Category Archives: Holiday

Up From the Grave He Arose

Low in the grave he lay, Jesus my Savior,

waiting the coming day, Jesus my Lord!

Vainly they watch his bed, Jesus my Savior,

vainly they seal the dead, Jesus my Lord!

Death cannot keep its prey, Jesus my Savior,

he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord!

Up from the grave he arose, with a mighty triumph o’er his foes;

he arose a victor from the dark domain,

and he lives forever, with his saints to reign.

He arose! He arose!

Hallelujah! Christ arose!

–words and music by Robert Lowry, 1874

Mission Accomplished! (Good Friday 2021)

“It is finished!” And he bowed his head and released his spirit.

The Gospel of John (19: 30) records these final dying words of Jesus, spoken from the cross. A quick reading might prompt one to hear this utterance as the sad lament of defeated man. Not so fast, though. The Gospel writers Matthew (27:50) and Mark (15:37) don’t report Jesus’s last words. They tell us only that he “shouted out again” or “cried out again in a loud voice” before breathing his last. If we use all three accounts as evidence, what the Son of God likely said was a single word evoking not loss, but satisfactory completion. He spoke in Aramaic, but the original Greek of John’s gospel translates it as “tetelestai.”

This word would have been familiar in several contexts to the people of first-century Palestine. Having completed the last task of the day, a worker might tell his boss, “Tetelestai.” An artist, putting the final touch on a painting, might use the same word. A debt paid in full would be stamped “Tetelestai.” For Jews, the word would have been the Greek equivalent of a familiar Hebrew phrase announced by the High Priest each year on the Day of Atonement. After offering the proper sacrificial animals at the altar of the Holy of Holies at the Temple in Jerusalem, the priest emerged to tell the assembled crowd that God had accepted the sacrifice of the people.*

Jesus’s final cry before dying was therefore no whimper of pained surrender. Instead it was an exclamation of triumph.** The various frames of reference for “tetelestai” mentioned above are all helpful in understanding Jesus’s use of the word and what his death means for us. His earthly work is done, the masterpiece completed, the debt paid, the perfect sacrifice offered and accepted. In other words, “Mission Accomplished!”

Three of the Gospels include an often overlooked, but immensely significant detail that stands as proof of the change ushered in by Christ’s death. According to Mark 15: 38: “And the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” This was the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This sacred space housed the Ark of the Covenant, considered by the Jewish people to be the very throne of God. Only priests could enter the Holy place. The High Priest alone entered into that sanctified inner realm, the Holy of Holies, and then, only once a year, on that holiest of all days, The Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.

Although sometimes referred to as a veil, the Temple curtain was no delicate, gauzy thing that might have ripped easily in a gusty wind. It was a heavy, brocaded cloth, woven with images of protective angels. Only an intentional act of great force could have caused the Temple curtain to be torn fully asunder. Both Matthew and Mark tell us that it was divided from top to bottom, as though from on high. Human hands had no part in this. This was God’s work.

Having destroyed the barrier to the Holy of Holies, God invites his people to approach him directly. Middlemen are no longer needed. The ultimate gift of atonement invites us to be “at one” with God. Having willingly offered his own life for our sins, Jesus and his father tell us that animal sacrifices are a thing of the past. The perfect Lamb of God has paid our debt in full. We are redeemed. Tetelestai!

This is what Jesus referred to earlier at the Last Supper, when he took the cup and told his disciples, “This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. “(Matthew 26:28) We, and all generations before and after us, are among the many. It was on this same night that Jesus reduced the entirety of his message to this one essential commandment: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” (John 13: 34) See yesterday’s Maundy Thursday post.

So, what then is required of us in these days of the New Covenant? It’s simple. Accept the gift that was given to us in love by our brother and savior Jesus. Admit our shortcomings and try to do better. Focus less on ourselves and more on others. Get back to basics: “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Think about that. We have a God who truly desires to walk with us. He wants to walk the road with us, to share in our sufferings as well as in our joys. And if we’re willing to walk with God day by day, in good times and in bad, loving him, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, we usher in his kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven.

The Temple curtain has been torn. No barrier remains between us and our loving, faithful God. Tetelestai!

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8: 38-39)

*Michael Maynard discusses the various meanings of “tetelestai” here: It is Finished. . .The Last Words of Jesus, June 25, 2017. 

** See Final Words from the Cross, by Adam Hamilton, pp. 103-104. Our church’s Lenten study (on Zoom) has focused on this insightful book.

Our Time together is short: Here’s What’s Important (Maundy Thursday 2021)

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day in the Christian calendar that commemorates Jesus’s Last Supper. The unusual word “maundy” (not Maunday) comes from mandatum, the Latin for command, because we remember the new commandment that Jesus gave his disciples on his final night with them.  I wrote this post two years ago, but it’s as relevant today as it was then.  Perhaps, more so, during Year II of the covid pandemic.  Why not do our part in changing our troubled world for the better by listening to, and following, Jesus’s valuable life instructions? 

On the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus gathered with his disciples for one last time to share the Passover meal together. He knew that his life on earth was drawing to a close. He had tried to explain to his dearest friends that he would soon be facing death, and doing so willingly. But the disciples didn’t understand. Probably some of them were expecting to witness a magnificent earthly triumph. Judas, the betrayer, may have been counting on such a victory. None of the disciples, it seems, were expecting their friend, teacher and Messiah to die an ordinary criminal’s death on the cross.

But the group must have been fearful and confused. They were back in crowded, dangerous Jerusalem, where Jesus’s life had been threatened multiple times during clashes with the Jewish religious leaders. And so, on that fateful final night, Jesus had the full and rapt attention of his disciples. He chose his words, and his actions, with care.

According to the Gospel of John (13:1 – 17), after the meal, he did something completely unexpected: he got up from the table and began to wash the feet of his friends. In those days, traveling, for people of ordinary means, meant walking, in sandals, or even barefoot, along dusty, dirty roads, through fields and stretches of sandy wilderness. A servant typically washed the feet of guests as they entered a home. If there were no servants, guests usually washed their own feet from a basin near the door. John the Baptist refers to this practice when asked by Jewish leaders if he is the Messiah. According to John 1:27, he replies, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.” The disciples were clearly uncomfortable with their leader and teacher washing their dirty feet. Had foot washing been done upon entering the upper room that night? It’s uncertain. Maybe there had been no basin set up for the purpose until Jesus poured water into one, as mentioned in John 13:5. The Pharisees had criticized Jesus when they noticed that some of his disciples failed to wash their hands before eating (Mark 7: 1-5). Certainly, Jesus’s focus was not on Jewish rituals of purity. External, physical cleanliness was evidently not one of his primary concerns. He may not have been a stickler for foot-washing prior to that last gathering.

The disciple Peter’s reaction supports this (John 13: 6-11). Peter was fiery, passionate and impulsive. Like many of us, he was often a bit dense. He couldn’t stand the idea of Jesus abasing himself to wash his feet. Foot washing was the job of an underling, a slave. Peter jumped up and exclaimed, “You’ll never wash my feet!” When Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me,” Peter was all in. “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!”

Jesus went on to explain his puzzling behavior. “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. . .Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.” (13:12-15, 17).

Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that he had in mind much more than literal foot washing. Following his example is to mean humbling oneself in order to serve and help others. To further drive home his point, he continued: “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (13:34-35).

Jesus had spent three years traveling with this rag-tag group.  They’d heard him teach and preach, seen him heal the sick and cast out demons.  On three separate occasions, he’d even restored the dead to life.  The disciples had been with him as he confronted the Jewish authorities and challenged their interpretation of the Law.  Sometimes his words and actions had been difficult to comprehend.  But on the night before his death, Jesus summed up the essence of his ministry in the simplest of terms:  Serve others.  Love others.  Just as I have served and loved you, so you should love others.

Let’s take this Maundy Thursday message to heart. Let’s heed the wise counsel of our dear brother Jesus. Do our best to follow his example. Try to model his caring, compassionate behavior. We won’t always succeed. Sometimes we’ll backslide and act in ways that are selfish and petty. But let’s persevere. And change the world, little by little, through service and love. 

 

 

 

Palm Sunday: Doesn’t everyone love a winner?

On the day that we’ve come to think of as Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed as a celebrity, a military and political hero-to-be.  As he and his disciples entered  the city of Jerusalem, cheering crowds greeted him with cries of “Hosanna,” which means “Save us.” The news was out: at long last, the King of Israel was here.  He was the chosen one sent by God to restore power to the Jewish nation.  He rode on a donkey to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9:  See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.

PalmSunday0141

It was a time of great rejoicing for the people of Israel.  A new day of freedom and empowerment was dawning, thanks to the advent of the conquering Messiah.  The palm branches they waved were emblems of Israeli nationalism.

In just a few days, though, the tide would turn. The admiring throngs would scatter when it became clear that Jesus was not the kind of king they had desired and expected.  Even his dearest friends would desert him.  He would be betrayed by one of his own, turned over to the Roman authorities and crucified. On Good Friday, it would appear that this man was no winner.

PalmSunday005

Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.

This post was first published on April 1, 2012.

Epiphany 2020

Yesterday, January 6, was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. In the Christian calendar, it’s commemorated as the Feast of the Epiphany, marking the visit of the Magi to honor and worship the baby Jesus. Accordingly, our clothespin nativity now includes three richly dressed figures, accompanied by a fluffy and festively adorned camel. The biblical account reveals little about the identity of these visitors. They’re described as “wise men from the East,” likely astrologers, as they were led by a star to Bethlehem and the home of the holy family (Matthew 2:1-12). Their offerings of gold, frankincense and myrrh attest to their substantial wealth. Because of their Eastern origins, they were probably not Jews. Some sources suggest that they could have been priests of the Zoroastrian religion, widely practiced throughout Persia. Their inclusion in the nativity story serves to demonstrate that the baby Jesus was sent by God to be a savior not only for the Hebrew people, but for all nations. The first to arrive on the scene of the holy birth could not have been more different from the Magi. They were the shepherds, lowly Jewish locals who received a direct invitation from an angel. Thus, the message is clear: the divine child was sent for the good of every one of us. For people of all societal levels, poor and rich, servant and king, near and far. May those of us who profess to be Christians do our best to extend the message of Epiphany, and the message of God’s love, to all our brothers and sisters.

*************************************************************************

This post was delayed by a day because yesterday I was transfixed, like people the world over, by images of a mob storming our nation’s Capitol. Ironically, this attempt to subvert our democratic process was carried out by supporters directly incited by the “Law and Order” president. A pastor friend of mine has referred to the calamitous events of the day as the “Epiphany Riots.” I join her in hoping that the sight of these disturbing images might prompt at least some Americans toward an epiphany* of their own.

*According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, an epiphany is a “usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.”

Oh, Christmas trees, 2020

This year’s peculiar pandemic Christmas season has been lacking (and lackluster) in too many ways. But it also brought about a return to some activities that I thought might have been largely confined to the past. In an earlier post, I wrote about how my daughter and I, home bound together in the family pod, were inspired to make a new type of Christmas ornament for the first time in years. It wouldn’t be right to consign our Band of Bulbs to a table or shelf. They needed an appropriate home for the holiday, as did our creations from years gone by. They needed a Christmas tree. No. Not just one. If all were to be accommodated, several trees were required. My daughter was adamant about this.

Last year I didn’t find the time or energy to put up the tabletop tree in our playroom. I’ve been known to grumble that this slightly bedraggled tree’s ideal location is a crowded corner of our messy basement. But this tree is particularly dear to my daughter’s heart. It’s the locus for most of the ornaments of her childhood, many of which we made together, such as bread-dough clay snowflakes, stars and candy canes, awkward wrapping paper angels, and little drums of felt and spools. It’s the place for decorations that she bought, with her own money, each December at her elementary school’s holiday book fair. Its base provides the perfect spot for a gathering of stuffed animals consigned to the attic for the rest of the year. It sets the room warmly aglow with its multicolored lights. Once fully decorated, I have to admit that it’s a wonderfully cheery sight. And when positioned in a corner just so, its pronounced slant is barely noticeable.

We hadn’t put up a tree in my mother’s house next door since her relocation to Virginia three years ago. Again, with time on her hands and a general absence of social activities, my daughter took the lead. Nana’s house, she insisted, must have a tree. Wasn’t there one lying forlorn, in pieces, in the basement? It’s been eleven years, when we spent Christmas in Atlanta, since she’d seen the ornaments my parents and I had collected and crafted over the years, the ones I remember so well from my childhood. Even the hand-written, idiosyncratic labels on the boxes bring me smiles and vivid recollections: Handmade Fancy Balls. Santa Makings. Big Red Balls. Angels & Rudolfs. So it was a special pleasure to unpack these vintage treasures again with my daughter, as Mama and I recounted the stories of Christmases past that they prompted.

Even some of the smallest of trees were decked out in lights and baubles this year at my mother’s.

Back at our house, the three skinny alpine trees in the dining room serve as the setting for most of our cork and pinecone people, pasta angels, Cape Cod scallop shell angels, and now our Bulb Buddies.

The big tree in our living room was the last to go up. We decorated it over a period of nearly a week. No ornament, even those that were damaged or funny-looking, was left out this season. Each one found a place on the tree. I bought no new decorations at all this year. None, indeed, were needed.

The boxes of holiday trappings stored at my mother’s house and mine would likely be considered mere clutter by many. But to me, to my daughter, my mother, and to some degree, even to my husband, these battered containers are filled not with stuff, but with happy memories. They spark joy. And joy has been elusive and fleeting throughout 2020. Let’s seize it, and savor it, where, when, and while we’re able.

I wrote about some of the best-loved ornaments on the family Christmas tree of my childhood in several posts from 2015. See:

Childhood Treasures on the Christmas Tree

Vintage Pinecone Elves on Skis

Uncle Edwin’s Silver Stocking

Unsilvered WW II-Era Ornaments on a Kentucky Cedar

Christmas Eve 2020

In the absence of a live nativity at our church this Christmas Eve in the time of Covid, I cannot offer my usual photos of curious onlookers mingling happily with the sweet-tempered camels Samson or Delilah. Or with their other charming cohorts, the brown burro, the velvet-coated humpback ox, the several sheep or goats.

Here instead is this little clothespin nativity that my daughter and I made together many years ago. Simple and humble, made from materials we already had, it seems especially appropriate this Christmas Eve. It points toward what’s important, what’s essential, on this night and every night. The message of Christmas is, in one word, love. Love embodied in a baby. A baby sent by God to grow up and model love not only to his human contemporaries, but to all future generations. The message is so powerful that it remains as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago.

It’s the love that mingles the divine and the human. It’s the love that shines in the darkness. And the darkness, including the darkness of a pandemic, will not overcome it.

For more on the Christmas message of love (and for photos of our live nativity friends), see last year’s post: The Timeless Message of Christmas Eve.

With Time at Home, a return to Christmas crafting

During my daughter’s younger years, she and I continued the tradition of making Christmas ornaments that my mother and I had begun in my childhood. (See Working Like Elves, and Next-Generation Elves, both from December 2011.) It’s been quite a while since D and I have created a new ornament, but with the unusual circumstances of this holiday season, the conditions were conducive for at-home crafting again.

In a long-forgotten handmade box among the Christmas decorations at my mother’s house, we found brightly colored vintage bulbs and various other odds and ends. Amidst the jumble were toothpick and pipe-cleaner arms from two of our past creations, the pinecone and cork people.

Cork and pinecone people, among pasta angels and Cape Cod shell angels.

My daughter and I had the same idea at once: Christmas bulb beings. Equipped with a newly uncovered box of miscellaneous ornament makings from Mama’s basement, we spent several happy hours, much as in Yuletide days of yore, working together at the playroom table. (We spent additional time attempting to remove Superglue from our fingers.)

Our new group of Christmas characters includes several with wooden beads for heads, like these red and green twins in acorn caps and sparkly pipe-cleaner scarves. . .

. . .and this royal-looking girl with gold accessories.

There is one apple-headed figure. My daughter enjoys the surrealist touch.

A pom-pom headed boy in a straw hat carries two miniature Christmas ornaments.

A cowboy in a black hat holds a lasso. There’s room in our bulb bunch for all types.

We made a few angels with wings of silk flower petals or glitter-covered card stock.

The bulb beings appear to be settling in well with their fellow ornaments. They owe their existence to the pandemic. Another Covid silver lining. The biggest, for me, of course, is having our daughter here for an extended stay. May you and your family find special blessings during this most peculiar holiday season.

Deck the Tree stump (2013) + Update (2020)

In 2013 I wrote a post about decorating the tree stump at the edge of our front yard with a Christmas wreath. In the course of seven years, the stump has changed substantially, as most of us have. I didn’t hang the wreath the past two years, but this year it seemed fitting to do so. The original post appears immediately below, followed by the current update.

Deck the Tree Stump (2013)

This December, we hung a big wreath on the craggy silver maple stump in front of our house.  It seemed like an interesting, if unexpected, spot for a wreath.  And by decorating the tree, we could send a message to those who might see it as a business opportunity, as well as to those who think the stump is unsightly and wonder why we leave it standing.  The wreath says, We love this old tree trunk, and we’re letting nature take its course.

Then I thought a little more about it, and the pairing struck me as even more appropriate in its juxtaposition of life and death.  The stump is the opposite of the traditional evergreen Christmas tree.  Firs and spruces, retaining the appearance of vitality through the winter, get the privilege of being cut down, hauled into our homes, strung with lights and ornaments, and left to wither and die.  It’s tough work, being a symbol.  Our maple, though, would be in no such danger.  If intact, it would be gray-brown and leafless by now, like its neighbors in our yard.  But of course, it’s a stump, a snag, and already dead.  Yet it harbors vast, unseen colonies of creatures that go about the business of breaking down lifeless material.  It won’t be long before nature’s course is run.  The stump may not be here next year; its center is soft.  All the more reason to decorate it this year.

My husband and daughter hung the wreath one weekend afternoon, as I was napping, trying to get over a persistent cold.  When I trudged out to the road to see their handiwork, a new insight hit me.

I like to think that God works with us for good, despite ourselves, despite our selfish intentions and our vanity.  I initially wanted to decorate the tree because I thought it would look pretty, if a bit odd.  In truth, it was a way of declaring a certain pride in being different, in having the ability to see beauty where others see ugliness.

But once up, the wreath reminded me of a greater truth, of the essence of my Christian faith.  Out of death comes new, transformed life. How better to say it than in the words of John 3: 16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

And then the snow settled beautifully on the wreath and the tree, on the green and the gray, on the quick and the dead, like a blessing from above.

Update: The Remains of the Stump (2020)

The stump lasted far longer than I expected. But nature, human error, and cars have taken their toll. It’s in a vulnerable spot, close to the narrow road, on a particularly sharp turn that’s proven problematic for drivers time and time again. Several years ago one May morning we were awakened around dawn by a policeman at our door. He asked if that was our vehicle outside. “What vehicle?,” I heard my husband ask in a confused tone, after he’d finally made his way downstairs to the door.

“The one in the tree.”

“What?”

And sure enough, it appeared that a dark minivan had merged with the tree. While most of the stump remained, it must have been considerably weakened, as its decline soon accelerated.

Two summers ago while we were away on vacation, a little red Honda found its way quite forcefully into the stump, demolishing half of it. The section that remained no longer looked much like a tree, or even a stump. When that final piece gradually eased to the ground one day this fall, we barely noticed. Why not, one might ask, remove it, at this point? One answer is that, even as a pile of debris, it serves as a barrier for future wayward vehicles.

Last week, returning from a walk with the dog, I surveyed the battered remains of the once mighty silver maple. It, with five others, was planted the same year that our house was built, in 1920. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012.) Several large patches of ruffled pale green lichen had sprouted from the decaying wood. Even in its final stages, the tree continues to serve as evidence of the circle of life. (See Underfoot, and Easily Overlooked. . . October 18, 2013.) I thought of the big wreath hanging neglected behind the hockey nets in the garage. Why not, during this Covid Christmas season, decorate the vestiges of the tree as it’s in the process of transformation? The wreath on the ruins is, to me, a reminder that hope does indeed remain. We can have hope in human ingenuity and resilience during the darkest of times, proof of which is offered by, among other achievements, the development of highly effective Covid vaccines in record time. We can have hope in a divine and loving parent, who created not only maple tree and lichen, but also each one of us human children, unique in our blend of talents, strengths, weaknesses and inconsistencies. We were created for a life that increases in abundance as we love one another and rejoice in our differences. We were created for an abundant life that transcends the boundaries of this flawed and fantastic earthly realm.

. . .and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out on us through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

–Romans 5:5