Monthly Archives: March 2015

Getting to the Celebration of Life

Blind Faith (No. 13, 2015)
Weekly Devotional for March 26, 2015
Getting to the Celebration of Life

OK, Spring is now officially here: our pear trees are in full
blossom! Both trees shimmer with white blooms promising luscious pears next
Fall – if the squirrels don’t devour them all long before then! Soon the
whole world will teem with heralds of new life. Trees, shrubs, and flowers
bud and blossom with multiple shades of green, yellow, pink, white, and the
rest of the rainbow of colors. The landscape transforms from the cold browns
and grays of Winter to the lively chromatic promise of Spring. New clothes
rival the palate of floral displays, many wardrobes having their premieres
at Easter. Symbols of new life and fertility, such as bunnies and chicks,
populate Easter folklore. We are ready to embrace new life! Does anything
celebrate life more than a basket full of chocolates, jelly beans, and
marshmallow peeps? Well, in fact, yes..

Of course, Easter for Christians celebrates the profound triumph
of life over death in the resurrection of Jesus. The promise that death does
not have the final word, but that new life is the gift of God through faith
in Jesus Christ is absolutely central to Christian faith. Easter Sunday
worship resounds with the affirmation of new life spoken by the angel at
Jesus’ empty tomb to the women who went to anoint his dead body, “Jesus, who
has been crucified… {6} is not here. He has risen from the dead as he said
he would. Come and see the place where his body was. {7} And go quickly and
tell his followers, ‘Jesus has risen from the dead.'” (Matthew 28:5b-7a NCV)
Christians exuberantly respond to worship leaders’ proclamation of new life,
“Jesus Christ is risen!” with their own confident profession of faith, “He
is risen, indeed!”

As good as we feel by celebrating all of life, and particularly
by celebrating new life in the power of the resurrection of Jesus, we may
still sell our joyous celebration short. Reveling in the bright flower
blossoms of Spring is easy. Every Spring cheers us with refreshed blooms and
growth. Jesus’ resurrection is infinitely much more than any seasonal
refreshment, though. It is the radical reversal of human experience with sin
and death. The full impact of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be appreciated
without a keen sense of the reality expressed since antiquity in the
Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified,
dead, and buried.” You simply cannot appreciate and celebrate new life and
the power of resurrection without squarely facing the reality of death.

Fully accepting the reality that Jesus died has been an
important part of the Christian church’s celebration of Easter. A crucial
element of Holy Week worship services, during the week between Palm Sunday
and Easter Sunday, for centuries has been Tenebrae, the “Service of
Shadows.” It is usually conducted in somber tones, a dirge reflecting upon
Jesus’ death. In the ancient Christian tradition Tenebrae began at sundown
on Holy Wednesday and continued for four days including Maundy Thursday,
Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Worship services held on the four days
underscored the service, betrayal, trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus.
The purpose of Tenebrae is to emphasize the fact that Jesus died – he died –
for our sin. We tend too quickly to gloss over his death in a headlong rush
to reach the joyous celebration of life at Easter.

A meditation on the death of Jesus has stuck in my thoughts
since I first heard it sometime around 1974. It is cast as the musings of
the beloved disciple, John, as imagined by Ragan Courtney in the gospel
musical, Celebrate Life. John, Matthew, and the other apostles recall how
their world was violently plunged into chaos when the rabbi who had taught
them the depth of God’s love, Jesus, was arrested and put to death. John
speaks a monologue that always heightens my sense of Jesus’ death:

He died that day. He walked straight down that road
with all sorts of resolve, and he died. And I cried every step of the way
without shame because my grief was holy. I knew every step he took had been
walked by millions of men marching through the valley of the shadow. But he
died for them all. Over all those broken stones and black thorns. And he
walked it alone. I thought,”How can I bear not having him with us?” I felt
as I walked through the crowd that I shouldn’t weep for what stupid reason,
I can’t remember. . . The tears in my eyes formed prisms so that I saw
hundreds of him walking away . . . to die. All the grasses bent their heads
and the wind blew a sad, sad refrain. And I watched him walk to the altar
again and again.

His whole life had pointed into this eventuality. He
died. Why was he so abused? Because he loved? Is love so horrible to look at
that people must kill it?
(Ragan Courtney, Celebrate Life, Broadman Press, 1974)

Jesus died. His death deeply affected people who witnessed the
event. A Roman army officer, a seasoned commander of a hundred men, was
strangely moved by his death. When the centurion stood there in front of
Jesus and heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, ‘Surely this man was
the Son of God!'” (Mark 15:39 NIV) Yet, Jesus died. His death contrasts so
starkly with his teaching about God’s mercy, justice, and love. It does not
square with his making sick people whole, or his feeding of hungry crowds,
or his forgiveness of outcast lawbreakers, or his embrace of society’s
untouchables. But he died! Paul tells us why:

When we were unable to help ourselves, at the moment of our need, Christ
died for us, although we were living against God. {7} Very few people will
die to save the life of someone else. Although perhaps for a good person
someone might possibly die. {8} But God shows his great love for us in this
way: Christ died for us while we were still sinners. {9} So through Christ
we will surely be saved from God’s anger, because we have been made right
with God by the blood of Christ’s death. {10} While we were God’s enemies,
he made friends with us through the death of his Son. Surely, now that we
are his friends, he will save us through his Son’s life. (Romans 5:6-10 NCV)

My sin and your sin – our resistance to God’s way of life – draws us into
the battle lines against Jesus, the personification of God’s love and grace.
To end the battle, not by obliterating us, but by defeating the power of our
sin, Jesus died. Paul says, “Once you were separated from God. The evil
things you did showed your hostile attitude. {22} But now Christ has brought
you back to God by dying in his physical body. He did this so that you could
come into God’s presence without sin, fault, or blame.” (Colossians 1:21-22
GWT) Only as we realize the enormity of God’s love for us demonstrated in
Jesus’ death can we begin to appreciate the unfathomable gift God has
offered us through Jesus’ resurrection life. Simply stated, “When people
sin, they earn what sin pays–death. But God gives us a free gift–life
forever in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23 NCV)

Don’t scramble to your Easter celebration so hurriedly that you
rush past the hard reality of the death of Jesus. If your congregation does
not observe Tenebrae services next week on Good Friday, perhaps you can find
a service held by another church in your area. I urge you to attend. At
least set aside some time to think deeply about Jesus’ death during the day
next Friday for yourself. Sin always leads to death, but because of God’s
grace instead of it leading to my death Jesus is the one who died. Because
of his death my sin is forgiven. Because of his resurrection life I have
hope for life, meaningful life here and now, and life forever with God. Once
I have faithfully traveled that train of thought, I am truly ready to
exclaim on Easter Sunday morning in joyous celebration of life, “Jesus
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed.”

– J. Edward Culpepper