Then Moses called all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, select lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. None of you shall go outside the door of your house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children. When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.’” And the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.
~ Exodus 12:21-28
We begin the day outside the eastern walls of ancient Jerusalem, overlooking the Kidron Valley. From where we stand we can see the Temple Mount, the city wall with its gates, and a vast cemetery full of tombs and monuments. It is fitting that we begin our day’s study with a contemplation of death, as today we reflect on Jesus’ last days: his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his prayer and betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, his crucifixion outside the city walls, all before we remember with joy his resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning. All this happens the week of Passover, the high Jewish festival of remembrance, celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus’s arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion during Holy Week retell the story of Israel’s Passover, with Jesus Christ as both sacrificial Lamb and delivering God. But before we can celebrate that new life of deliverance from slavery, we must first lose the old one. A great paradox: we must die to live.
Mount of Olives | Palm Sunday
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
~ Matthew 21:1-5
We consider here the “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Golden Gates, surrounded by crowds waving branches and carpeting the dirt path with their coats, all while shouting from Psalm 118:
“Save us, we beseech you, (Hosan-na!) O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
We celebrate Palm Sunday in our churches with upbeat praise music, led by our children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!”, relieved that it’s finally the last day of Lent. It’s a party atmosphere. And maybe that’s how it was on that first Palm Sunday: a party. But read again what they’re actually saying: “Hosanna!” is not the same as “Hallelujah!” “Hosanna!” is a desperate cry for help: “Save us!” The people are greeting Jesus Christ as they would a conquering Messianic King, expecting him to be a king for the people, a political savior. But look how he comes: riding a donkey, not a warhorse, followed by fishermen, not soldiers, coming in at the eastern Golden Gate, the gate through which the Messiah was to come, but without any fanfare other than the voices of everyday people.
Across the city, at the Jaffa gate, Pontius Pilate would probably have been arriving from his villa at Caesarea Maritima, surrounded by Roman legions, in preparation for the Jewish festival of Passover. This is the arrival of a king, not the rabble on the other side of Jerusalem.
The Pharisees are quick to chastise Jesus for this inappropriate display (Luke 19:39). We shouldn’t read this as an angered outburst of jealousy from Jesus’ enemies. One of the most interesting things I learned on this trip was that Jesus had a more nuanced relationship with the Pharisees than I had assumed. The Pharisees probably saw Jesus as a prospective addition to their number, except for his problematic tendency toward the prophetic. We’ve heard a few times now how Jesus’ views align very well with the Pharisees’ views on most things, and these Pharisees might even have been following Jesus to learn from him. They’re simply asking for some restraint in the crowd’s celebration of Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem. The Pharisees are not comfortable with Roman occupation, and they certainly don’t want to exacerbate tensions in Jerusalem.
And all while the festive atmosphere builds, and the Pharisees worry over the implications of an ill-timed party, Jesus weeps.
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”
~ Luke 19:41-44
A church has been built at this spot on the way into Jerusalem, named “The Lord Wept” in Latin (Dominus Flevit). And as we look from the church yard out over the Temple Mount, we see now exactly what Jesus foresaw then: the inevitable and lamentable religious and political conflicts that have come, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Christ has come, the Light of the World, and yet the darkness has not understood it (John 1:5). We weep with Christ for the countless people still living in darkness, torn by the prolonged conflict. Lord, have mercy.
Gethsemane | Maundy Thursday
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.”
~ Matthew 26:36
We were given time to walk around the garden connected to the church that stands here to mark Gethsemane, the Mount of Olives. We, as Jesus’ present-day disciples, are here in the warmth of the morning, observing the beauty of the flowers and wondering at the age of the gnarled, knotted olive trees, surrounded by other pilgrims and visitors. How different that night almost 2000 years ago must have been for Jesus’ contemporary disciples – cold, dark, lonely. We were reminded of what we learned in Nazareth Village at the olive press:
Just as the oil from the first press is pure, and used in temple rites of purification; and the oil from the second press is clean, and used in preparing foods and medicines; and the oil from the third press, while impure, is still useful for burning for light and heat; so the blood and sweat poured out in the prayers of Jesus are useful and beneficial for our purification, nourishment, and comfort, poured out for us. Thanks be to God!
Three times Jesus returned to intense, wringing prayer, after pleading his disciples to stay awake, and to accompany him in prayer. His poured-out prayers for himself, for his disciples, and for God’s will, are a model for our own intercession and petitions.
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
~ Matthew 26:39
“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”
~ Matthew 26:42
First, Jesus prays his heart’s deepest pleas not to a distant, indifferent deity, but to a God who is intimately interested in his good, and infinitely capable of providing what he needs. He calls the God to whom he prays “Father,” “Abba.”
Second, he expresses his plea simply and honestly, without bargaining or hiding or justifying. Jesus pleas, certainly, so intensely that drops of blood are wrung from him (Luke 22:44). But the depth of feeling in Jesus’ prayer do not lead him to “heap up empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7).
Third, he concludes his prayers by entrusting his words and his very life into his Father’s hands. He trusts his Father in heaven to work for only his best in any and every circumstance. Jesus closes his prayers with “Your will be done” because he knows and believes that “Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and glory forever.”
Just like our Lord and Rabbi Jesus, we can pray for what we need simply, honestly, and courageously to God as our loving and trustworthy Father, entrusting our prayers and our lives to Him who is ready and able to answer them for our ultimate good.
Of course, we cannot remember Jesus’ prayers for safety and deliverance without also remembering the way his prayers were answered:
At once [Judas] came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
~ Matthew 26:49-52
No wonder why we experience both fear and resignation when we reluctantly or perfunctorily pray our own “Thy will be done”s, if this is how they turn out. Jesus prayed thus, and immediately afterward was betrayed and arrested, so it seems that it must be God’s will that his own beloved son should be killed. And, we reason, if God would want His own son killed, how must he feel about us, poor sinners that we are?
But what if God’s will is grander and greater than manipulating all the pieces of the chess board? What if God’s will was not merely for his son to die, but that all people — indeed all creation — were reconciled to Him, through His son? And what if His will were not an arbitrary edict, but motivated by His immense, overwhelming, all-consuming love for His creation, for us? Then we could pray courageously and trustingly “Your will be done!” because we would know that in everything, God is out for our ultimate good, because he loves us.
So God is not to blame for Judas’ kiss. Judas is. And God is not to blame for the priests’ arrest. The priests are. And God is not to blame for Peter’s assault on the servant. Peter is. God is not a dictator, and His will does not override ours. Judas betrayed Jesus because of greed: the priests paid him to provide an intimate way to indicate Jesus out of the huge Passover crowds to the temple guards. The priests had Jesus arrested out of jealousy and misguided religiousity: he was a threat not only to their social status but also to their carefully balanced political peace with the Roman authorities. Peter attacked the priest’s servant out of vindictive love for his Rabbi: he did not strike to kill, only to wound, in order to preclude him from the strictly observed qualifications of physical wholeness required of temple employees.
We are responsible for our own decisions and actions. We cannot use God’s will as an excuse. This is precisely why we should take great comfort in praying “Your will be done.” If left to pursue our own wills, we invariably spiral away from our good and the good of others toward destruction; if we align our wills with God’s will, we will always be directed toward our ultimate good, even if that route passes through the valley of the shadow of death…
Kidron Valley | Good Friday
The Kidron Valley runs south along the east wall of Jerusalem, surrounded and filled with tombs. Because death and the dead were ceremonially unclean, burials were not permitted within the walls of Jerusalem. We walk the Kidron Valley path, filing past historic tombs with grand monuments and humble tombs with stones — each speaking of a family visit — thrown on top.
We pause here to hear about crucifixion, a favorite form of political execution used by Rome throughout its empire. Crucifixions, if certain historians are to be trusted, may have been a nearly constant occurrence here along the road into Jerusalem. Criminals of all sorts would have been placed here, probably at eye level, to remind travelers and pilgrims into the city to behave themselves during their stay, or suffer the same consequences. This is most likely Rome’s reason for crucifying Jesus. He was the self-styled “King of the Jews,” a publicly recognized insurrectionist, and he needed to be made an example of publicly, to warn anyone else who aspired to the same thing.
From the Jews’ perspective, Jesus was a blasphemer, a man who sacreligiously claimed too much of himself, potentially leading God’s people away from Him and toward a false concept of god, toward idolatry. As a religious leader, this would be a noble and right cause to censor or exile a false prophet. But Jesus was more than a kook on a street corner. He was a celebrity, and what is more, the people believed him because he spoke as one with authority, unlike the Pharisees and scribes. So it would take more than exile to get rid of Jesus; they also had to get rid of his ideas. And for that, a public execution as a political criminal was the best bid. After all, if Jesus was violently, publicly, bitterly executed for saying such things, then so would anyone else who said the same things.
I wonder, then, if the Jewish leaders were so justified in executing Jesus, according to their understanding of their faith, then why hold his trial in the dead of night, at the high priest’s home? Why not in broad daylight, in public, for an audience? Wouldn’t that only add to his indictment as a criminal? Perhaps they used such secrecy because it was Passover, and they wanted this taken care of urgently, before the major events, or at the margins, to not distract from the main ceremonies. Or perhaps the trial was held clandestinely in order to keep from inciting a riot in favor of Jesus, which is more likely. I wonder if the whole Sanhedrin was present? Or was this only a small group of only the upper management? I wonder…
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them…The place where Jesus was crucified was near the city.
~ John 19:16-20
From a biblical perspective, the details of Jesus’ crucifixion clearly point to him as the fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system, begun all the way back in Egypt, at the first Passover. We read that Jesus breathed his last at 3:00pm, “the sixth hour,” on a hill called Golgotha (now enshrined just outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). At that moment on another nearby hill, the Temple Mount, a priest would have ascended to the top of the Temple and blown a ram’s horn, announcing to all of Israel that the atoning sacrifice had been made for the sins of the whole nation. Other astonishing signs are recorded in the gospels’ account of Jesus’ death: an earthquake, premature darkness, tombs opening, dead bodies resuscitated, and most telling of all, the Temple curtain dividing the Most Holy place from the inner sanctuary is torn in two, from top to bottom. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the earth is wracked in grief and veils its face from the light; yet forgiveness fanfares ring loud, life breaks forth, and God’s presence is offered to all.
To grasp the exchange that occurred on the cross, we were reminded of what we learned at Tel Dan: blood is the physical manifestation of the life God gave us; our sins and our sinfulness mark us for death, and must be removed by life, by blood. This is the essence of a sacrifice, a specific sequence of redemptive events: a representative death, the manipulation of blood over what is to be cleansed, a burning of the remains (sometimes completely) in order that it “go up” (the literal translation of the Hebrew “offering”) to God, and a feast (sometimes featuring the sacrificed animal after it’s been cooked). These events were prescribed for Israel’s worship, not arbitrarily, but as a context for communion with God. In Christ, these events are fulfilled: in his death, ours is represented; in the shedding of his blood, our sinfulness is cleansed and our sins are forgiven; in his ascension, Christ “goes up” to God, bearing with him his blood (Hebrews 9); and in the sacrament of communion, he has instituted a regular feast of his own body and blood for our joyful remembrance, communion, and hope in and with God.
Notice that the cross is not the end of the sacrifice, but the beginning! And the exchange of the cross is not itself the purpose, but the means to our enjoying perfect union with God.
We discussed a yet more complex element to sacrificial or atonement theology. It must be asked, What is the nature of our separation from God, that sacrifice is necessary to attain union with God? Have our sinfulness and sins so ruined us, that God is no longer even able to look on us, unless we pay the price of our wickedness? If this is so, then sacrifice is necessary as a propitiation, a gesture from us to God to win His love and favor. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife to gain her approval, because doing dishes is better than sleeping on the couch.
But what if the separation we experience from God is not because of His absence from us, out of wrath or disgust for our sin(s)/fulness, but rather our absence from Him, our rebellion or distractedness or selfishness. Then sacrifice is not primarily our gesture to win God, but is in fact God’s act of expiation to remove the offense that keeps us from Him. This is like a husband who does the dishes for his wife because the dishes need to be done before they can spend the evening relaxing together.
The sacrifice of Christ is not the actions of an abandoned son trying to please a demanding Father in order that a ruined creation might be restored to its original splendor before God will love it once more. I fear this is how many of us understand the story of salvation, even if we would never say it in these words.No, the sacrifice of Christ is the ultimate gesture of embrace of a good and loving Father giving what is most precious to Him — the very life of His own Son — in order to win back the world He loves. Christ himself, as God’s beloved Son, loves his Father in heaven, and therefore loves what his Father loves, and willingly gave his life as a sacrifice for us, being obedient even unto death. For this we rejoice, that our God is a God of love!
Church of the Holy Sepulchre | Resurrection Sunday
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.
~ John 20:1
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre standing today is a crusader church built in the 1100’s over the traditional spots of both the crucifixion and the resurrection. But for the skeptics, who look for discrepancies between church tradition and factual history, we were told there are 15 evidences that this is the actual spot. What is most surprising about this to me is that the cross and the tomb were so close to one another.
This is not one church, but in fact a honeycomb of churches, one building hosting 6 different denominations of Christianity: 3 major churches – the Roman Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Church – and 3 minor churches – the Ethiopian Church, the Assyrian Orthodox Church, and the Coptic Church.
As much as this church is a center of Christian unity — the one site on earth we all have in common, and where so many branches of the Christian family tree worship together — this is also a place where we saw the still great division among Christians. These 6 churches do not worship together, but each in their own separate languages, in their own chapels within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As a humorous caricature of this disunity, we were shown a small wooden ladder that we were told has remained on the facade of the church for over 90 years, because no one church will take responsibility for putting it there. We were also told that a Muslim family has held the key to the doors of the single most important Christian holy site for over 700 years because that is the only way these churches know to share the same building. The empty cross and empty tomb of the living Jesus Christ is the one place on earth that should unite the Christian community in worship and peace, and instead it is marked by evidence of division and factions.
Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
~ John 5:2-6
Most of our touring today was focused on the events of Holy Week, from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday. The healing at the pool of Bethesda was not part of Holy Week, as far as we know, but was very appropriate for considering the new life that is ours in Christ Jesus.
We finished our day’s pilgrimage at St. Ann’s, an 18th-century French church on the site of the pools of Bethesda. This place is long associated with healing: this is also the site of the ancient Roman Temple of Asclepius, where the baths, along with the use of opiates, helped to heal and restore people.
In the biblical episode at Bethesda, Jesus encounters a man by the side of the pool, as if the man is interested in being healed of whatever illness afflicts him. And yet if that were true, the man would presumably been more active in pursuing restoration. This is not the case. Perhaps he’s enjoying the secondary benefits of his illness, like the pity and the attention he gets from caretakers. Or maybe he’s simply afraid of what a life without illness might look like, as he’s forgotten what it means to be well. Either way, Jesus sees this man exactly where he is, and recognizes his reluctance to be really well. He wants to stay close to where he could be made well, certainly, but he doesn’t desire wellness.
Could we be like this man? We find ourselves over and over and over again at the cross of Jesus, praying for forgiveness and asking for new life, and yet we don’t actually pursue the assurance of complete restoration and healing that Jesus offers us in his resurrection from the dead. Jesus offers us a gospel of life, abundant life, life that burst forth from the tombs we often resign ourselves to. And still we find ourselves stuck believing a gospel of sin management, as though that’s the best we can hope for. Jesus encounters this unfortunate man again, and we see again that Jesus is more like the Pharisees than we often assume. Jesus prioritizes life over law.
Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him,“See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.”
~ John 5:14
The invitation to new life, to wholeness, to spiritual health and vitality, comes with this charge: “Sin no more.” We can hem and haw and explain this away, telling ourselves and others that we are always going to be bound to our sin in this life as fallen sinners. But our risen Lord and Rabbi Jesus has given us a command: “Sin no more.” We must commit ourselves, as redeemed ones in whom Christ dwells and delights, as resurrection people, to lives of serious obedience.
Indwelling Holy Spirit, empower us to live the new life of trust and obedience that Christ came to give us here and now.
Other sights from the day:
Evening Speaker: Salim Munayer
Salim is a Palestinian Christian, who works for an organization called “Musalaha,” which means “Reconciliation.” He shared with us more specific, personal examples of the injustices the Palestinians face in what was once their homeland. But what impacted me most was not to hear a diatribe against the Jewish occupation, or a litany of grievances against U.S. involvement in Palestinian oppression, or a passionate plea to us to side with the Palestinians for peace and justice.
Salim shared with us his sharp theological mind, turned not against Israel or toward Palestine, but fully fixed on God as revealed in Jesus Christ, seeking to live as a disciple of Christ in an impossible situation. He offered us some of the theological questions he daily wrestles with:
- How would Jesus cross a checkpoint twice every day?
- How would Jesus respond to this lose-lose situation: if he acts, he will be labeled a terrorist; if he does not act, his land will be seized for settlements?
- How do we respond to the realities of this conflict when the occupiers use the same Old Testament Bible to support their occupation? Do we give up the Old Testament entirely, or simply question its authority in every situation?
Salim did appeal to us, as American Christians, to think carefully about our theological positions, their biblical foundations, and their political consequences. He shared with us that American “Evangelicals” (read “Premillennial Dispensationalists”) give $200 million annually to the State of Israel, all because of a bad theology of land. Zionists misunderstand the role of land in Scripture, and God’s relationship to it, and throw their lot in with disastrous outcomes. It is not enough for us to leave the conflict to others. Christians are already involved in this conflict. But how are we called to engage it? Are we called to take one side over the other? Or to be peacemakers?
Salim offered us a surprising solution: remembering. He reminded us of the memory that “Yad Vashem” encourages: “Never forgive; never forget.” But our Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, teaches a very different kind of memory, a memory it seems the Jews have forgotten in their efforts to occupy and re-settle their Promised Land. The memory of Passover is “You were once a stranger in a foreign land; when you enter the land I have promised you, love the foreigner and the alien.”
It is striking how prevalent and powerful the sense of victimization is here. Both Israel and Palestine claim more and more loudly that they are the world’s greatest victim. Being a victim means that the world, and especially its powerful, owes them everything. At the same time, the party in the wrong, their enemies, are entirely responsible for peace: “It’s their fault, we’re just the victims!” Both sides refuse to consider the pain of the other, and therefore shut themselves off from feeling any responsibility for the ways they have wronged the other. This makes repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation impossible. Lord, have mercy. Salim’s words are powerful:
“We find God in our enemies. We find ourselves in our enemies. Our enemies are always our neighbors: our future depends on how we treat our enemy-neighbors.”