In the last message, we began a day-to-day look at the events of Holy Week, the week that goes from Palm Sunday to Easter – the final week of Jesus’ life. We considered the events of Sunday the Day of Procession, when Jesus entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, to the shouts of “Hosanna!” from the people; the events of Monday, the Day of Cleansing, when he cleared the Temple of those who were using God’s house for greed and exploitation instead of worship; and the events of Tuesday, the Day of Teaching, when Jesus taught through parable, debate, example, prophecy, and Law. These are events that all the gospel writers made sure to report on, in some detail; they considered them to be important. These are the things that Jesus chose to do with his last few days, knowing his life was about to end; he must have considered them to be very important.
The intent of our look at these days is to give more meaning to our experience of Holy Week this year. My hope is that each day this week, we might recall what it was Jesus was doing on that day, what this is the “Day of…”. Perhaps you will go back each day and read the part of the gospel about that day. Say a prayer about what you read; have your own private little worship service or devotional time, by yourself, or with your family. Each day of this week can carry great weight, great meaning for us, as we approach Easter’s celebration.
Today, together, we look at the second half of Holy Week, Wednesday through Saturday, the final events of Jesus’ life. Again we will rely primarily on the accounts of Mark and Matthew.
Wednesday, the Day of Anointing and Betrayal: Mark 14: 1-11
This section could be subtitled “two reactions to a king.” The king we’re speaking of, of course, is Jesus; the first reaction is that of the unidentified woman who anoints him. Anointing, says the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, was the application of scented olive oil or other perfumed ointments. It was usually a sign of gladness. Heads of guests were anointed, to show how happy one was that they had come. Kings were anointed, in celebration of their being chosen as king, and at their festive coronations. People applied ointments to themselves when on their way to a party or wedding or other celebration. And ointment was cooling; it was pain-soothing; it felt good.
Any one of these reasons may have motivated the unnamed woman. She may have been anointing Jesus as a welcome guest; she may have been expressing her joy at his presence; she may have been demonstrating her belief that he was the Messiah, the promised king. She may have just wanted him to feel refreshed an pleasant. Whatever the specifics, she was showing her devotion to him.
But there was another time anointing was done too: in this period, it was customary to use the perfumed oils and ointments for the anointing of the body of the dead, before burial. And even though it’s unlikely that this was what motivated the woman, since very few people seemed to have understood Jesus’ announcement that he was going to be killed soon, this was the meaning that Jesus took from it: she has anointed my body beforehand, he said, for its burial. Still, it was a sign of devotion.
Some of the people present were critical of her: “She shouldn’t have done that! She should have sold the ointment, or given the money to the poor! She used it the wrong way!” To which Jesus says, as he has said before, “Leave her alone. It is fine that she has chosen to express her dedication to me in this way.” As we have discussed before, Jesus’ practice was to rebuke those who would say, “Make her worship the way I do; make her respond to you the way I would respond.” They might want to serve him by giving money to the poor, but she could also serve him through her personal attention to him; either way of worshipping was fine.
The second response to this king is found immediately preceding the anointing and immediately following; it is the response of the chief priests and Judas, who conspire to kill Jesus. While the woman expressed her devotion, they expressed their hostility. “The chief priests and scribes,” Mark wrote, “were looking for a way to arrest Jesus and kill him. Judas went to the chief priests in order to betray him.” Again we are not told the exact motivation of the people involved. It has been speculated that they may honestly have thought they were protecting their religion and the people from Jesus’ ideas, which they considered new, strange, and blasphemous. It could be that they were protecting their own positions of power. It could be that Judas thought he could get Jesus to finally step forward and become king, once backed into a corner, that he was just pushing him a bit. Whatever their motivation, it was not devotion to Jesus Christ. Be it hatred, or manipulation, or fear, it was not the motivation of the woman; it was not devotion to the king. Two reactions, to a king.
And then Wednesday, the Day of Anointing and Betrayal, was over.
Thursday, the Day of Passover, Maundy Thursday
Mark 14: 12-62, selected verses
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” The disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread[a] into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. They laid hands on him and arrested him. They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am.”
Our name for it, first of all, “Maundy Thursday,” comes from the Latin word “maundum,” which means “commandment,” for it was on this evening, John reports, that Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you; that you love one another.”
To Jesus and the disciples, it was, of course, Passover, the commemoration of the night 1200 years before, that the Hebrew slaves of Egypt were spared the final plague of losing their firstborn sons, were released from slavery, and set off across the desert, led by Moses, to the Promised Land. The Hebrew slaves involved in that experience had been given very specific instructions: they included the direction to take an unblemished lamb, one without faults, kill it, and sprinkle some of its blood on the doorposts. When the angel of death who was slaying the firstborn of each Egyptian household came to a house, if he saw the blood on the posts, he would know that that house had followed God’s instructions, and the life of the faultless lamb would count as the life taken from that house, not any of the residents’.
That symbolism of Passover had carried over to the Christian tradition, because of what happened the day after Jesus and his disciples celebrated this Passover: on that day, too, a faultless lamb, the Lamb of God, was killed, his blood spilled, and that life accepted instead of the lives of the people. The Passover tradition continues.
To it we have added another observance, our observance of Jesus’ last supper, our sacrament, repeating, as he told the disciples to do, the sharing of the bread and cup, confident in Jesus’ spiritual presence, his sharing it with us, nurturing us, sustaining us, in our faith.
Following the supper, Jesus went out to pray, in the Garden of Gethsemane. And there he prays a two-part request. The first part is: “remove this cup from me.” I don’t want to go through what lies waiting for me. I don’t want to do this. Remove this from me. But the second part is: “yet not what I want, but what you want.” I know what I want, but I will do what you want.
And so it begins: Judas arrives with the chief priests, who had wanted to know where they could arrest Jesus in secret, away from the crowds who might object. That is what Judas knew; that’s why they needed him. They brought with them a crowd, with clubs and swords. And they arrested Jesus, without announcing a charge, and took him to a secret nighttime trial, with carefully-selected participants. They first tried to fabricate some charges against him, but failed. Finally they asked Jesus directly: “Are you the Messiah?” And when he answered “Yes,” they had all the evidence they believed they needed, to convict him of blasphemy, of calling himself, a human being, “God,” thereby insulting God.
Notice how afraid they were. Whatever their motivation, be it selfish or for the protection of their faith, they were obviously terrified of this man: a big crowd, weapons, a secret trial, made-up charges. Something about him terrified them; something about him made them see him as dangerous.
For the first time in our week, there is no clear distinction between one day and the next. Some time during the trial, Thursday slips into Friday. “Maundy Thursday” is over; “Good Friday” has begun.
Friday, the Day of Crucifixion
Mark 15: 1-46, selected verses
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land[ until three in the afternoon. Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
When evening had come, Joseph of Arimathea brought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.
The chief priests and Jewish authorities have managed to convict Jesus of blasphemy, but being an occupied nation, they cannot carry out the punishment they would like to administer. The punishment for blasphemy, according to the law, was death. But only Rome, the conquerors, could put someone to death; only the ruling authorities could administer this form of capital punishment, not the conquered common citizens. So the next step is to bring Jesus before the Roman authorities, to try to get them to sentence and put him to death. And that’s where Pilate comes in.
Mark’s account of Pilate tells us very little about what was going on in his mind; you may have noticed by now that Mark hardly ever explains what’s going on inside someone’s thoughts—he just describes their actions. But Mark does tell us one thing about Pilate: “wishing to satisfy the crowd, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.” Pilate seems to have been motivated by nothing else as much as the desire to keep order; after all, that’s how his performance would be evaluated by his superiors. And one way to keep people orderly is to make them happy, when it’s convenient. Even if it means abandoning usual standards of justice. Even if it means someone dies. Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified.
It is often asked, especially on Palm Sunday, the day the crowds say, “Hosanna” to Jesus, “What happened to the crowd?” How could they be cheering Jesus as the one coming in the name of the Lord on Sunday, and shouting “Crucify him” on Friday? We can only speculate; remember, Mark doesn’t tell us what’s going on in people’s minds; perhaps it was a different crowd from the one on Sunday, perhaps handpicked by the authorities the way they had arranged Jesus’ trial. Or maybe the people had been bribed or persuaded or even threatened. Maybe the crowd was loyal to their religious leaders: “if that’s what the minister says to do, that’s good enough for me.” Or maybe they really had turned against Jesus, thinking he had lied to them by letting them think he was the Messiah – since he now obviously was not going to kick the Romans out; people who feel they have been lied to or deceived can get very angry. Whoever they were, and however they reached their decision, that decision was clear: “Crucify him.”
And so the Romans did. Jesus was placed on a cross and left to die. They subjected him to the punishment they considered both the cruelest – the most painful – and the most shameful, reserved for only the lowest and most despised criminals.
At nine o’clock in the morning they crucified him. At twelve noon darkness came over the whole land. At three o’clock Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. When evening had come, Joseph of Arimathea took Jesus’ body and laid it in a tomb. Friday, the Day of Crucifixion, was over.
Saturday, the Day of Sabbath: “On the Sabbath day they rested according to the commandment.”
Matthew 27: 62b – 66
Notice again how frightened they were. Even after Jesus was dead, they feared him. So they sealed shut the large stone that covered the door of the tomb, and they placed guards around it, so no one could come near. After all, they had to make sure that the body of Jesus of Nazareth stayed put in that tomb. Then Saturday, the Day of Sabbath, ended.
Lent . . . is the season of preparation for Easter. How can we conclude our preparation, in its final week?
- On Monday, we can prepare by remembering the Day of Cleansing: Jesus cleared out of the Temple the impediments to proper worship. Are there any impediments in me, we can ask ourselves, preventing my proper worship?
- On Tuesday, we can prepare by remembering the Day of Teaching: What was it Jesus was trying to tell us, with his last opportunity? Have we learned it? Do we teach it to others?
- On Wednesday, we can prepare by considering the two reactions to the king, anointing and betrayal: Is our reaction one of devotion? Is that devotion mixed with complaints about the way someone else shows their devotion? Is it mixed with any fear or hostility?
- On Thursday, we can prepare by remembering the dinner: the Passover symbolism, of an unblemished lamb slain so that God’s people might live; the invitation to join Jesus in the supper, the new commandment to love one another.
- On Friday we prepare by remembering Jesus’ death, and what it was for.
And for now we pray:
God, let this week draw us closer to Jesus and make us better disciples. Amen.