It's Holy Week.
For many people in the world, this week represents the last few days agonizing of Lent - and, for Pittsburghers, it's the last chance for a really great fish fry until next year. It's the last chance to grab the good Easter candy (yes, I'm talking about those amazing Sarris meltaway eggs), and the last chance pick up a dozen extra eggs to boil and dye.
For many people, that's all this week represents.
I admit that I haven't really been in "appreciation and reflection" mode this week. I had five (FIVE!) interviews lines up this week with different local companies, and I've been directing the youth group's play, as well as helping prepare for tonight's Seder dinner at church. But the Lord led me to a short but intense and beautiful devotional for Holy Week, and it's definitely forced me to rethink a lot of the images we associate with Easter.
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?” - Matthew 21:6-10
In ministry, we often site the crowds that followed Jesus as fickle and flighty. Well, yes, they were. They cried "Hosanna!" one day and "Crucify Him!" a few days later. But I don't want to focus on that aspect of the multitudes. I want you to imagine with me, just for a moment, being in that throng of people who watched as Jesus entered into the city. How exciting it must have been! Really - compare it to the Olympics being hosted in your hometown, or an international celebrity stopping by your neighborhood. This was so far beyond "exciting". For the people who believed He was the Messiah, this was a prophesy fulfilled! They were living out the very words of the Old Testament prophets! They must have felt joyful, and humbled, and grateful - and maybe a little intimidated! After all, people must have heard stories that this Jesus could see right into the very heart and soul of a man, gauging his intentions and attitude. Kinda scary. But incredible.
For the people who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or who had not yet decided what they believed, it was still a time of great anticipation. Regardless of who they believed Jesus to be, there was no doubt that he was a controversial figure, a bold preacher, and a man of unusual character. Anything could happen once He met up with the religious folk. A good old-fashioned scandal would have been just as juicy and intriguing in ancient Jerusalem as it is today. Of course it would be thrilling to have Him visit their hometown! If nothing else, it would boost the economy and give everyone something to talk about over dinner!
Yes, the crowds later turned on Jesus. But right now, in this moment, in the picture that Matthew paints for us, they are zealous, alive, full of excitement, wonder, and hope. The environment must have been electric with anticipation. Would today be the day that another lame man walked? That eyes born blind would see? Would this be the day that a barren womb was healed, or that depression was lifted? Miracles aside, the ancient prophecies could not be ignored; if this was the promised King and Savior, then the people's freedom from Roman rule was fast-approaching. The way they saw it, a great rebellion was literally bubbling up from within their ranks. Their freedom was so close at hand it was almost tangible. Excitement must have buzzed through the crowds, all the way from the old-timers who had to be supported by stronger friends, down to the children who had recited the prophecies as they learned to read.
The day of salvation had come!
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” - Matthew 26:26-29.
At my church, we celebrate communion once per month - usually on the first Sunday. It is a time, for us, of reflection, and appreciation. We do not believe that the wine (juice) and bread are the actual body of the Lord; we believe that they represent Him only. However, as such, they are reminders to us of the great sacrifice Jesus made in laying down His life for us. His body was broken and His blood poured out for our healing, wholeness, and salvation. For our strength - that we may be bold for Him. For our peace - that we may know His promises are true. For our hope - that we have a place in Heaven because of Him.
As the disciples were eating with Jesus that evening, I wonder if any of them - other than Judas - knew how true His words really were. Did they think that He was talking about dying in a battle against the Romans? Surely most of them still thought that Jesus was going to mount a valiant horse and march on Rome for their freedom. Did they think He was speaking poetically? Could it even be that some of them were thinking of other things entirely?
So often we pick apart the actions of the disciples and criticize them. We nail Peter for denying Jesus. We shake our heads at James and John and their mother for trying to bargain their way to the right hand of Christ. And of course, we gasp in shock at Thomas's inability to believe that Jesus could actually be resurrected.
But they were men - everyday, ordinary men - who were hand-picked by Jesus not because they were anything extra-ordinary, but precisely because they were like us - those whom He saw before him on the cross as His great prize. He chose these men - laborers, uneducated, hard-working - to represent us. We can relate to them, their confusion and bewilderment, even if we would prefer to think that we would never have betrayed Christ, or denied Him, or doubted Him. Truth is, most of us are lying to ourselves!
And here, they shared a final holy meal with him, representing the time, centuries before, when the Lord spared his children during a dark time of slavery and oppression. He rescued their lives, then loaded them with wealth and began to lead them to their new home.
Did any of the disciples have the slightest clue that their friend Jesus was in the process of doing the same for them? Once He rose from the dead, he unlocked the riches of Heaven, access to the Father, and the promise of a glorious home forever with Him?
Would we have had a clue, had we been sitting there with Him?
I'll continue this train of thought with The Cup and The Cross, later this week.