hour (12:00 noon) until the 9th hour (3:00 p.m.) darkness was over the land.  It was in this final hour that Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And then, bearing the full weight of sin upon himself, He said “It is finished”; “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Hanging His head, Jesus yielded up His spirit to the awful judgment of God upon sin.

Since it was the day of preparation for the Passover (which began at 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday), the body of Jesus was hastily taken down from the cross, washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in burial cloths as was the custom, and laid in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.   And what of His closest disciples?  Matthew 26:56 records that at His betrayal, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled.”   Matthew 25:75b says that after Peter denied the Lord three times, “he went out and wept bitterly.”   John 20:19 says that on Resurrection day, “…the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews…”  And even after the reports of the women at the empty tomb, Luke 24:11 says that the women’s words “seemed to them like idle tales and they did not believe them.”  Separated from Jesus Christ for the first time in three years, faced with the improbability of His death, the followers of the Lord faced what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”

We mark these days in prayer and waiting.  The hours between 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. on Good Friday, the hours of darkness upon the cross, are traditionally set aside as a holy time marked by silent contemplation, prayer, and true contrition of heart.  This is the most solemn day of our Atonement.  In it we should recall our own forgiveness and redemption, the blood that Jesus Christ shed for our sin.  We should remember what we would be without him and weep bitterly in our hearts at the thought.  The prophet says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags.  It is only this day that enables us to know peace, love, joy, and hope as we are restored to right relationship with our Father.  In the recognition of our own unworthiness to merit any favor from God, we should glory is the immeasurable worth of Jesus and His death.  He is that supreme gift of God’s mercy and grace.  Many Christians will do the Stations of the Cross during this period of time to aid them in a full contemplation of the events of the day.

Holy Saturday has two moods.  The first is the keeping of vigil with its longing and waiting for the breaking of the new day.  It is a day in which no candles or fire  are kindled for the light of the world lies in the tomb.  It is a day without music and singing, for sorrow chastens and sobers us for a time.  Often our churches have their altars covered with black cloth.    Proverbs 13:12 summarizes well the two-fold emotion of this night, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  The second theme is, therefore,  the joyful anticipation of tomorrow.  Though we sorrow in the moment, we remember Jesus’ promise that He will rise again in victory.  It is traditional to keep vigil through the night of Holy Saturday reading through twelve Old Testament readings that foreshadow the deliverance found in Jesus Christ.  At sunrise on Resurrection morning, we kindle the new fire and greet the sunrise with the ancient prayer, “The Exulstet”.   We rejoice to know that death could not hold Jesus Christ in its power.  As darkness gives way to light, we receive the daily parable that it must ever be this way in the Kingdom.  “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”  Psalm 126:5   “Most assuredly I say to you, that you will weep and lament…and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy…now you have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you..”  John 16:20,22  “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Psalm 30:5

Holy Thursday

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”  John 13:34

Holy Thursday is also called Maundy Thursday.  Some scholars trace this name back to the Latin word “mandatum”, translated as commandment, because on this day the Lord gave a new commandment in John 13:34 that would serve as the sign by which the world might know that we are His followers.  In this day the Lord proclaimed the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the inauguration of the New Testament in His blood.  Now, as Paul states in I Corinthians 5:7, “Christ, our Passover, [is] sacrificed for us.”  In the events of this day and night, we find the foundations laid for the ministry of reconciliation that begins with the shedding of the blood of Jesus.  These include:

  • The everlasting love of God for His people from which we will never be separated. John 13:1 records “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.”
  • The example of the true servant of God. John 13:14-17 remembers Jesus’ words, “…I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet; you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example…a servant is not greater than his master…if you know these things happy are you if you do them.”
  • A new command to love in John 13:34 a love that fulfilled the two greatest commandments to love God and to love others.
  • The eternal assurance of faith. John 14:3 includes Jesus’ assurance “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself that where I am there you may also be.”
  • The promise of the Holy Spirit. John 14:16 includes Jesus’ promise, “I will pray the Father and He will give you another Comforter…even the Spirit of truth…for He dwells with you and will be in you.”
  • The abiding sign of His sacrifice for sins. Luke 22:20 includes the declaration “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.” And Matthew 26:28 adds “…this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”

It was also on this Holy Thursday night, the night in which the Lord Jesus was betrayed into the hands of sinful men, that Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the abiding ordinance given to the church to be done in remembrance of Him and His death.  This was the “last supper” that Jesus ate with His disciples before His death, and at that supper the Old Covenant was fulfilled by the establishment of the New Covenant.  The bread and wine of God’s Passover deliverance became the Body and Blood of the perfect Lamb of God, given now once, for all, and eternally powerful to deliver.  As Paul records in I Corinthians 11:26:

 “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim [acknowledge and make present once again] the Lord’s death until He comes.”

This day is the eve of our redemption and our celebrations move from sorrow to joy, joy to sorrow.  The one thing that should guide us in our celebration of the remembrance of our Lord Jesus is His words recorded for our benefit in Luke 22:12:

“And He said to them [us], ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’”

As we contemplate the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of God’s love and grace, and our eternal deliverance we might ask with the psalmist  “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” (Psalm 116:12-13)  Our answer is clear, “I shall lift up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord.”  On this day, lift up your heads, for your redemption draws near.