“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)
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.
These recent March days here in Northern Virginia have been cold, windy and sunny. It looks like spring but still feels very much like winter. This is the March I remember from Easter trips to visit my grandparents in Kentucky during my childhood. How different it was from March in Atlanta, where it usually had felt like June, humid and overly warm, off and on since February. I loved the Kentucky version. I remember the white and green speckled look of the slowly awakening grass, the clumps of daffodils dancing in the bracing chill, the fast-moving clouds against a brilliant blue sky. It felt exotic, yet it also felt like home.
And that’s why it feels so right to be here in Virginia during these frosty March days. As I sit at my desk, decades later, I look out on a landscape that evokes happy times long ago, of memories glimpsed and sensed, not fully seen. Much as when I look at my daughter and see both the little girl she once was and the young woman she has become, the co-mingling of past and present is especially tangible in the bright briskness of early springtime.
Spring in Virginia is typically slow-moving, a deliberate and measured progression. Each development can be fully appreciated in its own time. The first tiny green shoots among tangled vines stand out against winter’s dominant palette of brown and gray.
The aptly named Lenten roses have been blooming, amidst their lush green foliage, since February, impervious to the cold. With their bowed heads and subtle coloring, they’re the perfect floral expression of humility.
Crocuses, another early herald of the season, have been popping up for a couple of weeks now. Their small size and delicate appearance contrasts with their hardiness and stubborn determination. They push their way up into the light, through layers of dead leaves, and through the snow if necessary.
The first of the daffodils to bloom in our yard are always the tiniest ones. These spunky miniatures test the waters for their taller, grander sisters.
On a recent morning walk with our pack, we noticed a fresh, lemony fragrance in the air. The source was the yellow bell-like flowers of spiky mahonia, a plant I know well from Atlanta. By the time my mother relocated to Virginia, what had begun as a couple of isolated plantings in our back yard near the garage had developed into a veritable and formidable mahonia hedge. This is a shrub that requires no encouragement before seizing new territory.
Kiko enjoys these cold, sun-filled March days because they offer a wide variety of cozy choices for inside napping. This week I found him in a new spot. Until recently, the carpet beneath him had been rolled up in storage in my mother’s basement. For forty years or so, its location was the dining room of our Atlanta home. It was a favorite resting place of Popi, my childhood dog. (See here and here.) During family meals in the adjacent kitchen, Popi would lie on the rug, his head facing away from us, partly because we taught him not to beg at the table, and partly because he had too much pride to do so. Because I’ve noticed that Kiko, as he ages, tends to slip on bare hardwood floors, the carpet is now in our Virginia dining room. Seeing him lying there on that old familiar rug, I see sweet Popi, as well.
The earth turns and tilts on its axis. Spring comes. The past is alive within the present. I can feel it outside in the chill of the breeze and the warmth of the sun. See it in the radiant grass around the old silver maples. Smell it in the fragrance of mahonia. And sense it in the calming presence of my sleeping dog. Is it 1971 or 2021? Somehow, it’s both.
February has been true to form this year. The snow that fell at the beginning of the month has been largely with us since, with periodic refresher doses every week or so. Sleet and freezing rain have made regular appearances, also, turning most surfaces into treacherous sheets of ice. Even grassy areas have been dangerous to negotiate. The white coating on our lawn was impermeable to a human boot-clad foot and as slick as a hockey rink. It reminds me of royal icing that dries to a rock-hard finish, the kind I used when making gingerbread houses years ago. Largely thanks to that icing, those houses are still with us, decades later, boxed up in the basement. This February snow threatened to be nearly as long-lived.
Rising temperatures were therefore very welcome when they arrived at the beginning of the week. Road surfaces gradually became visible again, but the shoulders only increased in perilous iciness. Morning walks with Kiko were difficult going. He seems to understand when I say “Slow, slow” in an urgent tone. So I repeated the mantra nearly non-stop as we made our way out and back (very slowly, of course. )
The snow retreated throughout most of our yard, leaving big frosted circles around the wide bases of the old trees. Fallen maple buds are all the more distinct on the white ground, assuring us that spring is, indeed, in the works.
Several days this week, we’ve had winter in the mornings and spring in the afternoons, a March specialty that arrived a bit early. On Monday, Kiko and I were out early enough to see the grass frosted to a pale gray-green.
My fastidious dog wasn’t sure what to make of the frost and snow combo.
We were treated to a couple of days filled with glorious sunshine that melted away all but the most stubborn traces of snow. The outside world appeared revived, refreshed and joyful, teeming with the essence of early spring. Robins dotted the yard and circled in the trees above. Beneath our bird feeder, gray juncos, cardinals and white-throated sparrows scratched in the pine straw. They mixed peacefully with doves, squirrels, (including Bobtail) and the chipmunk.
The bright early mornings were especially alive with the sounds of the birds. High in the trees, all around, the woodpeckers, drilling for breakfast, seemed to be engaged in songs of call-and-response.
The sun often got so warm on Kiko’s bed by the window that he became periodically overheated. Every hour or so he pulled himself laboriously to his feet, jumped to the floor and collapsed in the shade at the base of my chair, evidently too sun-saturated to move further.
The thaw continues this weekend, although less scenically, with gray skies and rain. I’m relieved to see that no snow is predicted for the first week of March.
It’s a bitterly cold Ash Wednesday here in Northern Virginia, as in much of the country. An icy breeze whips up from time to time. But the sun is shining, and at least perhaps until tomorrow, nothing frozen is falling from the sky. The weather seems appropriate. It’s conducive to imagining the joy and beauty of an ideal Easter morning while experiencing the big chill of Ash Wednesday. This is a day for a clear-eyed, head-on look at our mortality, a time to peer into the bleakness of what would have been, had it not been for God’s saving grace. It marks the start of Lent, the forty-day period leading up to Easter, during which prayer, repentance and self-denial are encouraged. Lent’s Biblical basis is Christ’s retreat to the wilderness to commune with the Father in preparation for his ministry.
If you venture out today, you’ll probably see messy smudges on some foreheads. Our church and others in our area are offering do-it-yourself ashes this year because of the pandemic. So, what’s the deal with the ashes? It’s because of these words from Genesis 3:19, declared by God to Adam and Eve, just before He ushered them out of Eden, the paradise garden He had intended as their eternal, blissful home.
You are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Tough words from the Creator and landlord. What did the privileged first couple do to make God so angry? Incensed enough that He sent the two, created in His own image, out into desolation, to eke out a living through toil and pain?
Many of you who didn’t grow up attending church and Sunday School, along with some of you who did, no doubt consider the saga of Adam and Eve just another myth for the simple-minded who are ready to believe anything. Whether you see it as God’s literal truth, an interesting folk tale, or something in between, it’s a powerful story worth contemplating. Here’s my take on the Fall and its particular significance on Ash Wednesday.
Adam and Eve lived in a glorious garden created by God, suffused with His divine light, life and love. They had full-time leisure, full-time luxury. God walked with them there in the garden. The trees dripped with delicious treats, theirs for the easy picking. All except for the apples on one tree. A tree with an impressive-sounding name: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Life was wonderful. Life was beautiful.
Among the friendly and fantastic creatures of the garden, there was a serpent. He was wise and wily, and he knew about that whole free-will thing. Indeed, he owed his very existence to what he saw as the weak link in God’s great plan. The serpent looked with contempt upon the innocent contentment of the two humans. He realized the fragility of the thread that kept them in their lovely home. It wasn’t long before this scaly Con Guy Supreme made his move. Appealing to Eve’s pride, he offered an opportunity for further greatness. Knowledge equal to God’s was at her fingertips, but God selfishly chose to keep this power to Himself. She deserved better, didn’t she? So Eve ate from the tree. Adam, who apparently needed no convincing, munched long complacently.
God found out. He wasn’t happy. Paradise was lost, for the taste of a forbidden fruit. We may think we would have known better. But probably not. Like Eve, we might have been tripped up by pride. Or maybe, like Adam, we might have given very little thought to the matter. If Eve says it’s fine, it must be. In simply thinking we would have known better, it’s evident that we would not have. With free will comes the ability to make the wrong choice, a choice we tend to exercise repeatedly. Like Adam and Eve, if left to our own devices, our fate would be to wander in the dust.
But we are not abandoned, without hope, in a barren land. Paradise is still within our grasp, as these words from Mark 1:15 tell us:
Repent and believe the good news!
On Ash Wednesday, we confront the grim reality of our tendency toward pride, selfishness and petty meanness. On our own, none of us will ever be good enough to work our way back to Eden. But we don’t have to be. The Christ that was already present within creation since God spoke the universe into existence, the very Word of God described in John 1: 1 – 5, came to earth in human form. Jesus, fully divine yet fully human, took our sins upon Himself. As the spotless Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice, He wiped our messy slates clean.
To accept Christ’s free gift of salvation, we merely need to acknowledge our wrongheadedness and to ask forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is granted for our willingness to repent; it’s not contingent on our going forward without a misstep. We are human; we will stumble and lose our way at times. We cannot be perfect in this lifetime, but we can desire to achieve perfection.
The Ash Wednesday ashes are marked on the forehead in the shape of a cross, the instrument of death that became the tree of life. Christ’s good news saves us from a future of ashy, dusty nothingness, replacing it with the promise of unimaginable joy in a paradise everlasting. We can’t even comprehend unending joy; our flawed human nature prevents us. But we will understand it fully, and magnificently, one day, I am convinced.
On this frigid Ash Wednesday, the sun’s rays fall on the tips of new green daffodil shoots in our yard, just barely visible in the photo above . We are reminded of the new life that comes of death, of the new birth offered to us without price. On this Ash Wednesday, look into the darkness of the ashes. Then give thanks for the love that pulls us back into the light.
After nearly a year of Covid hardships and precautions, many of us may be feeling as battered and unkempt as this snowman looks. The promise of Ash Wednesday assures us that our future is much brighter.
Most of the text of this post was previously published in Wild Trumpet Vine on March 6, 2019. The weather is much the same as it was then, and the photos are current.
It’s snow time once again here in Northern Virginia, as it is in many parts of the country. While 2020 brought much in the way of unexpected and unwanted developments, it brought very little snow to our area. What did fall was fleeting. It didn’t linger. The white stuff began here early Sunday morning, and it hasn’t stopped. Fine flakes have been floating down, without haste, but steadily, for three days now. We’re not used to it.
Kiko was understandably irked by the crunchy ice coating on Day 2 that collapsed with his every step as we attempted to cross our front lawn. After a few belabored attempts at progress, he refused to move, looking up at me plaintively. I had no choice but to carry him. After that, we avoided grassy areas. But the edges of the street are problematic, too, as the salt stings his paws, again stopping him in his tracks.
He’s apparently decided that the best way to enjoy the snow is from the comfort of his raised bed by the window. The local wildlife stands out distinctly against the white background, providing hours of comfortable entertainment for an elderly lounging dog.
It’s a pretty, puffy, fluffy snow, exuberantly frosting leaves, branches, and tree trunks. . .
. . .and dramatically coating the evergreens.
Other parts of Virginia were treated to a similarly beautiful snow. Our daughter, now back in school, sent this photo of the grounds of the University of Virginia. Because her coursework continues exclusively online, she needn’t trek through the snow unless she feels like it. A rare pandemic plus. We’re learning to appreciate these when we stumble upon them.
Will this be our last substantial snow of the season? Is there a blizzard, like the one from 2016 pictured above, bearing down on us soon? Will we have an early, gorgeous spring?
2020 taught us that many so-called certainties are not, in fact, certain. So whatever happens, through snow and snow melt, we’ll continue to look for pandemic pluses.
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.”
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.