Holy Week School of Prayer: Saturday

Meditations for Holy Week – Saturday: “I am the Resurrection and the Life”

“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness.  The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep…”

So begins an ancient homily for Holy Saturday, which we will hear at today’s midday liturgy.  The text dates to the 4th century and was written in Greek; the author is unknown.  In it he describes Christ’s descent to the dead, where he grasps Adam and Eve and frees them from sorrow:

“He (Christ) took [Adam] by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light…  I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell.  Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.  Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image.  Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in my and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.’”

It is this movement from death to life that we celebrate in the Easter Vigil.

Fellowship with Christ is participation in the divine life which finds its fullest expression in triumph over death.  In John’s Gospel, there is no denial of the general resurrection at the last day; but there is an insistence that for those who are in fellowship with Jesus the life to which that resurrection leads is an already present reality.  “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26)

Jesus is the “Resurrection and the Life.”  What does this mean?  It means that our relationship with Jesus cannot be broken.  He is with us always to the end of time and beyond.  The life the Christian lives is nothing less than God’s life, and it will never end.  Physical death cannot destroy it.  Death, for us, is not the final event.  If we are indissolubly connected with Jesus, if eternal life is the life of God, then death is only the gateway to larger life.  At death, “life is changed, not ended.”

Suggestions for prayer:

1. Pray with Eugéne Burnand’s The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection, reflecting on the hopes and fears of the disciples after Jesus’ death.

2. Pray with the story of Mary Magadalene’s encounter with the Risen Lord outside the tomb in John 20:11-18.  Hear the Lord speak your name in love.

3. Consider what in your life is giving you life right now – and give thanks.  Consider what is draining or destroying life in you right now.  What might God’s invitation to ‘new life’ look like in your present circumstances?

4. Contemplate this line from the SSJE Rule (ch. 49: The Hope of Glory): “Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what God has done for us.”  What has God done for you?

5. In John 21:18-23, Jesus foretells Peter’s martyrdom, but suggests that the Beloved Disciple will “abide” or remain with him until he comes.  The spirituality of the Beloved Disciple is a “spirituality for the long haul.”  What, in your experience, sustains the new life within us over the long haul?

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Peter and John racing to tomb

Holy Week School of Prayer: Good Friday

Meditations for Holy Week – Friday: “I am the Good Shepherd”

The Good Friday liturgy is one of the most dramatic liturgies of the year.  In it, we listen to the entire Passion narrative from John’s Gospel (John 18 and 19) and join in praying the Solemn Collects.  We also have a unique opportunity to express our devotion in the Veneration of the Cross.

One of the most popular and accessible images of Jesus is that of the Good Shepherd.  Even small children grasp its power and its significance.  It is a common image throughout Scripture, not only for God and for Jesus, but also for those in pastoral positions.  In the Hebrew Scriptures God is portrayed as a shepherd to his people (Ps.23:1, Ps.95:7, Ps.100:2, Isa.40:11).  Jesus likens himself to a shepherd in ways that speak of his love and care for his followers.  In John, he says that he is the Good Shepherd, who knows each of his sheep by name and who leads and protects them.  Unlike the hireling who flees at the first sign of danger, the Good Shepherd is ready and willing to give up his own life for the sheep (10:11-15), which he will do on this day which we call “Good Friday.”

The gospel lesson for today’s liturgy is John 18 and 19.  It records Jesus’ arrest in the garden (18:1-11), Peter’s denial (18:15-18,25-27), Jesus’ appearances before Annas and Caiaphas the high priests (18:12-13,19-24), his trial before Pilate (18:28-19:16a), his crucifixion (19:16b-37) and his burial (19:38-42). It differs significantly in tone from the Synoptic accounts; here Jesus is composed, “knowing” what will happen to him and accepting it.  He speaks with an authority that overshadows the authority of the High Priests and of Pilate.  His life is not taken from him by either religious or civil authorities;  instead, he lays down his life, as a good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11-15).

John describes Jesus’ trial before Pilate as a drama with seven scenes.  The scenes alternate between two physical spaces: inside (I) the Praetorium, where Pilate interrogates Jesus, and outside (O) where Pilate tries to reason with “the Jews” (i.e. with Jesus’ opponents who are seeking his death).  The scenes are as follows:

(1) Outside Jews demand Jesus’ death. 18:28-32 (7) Outside Jews obtain Jesus’ death. 19:12b-16
(2) Inside Pilate questions Jesus – about his kingship 18:33-18a (6) Inside Pilate questions Jesus – about his power 19:9-12a
(3) Outside Pilate tells the Jews that Jesus is innocent 18:38b-40 (5) Outside Pilate tells the Jews that Jesus is innocent 19:4-8
(4) Inside Jesus is mocked and scourged 19:1-3

Jesus’ accusers come to Pilate because by Roman law they are not permitted to put Jesus to death (18:31).  The real reason they want the death penalty for Jesus is because he has committed blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God (19:7), but knowing that this argument will not sway Pilate, they accuse Jesus of being a king and therefore a threat to Caesar (19:14b-15).  Although Pilate is reluctant to condemn an innocent man to death, his fear of Caesar and of the crowd ultimately force his hand.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, and several other women are present at the Crucifixion in John’s Gospel, along with the Beloved Disciple, to whom Jesus gives the responsibility of caring for his mother (19:26-27).  Jesus, self-possessed and in control, offers no agonizing cry from the Cross (unlike Jesus in the synoptic gospels, who cries in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).  Instead he asks for a drink (in order to fulfill the scripture) and then pronounces, “It is finished” (19:28-30).  He is buried with a staggering amount of precious spices (a burial fit for a king) and laid in a tomb (19:38-42).

In our prayer today we contemplate these somber events, allowing them to speak to us of God’s great love for us (John 3:16) and allowing them to inspire within us love in return.  We may also contemplate the image of the Good Shepherd, an image that brings consolation and hope.

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Holy Week School of Prayer: Thursday

Meditations for Holy Week – Thursday: “I am the Bread of Life”

The Maundy Thursday liturgy at the monastery has three elements:  First, we re-enact the footwashing, which is the focus of John’s account of the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples.  Then, we share in the Eucharist.  And finally, we follow Jesus to the garden, where we watch with him through the night.

John’s account of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples differs significantly from the account of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  The synoptic gospels imply that Jesus and his disciples were sharing the Passover meal, and they report that during this meal, Jesus took bread and wine and identified it with his own body and blood, thus anticipating his sacrificial death.  There is no reference to bread and wine or Jesus’ body and blood in John’s account.  The focus instead is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, thus giving them an example of how they are to serve one another in love.  John’s account takes place on the night before the Passover begins, so that Jesus is put to death (on Friday) at the same time as lambs are being sacrificed in the temple.  The connection is deliberate since Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29,36).  This final meal is also the setting in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer (John 13:18-30) by giving him a piece of bread.  In John’s gospel the Beloved Disciple has a special role in the exchange.

Although the Fourth Gospel does not have the same ‘eucharistic’ overtones that the synoptic gospels do (cf. Matt.26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23), there is a ‘eucharistic’ reference in John’s telling of the feeding of the 5,000 in John 6.  Here Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to his followers, mirroring the action of the Eucharist.  A lengthy discourse follows in which he explains that only those “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” can share in the eternal life he is offering (cf. John 6, especially vv.1-14 and 52-59).  “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” Jesus tells them (v.56).

Following the supper, Jesus and his disciples cross the Kidron valley “to a place where there was a garden” (John 18:1).  But what follows in John’s gospel is not the agonized prayer reported in the synoptic gospels (cf. Matt.26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46).  John portrays Jesus as self-possessed and confident throughout his arrest and trial.  In John’s account, the betrayer Judas comes with Roman soldiers and temple police who intend to arrest him.  “Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward.”  He asks them whom they are seeking (18:4).  They answer, “Jesus of Nazareth.”  Jesus replies, “I am he,” and the soldiers immediately step back and fall to the ground.  Jesus allows himself to be arrested, but it is clear that he is in charge.  They are not taking his life from him; rather, he is voluntarily laying down his life, just as a good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

In our prayer today, we might reflect on Jesus as “the Bread of Life,” recalling the ways in which he nourishes and sustains our life.  We might consider the deeper meanings of the Eucharist – e.g. as signifying the self-offering of Christ, as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, as a meal/sign of unity shared by all (without distinction of class or privilege), etc.  In our prayer, we might also imagine Jesus washing the feet of his disciples (or our feet!) as a servant, or watch and pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane.

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Holy Week School of Prayer: Wednesday

Meditations for Holy Week – Wednesday “I am the Light of the World”

The service of Tenebrae is a service of shadows, which highlights the contrast between light and darkness.  It is a meditative experience, the service itself being held in semi-darkness, and is meant to set the mood for the somber days which follow.  It draws on the symbols of light and darkness, which reflect the mood and message of Holy Week, and begins to open us to “compassion” (suffering with), the identification of ourselves with the suffering Jesus.

The images of light and darkness are familiar to us from both the Hebrew Scriptures and from the New Testament.  In the Hebrew Scriptures we see God as the creator of light (Gen. 1:3) and as a Being of Light (Ps. 27:1).  The prophets spoke of God’s coming as a light which penetrates the darkness (cf. Isa. 60:1-3, 19).  In the New Testament, Jesus is seen as the light which fulfills the promise of Isaiah (Matt. 4:16).  When the infant Jesus is brought to the temple to be dedicated to God, Simeon recognizes Jesus as the light that has come (Luke 2:32).  In John’s gospel, Jesus claims to be the Light of the World (8:12), and this image becomes a key metaphor for Jesus in the Johannine community (I John 1:5-7 and 2:8-11).

In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus’ claim to be the Light of the World takes place in the context of the Festival of Booths.  During this festival, the people of Israel recalled the journey through the wilderness in which they had been guided by God’s light (Exod. 13:21).  The “Shekinah” or “the glory of God” accompanied them, appearing as a cloud by day and as a pillar of fire by night.  When Jesus claims to be the Light of the World in the context of this festival, he is implying that he is the Messiah, the one who has come to show the way.  He is claiming to be God’s light, a light that will overcome the darkness of the world.

The theme of darkness and light is at the heart of one of Jesus’ “signs” in the Fourth Gospel, namely the healing of the blind man in John 9.  In this healing story, the man is delivered not only from his physical blindness, but also from his spiritual blindness.  He comes to faith in Jesus.  In contrast to this man, who by believing in Jesus has come to see, the Pharisees are depicted as blind guides, who refuse to see.  The use of this imagery – light vs. darkness, sight vs. blindness – is prevalent not only in John’s gospel, but in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) as well.

John emphasizes that there are several possible responses to the Light which is coming into the world in Jesus.  Some will welcome the Light and come to believe (e.g. the blind man, Jesus’ disciples and friends, and the Johannine community).  But others will refuse the Light and choose to remain in darkness (e.g. those who reject Jesus’ message, the Pharisees, and ‘the Jews,’ those who have separated themselves from the Johannine community).  Others are undecided or secretly committed to Jesus (e.g. Nicodemus).

In our prayer today, we are invited to explore this image of Jesus as the “Light of the World.”  In what ways has Jesus’ coming penetrated the darkness of our world, and the darkness of our own lives?  In what ways are we blind, or refusing to see?  Where do we need this Light to shine to further our own conversion and transformation?

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