The Story of Easter
In the last week of Lent, we remember the tumultuous events that culminated in the death of Jesus: the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday), and the arrest, trial and execution (Good Friday). The climax of the story occurs the following Sunday, Easter Sunday, the day when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. The story can be found in the gospels in Matthew 26-28; Mark 14-16; Luke 22-24; John 13-20. The gospel accounts are not identical, but differ slightly. One explanation for this is that the different gospel writers and the Christian communities to which they belonged decided that different details more meaningful or important for their situation. This year, we shall be following the account in the Gospel of Matthew, supplemented by parts of the Gospel of John. We continue to celebrate the events of Easter and their immediate aftermath for several weeks after Easter, until the day of Pentecost.
This was the day when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. He was hailed by the crowds as the one who had come to release Israel from the Roman imperial yoke and bring in the reign of God on earth, the long-awaited Messiah. The crowds threw palm branches before Jesus as he entered the city as a form of royal welcome (so the name Palm Sunday). The welcome given to Jesus troubled the authorities, and they decided to arrest Jesus.
For centuries most Christians blamed the Jews for the death of Jesus. This led to terrible persecution of Jewish people. It is wrong, however, to put the blame on the whole Jewish nation for 2000 years. If you read the gospel story carefully, you will see that what led to the death of Jesus was the stand he took against “the system,” that is, the patterns of intolerance, exploitation, exclusion, self-interest and violence that operated in the society around him. At the time, these patterns were part of Roman imperial rule. Similar patterns exist today in our society. Without a doubt, had Jesus been born today, he would have been destroyed as surely as he was in the ancient society.
The week following Palm Sunday is called Holy Week. The original Holy Week included the Jewish festival of Passover (see the story in the gospels). Since the Jewish and Christian traditions use different calendars, these days Passover might not fall in Holy Week (see the February Talk).
The events of Holy Week form a story: On Palm Sunday, Jesus is hailed by the people. For the next few days, his teaching puts him at odds with the authorities. On the Thursday evening, he celebrates Passover with his closest associates, and then is betrayed and arrested. His execution takes place on the Friday – definitely a low point. However, on the Sunday, the resurrection of Jesus is discovered. Holy Week starts and ends on high points, but the week contains the deepest low.
Traditionally, all the days of Holy Week have been celebrated in some way. Special emphasis is placed on the Thursday, the last supper of Jesus with his disciples and the inspiration for our celebration of Holy Communion, and on Friday, the day of the death of Jesus.
However, in recent decades there has been a move away from church attendance during the week. Holy Week starts and ends with highs: Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. If a person only attends church on a Sunday, then they will miss out on remembering the low point of the week. Consequently, there has been a trend to replace Palm Sunday with Passion Sunday, with readings that survey the whole of the week.
This service commemorates the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples. The words of Jesus at this meal form the basis for our communion liturgy. According to the gospel accounts, Jesus was arrested after this meal, and tried in the night by the Jewish court and the Roman officials. The death sentence was ordered and carried out by the Romans.
Tradition has it that the meal Jesus celebrated was associated with the Jewish Passover meal. Over the course of time, the date of celebration of Easter diverged from that of Passover, as the two religions of Christianity and Judaism followed different ways of calculating dates. Even in the Christian religion, the calculations differ between the Eastern (Orthodox) churches and the Western (Catholic and Protestant) Churches. This year, the two coincide.
The word Maundy echoes the Latin word for commandment, mandatum, and may have been derived from this word. At the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another (John 13:34). This happened just after Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples, symbolically acting out the new commandment. The Maundy Thursday service often includes a ritual of foot washing. Some people call this Thursday by another name, such as Holy Thursday.
The day when we remember the death of Christ by crucifixion.
The services on this day celebrate the resurrection of Christ. The women discovered the empty tomb at dawn, and some Christians celebrate with a dawn service in an open-air setting. Some churches hold an Easter vigil from sunset on Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, to sunrise on Sunday. In part, this is based on a tradition that regards the day as beginning at sunset (rather than dawn, or midnight), so the vigil is the first service of Easter to celebrate the resurrection.
(Picture: Fra Angelico, Resurrection of Christ and Women at the Tomb, 1440-42, Florence)
The Day of Pentecost
The Day of Pentecost, also called Whitsunday, celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. It occurs 50 days after Easter. In the biblical account, the first Christian Pentecost occurred at the time of the Jewish festival of Pentecost or Shavot, which was a celebration of the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai and of the harvest, and which was held 50 days after Passover.
According to the account in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts of the Apostles, after his resurrection, Jesus remained with the disciples for a while, before “leaving.” Luke portrays his departure very concretely, as an ascension up into the sky to be with God. However, this did not mean that God had left the Christians on their own. God’s presence on earth with them now took the form of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts has a colourful description of the coming of the Holy Spirit, dancing above people like tongues of flame and enabling miraculous communication. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about the Spirit as the helper or advocate, present with the disciples after Jesus has departed, who will teach and recall Jesus’s teaching (14:26).
In the logo of the UCA, the Spirit is symbolized as a dove with wings of flame. In the logo for Scots Church, she is a bird hovering over the city drawing it to herself, with her wings open to embrace the city.
The end of May marks the start of Reconciliation week. This week is bounded by two significant events for all Australians, the referendum of 1967, 27th May and the handing down of the Mabo decision on 3rd June (Mabo Day). The Sunday of this week, we remember in worship the process of building relationships based on respect, friendship and love between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians (“covenanting”). Contributions to this process nationally include the revised preamble to the constitution of the UCA, which affirms that the Spirit has never been absent from this land, and present even before the arrival of Captain Cook, the apology to the stolen generations by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, and the ongoing discussion of including recognition of the first peoples in the Australian Constitution. National Sorry Day is Friday, 22nd May.
Rev Dr Peter Trudinger
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