Easter is the most significant time of the Christian calendar. Without it, there wouldn’t be any Christianity!
We Christians believe that Jesus was put to death on a cross, was buried, and three days later rose from the grave. What puts us apart from other faiths and religions is that whilst they believe and agree that Jesus lived and taught as was told in the Bible, they don’t generally believe he was the Messiah and that he did not rise from the grave.
The Easter story can be picked up from the point of Palm Sunday, which was last Sunday. Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of praise from the crowds, who waved palm branches and threw their clothes into the road for him to ride over. Jesus was in the city to celebrate the Passover, a Jewish festival, but was also on the way to fulfilling the prophesies of the Old Testament that told of his death after a betrayal by someone close to him.
Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, the Thursday of which is what we call Maundy Thursday. The word “maundy” comes from the latin for “washing of feet”. This commemorates an act by Jesus at the Passover meal where he washed his disciples’ feet. He explained to them that he is a servant as well as a king and so washed their feet as the servants of the house would have normally done to visitors.
Later that evening, the disciples and Jesus shared what was to become known as the Last Supper. At the meal Jesus told them that he would soon be put to death, and one of those gathered would betray him to the authorities. He told them that his death was the new covenant from God that all sin was forgiven, and everyone who believed in Jesus would find their way to him when they died. He told them that whenever they shared bread together, or drank wine together they were to remember him and to remember this promise. The sharing of bread and wine is remembered by Christians now in an act of communion. Although highly ritualised the premise is the same – that when we eat and drink together we meet in the faith of God and we remember the sacrifice of Jesus who died for us.
We had a communion service in our church last night and Eddie our vicar washed the feet of a couple of our congregation. It was an emotionally charged moment – our leader removed his clergy garments, removed his collar and sank to his knees as an act of service to us his congregation. I put myself forward to have my feet washed, which was something I never thought I’d do, but it was such a moving experience I will never forget it. The act itself is one thing, the symbolism is something else entirely. It is a tradition that goes back generations and is reenacted by clergy leaders the world over, even by the Pope. There are other traditions associated with Maundy Thursday, such as the Queen giving alms to the poor, and I will perhaps write about those another time. For now, I’ll stick with the Easter story.
The next day of Holy week is Good Friday, which is today. After the supper last night, the disciples knew something was up and when Jesus asked them to accompany him into the garden to pray they knew that something was definitely up. Jesus had told them that he knew one of them would betray him to the authorities and sure enough, when he was praying, a group of Roman soldiers came into the garden accompanied by Judas. Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek, which was a signal to the soldiers that they had their man.
Good Friday morning saw Jesus being put before Pontius Pilate, the emperor. The crowd had shouted for Jesus’ execution on the grounds that he was blasphemous. They said that nobody was entitled to call themselves the Messiah and their religion demanded that anyone who said they were should be put to death.
Pilate was in a difficult situation. He didn’t believe Jesus had done anything to deserve being put to death but to appease the crowd he ordered his execution. (I’m cutting a long story short here, forgive me).
Jesus was paraded through the streets, beaten, stripped, mocked, degraded and finally nailed to a cross to die.
We commemorated this in a service at church this morning, where we were reminded of the reasons why Jesus had to die, and what was gained by it. We were invited to write our names on a piece of card which we left at the foot of the cross to signify us leaving our worries, burdens, stresses, fears etc with God.
Over the sound of some gentle music, Eddie nailed our cards to the cross. The juxtaposition of the harsh nailing into the wood and the gentle hymn underneath it was extremely emotional and moving, and not something I find it easy to describe. The hollowness and the echo of the hammer blows against plaintive singing was…. well, it was what it was.
During the final hymn Eddie lifted high the cross above his head and planted it upright in the centre of the church. Here is a picture of it in situ, along with the foot-washing station from last night. You can see in the background a shaft of sunlight which to me represents the forthcoming joy and celebration of Easter Sunday where Jesus was discovered to be risen from the dead.
We showed a video at the end of the service that was as powerful a piece as I’ve ever encountered. I hope you find it as moving as I did. Please watch it right through.
- Pope to wash young offenders’ feet (bbc.co.uk)
- What is Maundy Thursday? (faithfulprovisions.com)
- Maundy Thursday (sallyt.typepad.com)