Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle B.
Wizards! Caspar! Melchior! Balthasar!
Why fly straight to Fox Herod? Through
Unbounded night—! Bringing only news
Ripe for bloodletting. How black a star
You follow. Herod knows. How bizarre
A kingly claim. Will he oppose? Muse
Like Mary? Ha—! Mothers’ sons lose
Heads to swords & axes. Herod bars
The throne to Jesus. Who kills first?
Herod orders. Dash ’em every one—!
Every male child under two years old.
God’s son Jesus flees to Egypt. Thirst
For blood remains. Later he won’t run.
The seasonal items aisle in the grocery store is a work in progress. Stuffed bunnies are being replaced by garden gnomes. Cans of sunscreen will soon inhabit the shelves that displayed egg-coloring kits a few days ago.
Easter is over.
Well, not completely. Boxes of purple and yellow Peeps are stacked on clearance tables in the middle of the aisle. Chocolate rabbits are available for half-price.
And tombs are being emptied.
There’s an old hymn that many Christians have sung for nearly a century. “How Great Thou Art” celebrates the glory of God while considering, “all the works thy hands have made.” It reminds me of the psalm that reads, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.”
Creation, therefore, is a witness to the wonder and awe of God. Although humanity has been given the honor of bearing God’s image, the earth shows God’s creativity and ingenuity. Over the years I’ve heard so many stories of people finding faith in God, not because of brilliant arguments, but because they are in awe of the complexity and glory of the created world.
But creation is not just a unique witness to God’s glory — it is, as the apostle Paul wrote, “groaning” waiting also for its redemption. This past Easter Sunday, Christians all over the world sang joyful songs of resurrection and renewal. Many of these songs proclaim freedom for all of creation — not just for humanity. One church I know of even sang “Joy to the World,” in celebration that the power of Christ’s resurrection extends “far as the curse is found.”
It’s hard to face, but humanity — image bearers of God — is largely responsible for destroying much of this great witness to God’s glory.
The women were there at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
The women were there when they laid him in the tomb.
The women walked through the desolate graveyard in the darkest hours of the night — the hours just before dawn, carrying sweet spices prepared to anoint Jesus’ dead body for proper burial. But they never got the chance.
They witnessed the earthquake, talked to the angel, and ran to the other followers announcing the resurrection of their beloved.
And Jesus’ mother, Mary, huddled in the upper room praying with the other women and the rest of the disciples in the days following the resurrection. Until that day, 50 days later, when tongues of fire fell on them all and Peter reminded the crowd of Joel’s ancient prophecy: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”
From the cross to the upper room, the women are lifted up! As the church stands in the light of Easter Sunday and now sets its face toward Pentecost, let us remember the women. And, as we do, let’s also remember the women in our pews and surrounding communities — the challenges, fears, and the very real dangers women face every day.
I used to hate Good Friday. Jesus dying a gruesome and unjust death didn’t seem particularly “good” to me. Even now, when I watch a Jesus movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told (or let’s be real: Jesus Christ Superstar), I find myself secretly hoping that someone in the crowd will say “wait a second! Just four days ago we really liked this guy. Crucifixion is a terrible idea, let’s go have Passover.” Mic drop.
The idealist and optimist in me would prefer to be reminded that the cross was empty, that Jesus was alive, to focus less on Good Friday and more on Easter Sunday. But I have come to appreciate the image of Christ on the cross much more now that I’m an adult and there are things that I have said and done in my life that deserve a reckoning. Jesus is there, gladly bearing my sin on the cross.
I’ve come to appreciate that there are so many broken and twisted places in this world that need a Redeemer. And Jesus is there, undoing the power of sin and evil on the cross.
But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him." Matthew 28:5-7
“Christ is risen!” That is the Easter greeting that Christians around the world have used for generations. It is one of my favorite parts of Easter — I love to hear the words “He is risen.”
But for so many of us, Easter is not just a religious holiday — it is a personal celebration and re-commitment. How do we personally experience the resurrection? Every year, as I hear and say “He is risen,” I remember that it’s not just a theological affirmation, but something I need personally.
Because I need — I think we all need — to remember and celebrate the hope that those words proclaim. “He is risen” is much more than an optimistic expression. It is not an empty platitude or wishful thinking, but the assertion of that in the midst of all the personal and collective pain, brokenness, injustice, and oppression that we see or experience, Christ is victorious. And we start over every Easter with a new affirmation and conviction of the hope that will always change both our lives and the world.
As I’ve been personally reflecting on the resurrection, I wanted to share an adaptation from the last chapter of my book, The Call to Conversion that explores what “Christ is risen!” meant to the earliest disciples. I hope that it will help you this Easter, as you celebrate the fact that “He is risen, indeed!” and reflect upon what this day of hope means for you.
“On the third day, he rose again.”
But how that statement is interpreted is the source of some of the deepest rifts in Christianity — and a stumbling block for some Christians and more than a few skeptics.
Did Jesus literally rise from the dead in a bodily resurrection, as many traditionalist and conservative Christians believe? Or was his rising a symbolic one, a restoration of his spirit of love and compassion to the world, as members of some more liberal brands of Christianity hold?
Think Christmas, and carols come to mind: “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel.” But think of the other great Christian season — Holy Week and Easter — and most people draw a musical blank.
“The music written for Holy Week is some of the richest in our literature,” said David Ludwig, dean of artistic programs at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
We love a good parade, don’t we? All that celebration, the noise, the crowds, the jubilation … It’s exciting and contagious and a little amazing how a good parade can impact us.
No one understood this like the Romans. These are the people of bread and circuses after all, and no one in the ancient world did empire better than the Romans. The Romans were incredibly good at subduing those people they had conquered. They celebrated the festivals of, raised up leadership from, and generally ingratiated themselves smoothly into the lives of those they ruled. But rule they did.
There certainly were people in Jesus’ time who thought Jesus’ work would be to overthrow the Roman oppressors — establish a political kingdom. Scholars surmise that Judas, the disciple who would betray Jesus to the empire, was one of these. Think of Judas as someone who saw the evils of the Roman Empire and desperately wanted Hebrew rule returned to the region. What we might today call a freedom fighter.
But throughout his ministry, Jesus talked explicitly about the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven that is not of this world but is omnipresent, always at hand, constantly among us. And God’s. Period. A very different image of kingship, of dominion.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus utters his agonizing prayer, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Who among us hasn’t found ourselves in a situation where the inevitable seems impossible? Where the unavoidable seems unimaginable?
Who hasn’t said to God, in so many words, “Remove this cup”?
The most difficult thing in such a situation may be its crushing inevitability. You want to escape from your life, which suddenly feels like an oncoming train about to run you down. It is the shock you feel when you receive a frightening diagnosis from your physician. When you are laid off from a job. When a friend dies. When a relationship ends. You say to yourself, “This cannot be happening.”
Easter Sunday marks the holiest, most exalted moment of the Christian year. In Easter services all over the world, trumpets and organs blast. Flowers transform churches with their brightness. Worship leaders boldly proclaim: “Christ is risen!” Congregations echo back: “Christ is risen indeed!” The cycle of celebration and repetition begins as it should — a festive proclamation of good news. In Christ God has overcome the powers of sin and death, freeing us to live with hope and promising us life. Not just life after death, but full life, divinely inspired life — life in the here and now.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Even in these festive moments, many people express insecurity regarding the quality of their own believing.
“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain the resurrection of the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11
Harsh winters make us more deeply appreciative of spring. Last week, after a particularly intense winter, it finally reached 60 degrees in New York. I, for one, celebrated heartily. Spring is a reminder that winter is not interminable and flowers will bloom again. Almost exactly one year ago, the Senate released a bipartisan bill on immigration reform. Many Christian leaders celebrated the possibility that finally the nearly 11 million men, women, and children would be afforded the opportunity to integrate into this great country. In addition, in January the GOP released a set of principles that set the tone for the genuine possibility for immigration reform. There was a growing consensus that this is the year for immigration reform. Then the news started to change and many prognosticators said, “Immigration reform is dead.”
It is into this public eulogy of immigration reform that the Christian message of Lent and Easter can breathe new life.
As an immigrant who made the long journey from Zacatecas, Mexico, to the farmlands of California many times as a child, the Lenten story of Jesus’s wandering for 40 days in the desert has always resonated with me very deeply. And the Easter celebration that follows sustains my hope and resolve that the faith community’s long movement to reform our broken immigration system will succeed.
Late last year, I, along with several other immigration advocates and inspiring faith leaders, camped out in a tent on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to call attention to the moral crisis and human suffering caused by our broken immigration system. We asked ourselves: What are our faith, our words, and our history worth if not translated into action, sacrifice, and redemption?
So, for 30 days we fasted and prayed that leadership in the House of Representatives would follow the Senate’s lead and pass a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill. The power of prayer surrounded us as we were led in reflection on a daily basis by pastors who serve undocumented families, by immigrants who suffer under our unjust system, and by public officials who came to see our commitment as days without food turned into weeks.
Even though the House refused to act in 2013, we believe that our fast, and the support of thousands of solidarity fasters around the world, helped change the discussion about reform from one of dollars and cents to one about people and families. Our sacrifice and the suffering of our immigrant brothers and sisters will end in victory and redemption.
As we approach Holy Week, I’ve been re-reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Last Supper, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. In John 17, as Jesus prays for his disciples and their successors in the hours before he is arrested, he prays for our unity as his church:
…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21, 23)
Central to our mission as Christ’s followers is to share with the world this good news: that the Father sent the Son because he so loved the world — but the best observable evidence of that Gospel reality, a unified Church, seems a distant, utopian dream. Just within the United States — this small sliver of the global church — we are divided by denomination, by race, by political ideology, and by the competitive human instinct that leads even those congregations who resemble one another doctrinally, ethnically, and politically to jockey over the same individuals in order to fill their sanctuaries (or auditoriums) and offering plates. Perhaps the situation is not quite so stark: I know that many — probably most — believers share the desire for unity. It just seems at times that we have so far to go, and might be drifting in the wrong direction.