A Word to Maundy Thursday through Easter
Easter is the major festival of our Christian faith. No question about it. Nobody can seriously doubt the importance of Jesus’ resurrection for understanding Jesus and for understanding God’s promises to us through Jesus. But here is the surprise. The biblical biographers of Jesus — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — the writers who tell the stories of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection — altogether devote only a few pages to Jesus’ days of resurrection.
On the other hand, each of the four Gospels devotes a major portion of its narrative to Jesus’ death and to the climactic last week of Jesus’ life leading up to his death: almost 1/3 of Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels; almost half of John’s Gospel (eight of 21 chapters) are devoted to these final days.
Why would the biblical Gospel writers, all four of them, devote so much attention to these last days? The answer may be that this is how we learn from Jesus how to live as well as how to die.
The distinguished British poet, the late Philip Larkin wrote these lines about what it is like when a person contemplates the nearness of her or his death.
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blinks at the glare…
…at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
“Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” Hold that thought. The poem goes on.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die…
Is that the essence of religious faith — to be a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die”? No. Not when we look to Jesus.
“Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.” (John 13:1). Knowing this, he taught his disciples about living and dying.
- John 13:34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
- John 14:1-2 “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
- John 15:5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
- John 16:22 You have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
- And in a prayer to God the Father for his disciples, John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Jesus never pretended that there would be no death, either for himself or for his disciples. He never avoided what the poem calls “Nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” And if you have ever experienced the season of Lent in a Christian church, where Lent began with Ash Wednesday and the pastor putting ashes on people’s foreheads, saying, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” you cannot contend that our religion is a “vast moth-eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die”.
Jesus’ death — terrible and true — is a sacrificial death to which he freely gave himself for our sake. Death does not have the last word — neither for Jesus, nor (thanks to Jesus) for us. His death and resurrection save us from the fate the poem fears: “not to be here, not to be anywhere.”
You belong to Jesus: the branches to the vine. You are his own, now and always. Death is true; but the risen Jesus Christ is more true.