Contemplating the Menu of the Holy Thursday Meal

Menu

Tonight’s menu is more than a meal. It’s a reenactment of moments mirroring the salvation God has and is working out among His people.

Karpas (Parsley) – Soaked in salt water, this parsley evokes the tears that flow from eyes far too used to seeing the sad scene of slavery as they exhaustively look for God’s deliverance. Savor with sadness, tasting the tears still flowing from enslaved hearts around the world.

Maror (Celery) – Slavery is always a bitter experience, for slavery is a violation of the human spirit. When we eat the Maror, we taste that violation. We sense its bondage of our spirit and it’s manipulation of our will.  It leaves a bitter taste in our mouth, and it’s beneficial we taste it. It reminds us how slavery is something we should never want tasted again.

Haroset (Apple&Nuts) – Like the brick pits through which the slaves trudged and tramped, mixing and mingling the clay mortar with their own blood, sweat, and tears, the thick heaviness and chewiness of this dish reminds us how sorrowfully burdening slavery can be. While eating this encourages us to stay clear of anything cursed and cumbersome, the added sweetness of the dish also reminds us that from out of bitterness, God’s salvation brings a sweetness that brightens the eyes of our heart for life ahead.

Z’roa (Roast Lamb) – Sacrifice is the flavor of this delicacy. With the lamb’s lifeblood posted on the entrances of Israelite homes, it signaled that within this home, God’s salvation was being savored as they prepared themselves for freedom. Jesus would later embody this imagery by sacrificing himself as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29). This dish serves to remind us that as sacrifice transfers life, God’s salvation transforms life.

Beitzah (Egg) – An egg is a simple majesty. Externally a hard, organic shell, it is what’s taking shape within that excites our anticipation. With eagerness we await until that joyous moment it boldly emerges and we blissfully behold a new life brimming with awe and wonder.  Like Christ rolled the stone away and emerged from the grave alive with Life, peel the shell, expose the egg, and enjoy it as one relishes new life.

Matzah (Bread) – This unleavened and crackery bread reminds us that salvation living discards the bloating ingredients that weigh us down and impede the get-up-and-go that new life brings. Like snack food for the road, we eat this bread in the hopes it encourages us to journey with Jesus with a bit of snap-and-crackle to our faithfulness. 

As you enjoy this meal with your congregation, may its story shape in you a joyful awareness for the salvation God has and is working out among His people so all the world may know His freedom.

Ash Wednesday’s road to becoming

I was having a conversation with my sister the other day when she randomly invited me to an Ash Wednesday service for February 10th.

My first thought was “It’s here already?”

My second thought was “I don’t want to get ash on my forehead.”

My third thought was “What should I give up for Lent?”

The first is what it is. The second thought I accepted.  The third thought, however, I took some more time to think on.

Ash Wednesday marks the seasonal start of the Church’s march toward the cross of Good Friday. To quicken contemplation and piety, believers are encouraged to surrender or suppress something that hinders devotion to God.  At least that’s the idea.  More or less it’s usually treated either like a Christianized form of New Year’s resolutions or a sabbatical from something we know we really shouldn’t be doing in the first place.  And really, this is all understandable when its prevalent thinking is often fixated on what surrendering something is going to cost us.

If, however, we try to see how surrendering puts us upon the way of the cross, then those costs become not so much about losing or letting go of something as being shaped into something; or, as we discover as the cross comes closer into view, into someone.

The cross shows us God at work. As we move toward the cross with attentiveness to Christ, his holiness invites us to thrust aside that which hinders Christ’s image from being formed in us.  Should we choose to do so moment by moment, day by day, we begin to gradually encounter a grace that inhabits this way to the cross.  It is a grace that molds us in each reverent step.

The way of the cross is a way of worship, a way of becoming upon which Christ’s worth is shaped in us. After some thought, I have decided on something to give up to God.  Rather than much dwelling on it, however, I want my faith and energy concentrated on the LORD who is our liberty and life.  By the end of this seasonal march, when the Church has again beheld and believed Christ-on-the-cross, may that we will have more closely arrived at being a people in whom God is recognized, received, and revered.

Arising in the Reality of the Resurrection

“I don’t want to die before I’m dead”.  It’s a thought I seem to keep encountering.

At the risk of digressing into all manner of generalizing examples of how our lives could fit that statement, suffice it to say that in our fallen world, death and its despairing degenerative darkness contaminates how we think, how we observe and interpret, how we respond, how we hope. Our perceptions of reality are so dampened with drudgery and disappointment on what seems like a daily basis, it’s barely surprising anymore if we do “die” before we’re actually dead. Despair or apathy can often seem to be reality’s only consistent state.

Such was the mindset of the women approaching Jesus’ tomb on the Sunday morning after Passover. They had followed him through villages, heard him teach, saw him heal, began believing he was Messiah, anticipated a political shift during Passover—suddenly, he was dead. No longer alive, no longer a hope, just a dead friend in a dead place. As they approached this place to preserve their friend’s remains, the death within this dark enclosure mirrored the grim, grieving reality dominating their minds. Reality, however, had just changed.

Finding the large tombstone rolled away and Jesus’ body gone, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?”

The angels ask this question as if it is they who are truly surprised, perhaps, that living is no longer an adjective resonating with the women’s perception of Jesus. A great many of us go through life as if Jesus is still “among the dead”; not a “living One”, but a memory of one who lies decaying in our minds like the ragged remnants of the worn out cultural Christianity we utilize just to get us through the day. Snatching us from a darkness masquerading as light, the angels’ question both calls our despairing tendencies into question and declares the one single truth that defies such despair—Jesus lives. It’s as if they’re asking “Why are you still holding to an old, dead reality when a new, living one is now what is true and must be inhabited?”

Having declared “He is not here, but He has risen”, the angels then connect the women’s returning hopes to what Jesus had been saying all along: “’Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.’ And they remembered His words.”

In his predictions, Jesus never denied the darkness he was about to enter; but he did defy its finality. He told them beforehand he was coming back, wanting their faith to defy reality’s darkness. Like their father, Abraham, Jesus wanted his followers to contemplate his own dead body, “yet, with respect to the promise of God…not waver in unbelief but [grow] strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform.”

Life disappoints on a daily basis, creating diminishing patterns of thought and habit—cynicisms, self-pity, despair, apathy—that can beat us and our perceptions into hopeless submission. But within this reality lived “among the dead”, there is also a “living One” whose followers “will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.”

Every step we’ve taken this week toward Good Friday is also a step towards Resurrection Sunday; keep walking forward, embodying Jesus’ resurrection in your own life. The reality of Jesus’ resurrection breathes new life into this story we’re often tempted to give up on, raising us from the dead long before we actually die. Holding fast to Jesus’ words and walking forward in that faith keeps us rooted in his resurrection, connected to a Life that takes us to and through the darkness and, ultimately, on and beyond.

How Christ-on-the-cross shows God cares

Several months ago, an older woman who knew I was a Christian approached and asked if she could speak with me; she proceeded to share many different themes that all of us could relate to—moments of hurt, long periods of loneliness, pent-up anger, health issues, financial difficulties. Sometimes she would cuss as she spoke, apologize, cuss some more; other times she would break down crying. She hadn’t really asked me a direct question, so I just sat and listened to her, let her get it all out.

Eventually she stopped and asked, rather pointedly, “Does God even care?”

I know that question occasionally occurs to all of us in our lives. And I know that our customary “God is there”, “God cares”, “God provides” responses can sound insubstantial; they are true, but can sometimes seem intangible. What good are spiritual realities that have no material or physical expressions? The Scriptures show us God understands this tension, this need for connection to substance. His grace-filled resolution was to incarnate his very essence, God into flesh.

It is in the person of Jesus that “God is there” and “God cares”. In Jesus, God identifies himself with the whole of humanity, living out the same human experience we each trudge through day in and day out. Though he was God, he did not make his human existence more comfortable for himself; quite the opposite actually. He lived under the same conditions each of us human beings must endure throughout our lives and was spared none of its hardships and horrors. He willingly took them upon himself so we can know God cares. What I attempted to convey to this lonely, panicking woman in my answer was that Christ-on-the-cross, in suffering, abandonment, and death, is probably the clearest and most substantial expression of just how much God does care.

It is in Jesus’ suffering on the cross that God joins humanity in our suffering. In our unbearable moments of pain, suffering, fatigue, and sorrow, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I will go through this with you”, “You are not alone in your pain.”

It is in the Father’s abandoning of Jesus that God joins humanity in our abandonment and loneliness. In our moments of loneliness and perceived or actual abandonment, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I, too, know the pain and panic of abandonment.”

It is in Jesus’ death on the cross that God joins humanity in our death, that cumulative consequence for all that sin has wrought. In the moment of our death, Christ-on-the-cross is God saying “I, too, entered this terrifying and inescapable unknown.”

This probably is not the answer we hope to hear in our wearisome moments, but I believe it’s the answer we need. As “God with us”, Jesus is the clearest picture of God at work.  His birth, his life, his teachings, his actions, how he interacted with others, how he suffered and died—these are all earthy, tangible expressions of God caring for us.  When we wonder “does God care?”, in all these moments, Jesus puts a face to the mystery and shows how God is answering the question.  But this earthy expression is still not without divine mystery.

It is here in Jesus’ crossing of death’s threshold we see God’s great care for us wonderfully displayed, not in how our identities are similar, but how they are not. By entering death, Jesus’ divinity is unleashed in all of his brilliant glory, majesty, and power. We are saved, not just by how he identifies with us, but because of who he actually is—the sovereign LORD of life.

With Good Friday approaching, the time is opportune to contemplate how, in Christ, we are not alone or abandoned. In Christ, God’s caring presence is constant.  My prayer for us throughout Passion Week is that, through Scriptural and prayerful contemplation, all of what we are aware will be saturated with the sanctifying presence of Christ through whom God is always working his salvation in us by how he care-fully identified with us on the cross.  Comfort of Christ to you.

The Eucharist as Hope in the Horror of Human History

Horror could be humanity’s most consistent contribution to history. I don’t mean horror just in terms of viciousness, but also of a deep sense of pain and suffering, sorrow and loss, fear and chaos, shame and inertia, bitterness and distrust, disappointment and despair—realities churned up in the wake of all that human sinfulness has wrought.

Most of the time, I really don’t know how to comprehend much of the horror I hear or read about, how to process it, or know what to do with it. Like many of us, a lot of times I feel like there’s nothing to do. In some situations we can write our representatives, sometimes we can donate to charity or volunteer, try to alleviate some pain, but eventually all we can do is wait, for something or nothing. And while we wait, we wonder; what’s the meaning of this, what is the world coming to, why is this the way it is? Then usually as we go about life, we learn to ignore it. But the reality with human horror is at some point it finds its way in and can no longer be ignored.

Some time ago, one of our Bible study members lost her mother to a long battle with dementia; every time she came to Bible study, she would give us an update on her mom, which wasn’t so much an update as a reminder that her mother’s life was gradually winding down and there was nothing she could do except be patient and present and let everything unfold. At the funeral mass, as her mother’s draped casket was wheeled forward, she followed behind, her face exhausted and wrinkled, her eyes dripping with tears. As much as she had tried in the past months, there was no more ignoring the horror. But near the end of the service, the priests observed the Eucharist, or Holy Communion, the tradition commemorating renewal God initiated in the death of Jesus. While watching it reenacted, it made perfect sense.

The Eucharist at a funeral. Jesus’ death powerfully present in the place of death. We are not alone in the horror. Horror is, in fact, just the context and conditions from out of which God’s salvation shall come forth. This is why the death of Jesus irrevocably changes everything. The death of Jesus is not merely a tradition for the religious. Christ-on-the-cross is the redefining moment of history.

In Christ’s birth, God embodied and identified with humanity as hope stepping into our path of history, as well as our horror. While living life as “God with us”, his witness of words and wonders paved hope into the horrific path of human history through which he walked. Now since death is the only destination toward which horror can go and since death is only as far as it can go, to death is exactly where Jesus went; in dying, he endured horror, the consequences for all that humanity’s sin has wrought throughout history. But only after horror did its worst to him could Christ-on-the-cross be revealed as hope-in-the-horror; thus it was in his resurrection that hope triumphantly emerged from the horror, creating a divergence between horror and history.

Horror can only go so far. In view of Christ’s death, horror is revealed to be limited and in Christ’s resurrection, hope is revealed to be transcendent. Hope can go anywhere horror can, but only hope can go further, dig deeper, climb higher, reach wider, and hold on longer.

The Eucharist is God’s testimony that death is being dealt with; that the horrors scarring human history are not allowed to have the final say in history. When your congregation takes Holy Communion this Maundy Thursday or Resurrection Sunday, you are both celebrating and proclaiming Christ as hope-in-the-horror; that the world’s horrors cannot defeat the hope planted and paved in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, and that history cannot wear down a humanity following in those footsteps. To a humanity so accustomed to its horrific nature, Christ showed us what it looks like to be truly human by not allowing history to be defined by our horror, but by the hope of him who redeems humanity and redefines history.

In him we are becoming hope-in-the-horror, showing a weary world what it means to be a people of hope in a place that has none; a people who stop asking “what is the world coming to?” and start testifying “Christ-on-the-cross” so all may see the hope beyond horror in a redeemed humanity as a new history dawns.