Hats off to all the men who make the little people in their lives feel welcome, loved and safe, the way I felt in my dear daddy’s arms. Cheers to the good guys who have the strength and courage to be kind, nurturing, supportive, and occasionally vulnerable. May the blessings you provide be returned to you with interest. Happy Father’s Day, fathers and fatherly men!
We did something highly unusual recently. Something we hadn’t done for close to two years. We packed the car and drove across several state lines to visit relatives for the long Memorial Day weekend. Thanks to the Covid vaccines, we could do so without fearing dire consequences. We had taken another major step the week before, when we attended our daughter’s graduation from the University of Virginia. We were there, in person, on-site! And when D returned home a few days later, we didn’t require her to go into a period of quarantine in our home office. We’re gradually easing back into something akin to pre-Covid “normal.”
My husband’s intentions to visit his parents more regularly had been foiled by the pandemic. He and my daughter had also been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to get some ice time with our young hockey-playing nephews. So H’s hometown of Rochester, New York was our first out-of-state family destination. At Bill Gray’s Iceplex in Brighton, H and D matched skills with the boys for an hour of non-stop action. My sister-in-law and I, in our figure skates, passed the occasional errant puck around and served as videographers.
The Eerie canal village of Spencerport, where H’s sister and her family live, was as charming as I remembered it from our last visit over the Memorial weekend in 2019. The lift bridge, which raises to allow the passage of larger boats, had been freshly painted. Bright flowering baskets hung from shop windows. Our nephews have become enthusiastic fishermen during the pandemic. They breathlessly described to us the many fish that inhabit the canal. On a cold Saturday morning, undeterred by the icy wind blowing over the water, they proceeded to catch a wide range of examples. “A pumpkinseed? Really? That’s a fish?,” I asked the boys, thinking I’d heard wrong. Yes, indeed. A small and colorful speckled sunfish. Kids are such fountains of knowledge.
As much as my husband enjoys speeding across the ice in pursuit of a hockey puck, I like a brisk stroll through picturesque neighborhoods. I had been looking forward to walking again along Spencerport’s tree-shaded streets lined with beautifully tended old homes and historic churches. I kept falling behind my daughter and sister-in-law as I paused to take photos. So many captivating architectural details, so little time.
The lamp posts on the main streets of the village were again decorated with flags and Hometown Heroes banners. Photos of our military men and women currently serving in various branches of the armed forces gazed down on us. Although the images were different, the group was just as youthful-looking as those of a previous year. Some were smiling. Others had adopted more serious expressions. All, I expect, must have been feeling a sharp mixture of anxiety and optimism during those photo sessions.
Their faces look down on the quiet, peaceful streets of home. Yet the real young men and women are far away, in places where turmoil reigns and peace is elusive. Every time I think of pretty little Spencerport, with its inviting sense of homeyness, I think of these hometown heroes. I pray that they return whole and healthy to their families.
I pray also that we civilians do our part to earn that name. May we not forsake our civic duty. May we pursue truth and learn from it, especially when it is painful. Especially when it reveals shortcomings that need to be addressed. May we actively work toward justice and peace for all people. May our country, our democracy, remain worthy of our pride and of the service and sacrifice of our military men and women.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, and mercy more than life!
May God thy gold refine, till all success be nobleness,
and every gain divine.
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self control,
thy liberty in law!
–America the Beautiful
words by Katharine Lee Bates, 1904
music by Samuel A. Ward, 1888
Wishing you and your family a peaceful, beautiful Memorial Day. May you have the freedom to gather with those you love. And may we honor and remember all those who gave their service and their lives for our ability to do so.
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
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Good Friday, however, is not the end of the story.
This post was first published on April 1, 2012.
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.”
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: