We have entered Holy Week – the week of the Passion. The lectionary readings for this week follow a straightforward logic and offer a ‘tapestry of texts’ that take us into the events of Holy Week, the Hebrew background to Holy Week and the freedom of worship and practice of the Christian church that arises from the Easter events.

The gospel readings are from John and narrate the events of Holy week. The order of the readings is not quite in the chronology of John’s gospel and reflect the rhythm of devotion rather than history. These readings anchor us in the story of the Passion and invite us to journey with Jesus through each day of the week.

The readings from the Hebrew Scriptures are four of the ‘servant songs’ of Isaiah, passages that Christians see fulfilled in the passion of Jesus. Two other readings come from different parts of the Hebrew Scriptures. On Maundy Thursday there is the description of the first Passover, when the Lord ‘passed over’ Egypt bringing death to the firstborn. The Holy Saturday readings are laments from Job and Lamentations, appropriate for the time of grief and waiting as Jesus lay in the tomb. These readings take us into the rich background of Holy Week in the Hebrew Bible:- from the early Exodus traditions, through the prophet of the Exile looking to the restoration of the nation in the ‘suffering servant’, to the deep laments of the Wisdom literature.

The Psalms are prayers of trust and assurance, of resting in, and appealing for, the Lord’s protection and deliverance. The sole exception is Good Friday, where Psalm 22 – the Psalm quoted by Jesus on the Cross – expresses the depth of human abandonment in the face of deep suffering. 

The New Testament (or early Christian writings) lessons are drawn from Hebrews, 1 Corinthians and 1 Peter. These well-known readings all deal with the freedom of Christian worship and Christian living that the followers of Jesus experienced in the months and years after that first Easter.

To read and reflect on these readings is to take a mini-course in Christian theology:- the Jewish roots of the Passover Festival and hope in Exile; the Psalms and laments that explored danger, pain, trust and deliverance (and have been carried over into Christian worship); the historical memory of Jesus and the Passion; and the frameworks of freedom in worship and committed communal living that are foundational to Christian experience.

You will notice that in the header of each day’s readings there are links to ART and PRAYER that the organisers of this form of the Lectionary have provided, should you wish to explore them.

Monday of Holy Week
April 6, 2020
Isaiah 42:1-9Psalm 36:5-11Hebrews 9:11-15John 12:1-11

The Isaiah reading is the first of four passages this week dealing the ‘suffering servant’. While the Christian tradition sees the Servant fulfilled in Jesus, the original prophecy was looking to the restoration of Israel.  In identifying Israel as the servant, the prophet was claiming for the people of God a salvific role among the nations. This cycle of passages has been critical in the history of the Bible in recasting the vital action of God through God’s ‘servant’ in terms of humility and suffering in human history rather than power and triumph. 

While it certainly shaped our understanding of Jesus, is there still a corporate element to these passages that can guide humanity in a time of profound suffering?  What does it mean in the midst of this global crisis, when so many are so sick, that ‘a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench’?  Think of doctors who seek to follow Jesus, who must make agonising triage decisions in allocating scarce medical resources. As the world faces a lack of ventilators, this text affirms that ‘[the Lord] gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it’. This passage can be a powerful prayerful meditation if we read it while holding the suffering world in our hearts and minds.   

Psalm 36 opens (vs 1-4) and closes (v 12) with descriptions of the wicked and their riotous living and ultimate fate, but our reading avoids these verses. Instead, the focus is on vs 5-11, a Psalm of assurance and trust. Only in v 10 do petitions appear and v 11 reveals the life situation or threat that the Psalmist faces.  

The Hebrews reading outlines the end of the cult of sacrifice and presents Jesus as ‘the mediator of a new covenant’ (v 15). All the NT readings this week are declarations of the Christian understanding of worship and faithful life that have arisen from the work of Holy Week.

John 12.1-11 artfully brings together two stories: an extension of the raising of Lazarus and the subsequent plot to kill Jesus (see John 11) in a sub-plot to kill Lazarus also; and the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary. The anointing of Jesus is known also to Matthew, Mark and Luke, but they do not give the woman’s name, the venue is variously given as ‘the house of Simon the leper’ or the house of a Pharisee. In Matthew and Mark it is Jesus’ head that is anointed. In Luke, it is Jesus’ feet that are anointed and ‘the sinful woman’ wipes them with ‘the hair of her head’.

This is clearly a very significant and powerful story that was widely remembered and celebrated in the early Christian community. In the various versions we see an evolution from a nameless woman, then ‘a woman of the city who was a sinner’, to Mary, one of the inner circle of the followers of Jesus. Luke presents it as an event that happened sometime in the ministry of Jesus, but for Mt, Mk and Jn it was associated with Holy Week and Bethany and finally with the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha (Jn). The early church came to ‘own’ this event in deeply committed and devotional ways. An act of love that Mt, Mk, and Lk ascribed to someone (apparently) outside the household of faith (the nameless woman), has become something experienced in the heart of the Jesus network.

Tuesday of Holy Week
April 7, 2020
Isaiah 49:1-7Psalm 71:1-141 Corinthians 1:18-31John 12:20-36

Isaiah 49.1-7 makes several aspects of the ‘suffering servant’ very clear. V 3 names the servant as ‘Israel’, and vs 1,6,7 declare the scope of his ministry to the coastlands and all the nations. V 7 reflects the current situation of Israel in exile and promises future empowerment and deliverance.

The Psalm is the first half of a psalm asking God to ‘not cast me off in the time of old age’  (vs 9, 18). There is mention of enemies conspiring against the singer (vs 7, 10-11, 13). Through this prayer there breathes a spirit of calm and assurance in the goodness and protection of God.

The reading from I Corinthians is a wonderful presentation of the subversive nature of the gospel that calls the ‘foolish and the weak’ to shame the strong and refute the wise. Paul places this gospel as confronting the worldviews of both Jews (focussed on ‘signs’ and the judgments of history) and Greeks (focussed on ‘wisdom’ and learning). It includes Paul’s sublime two-word definition of the gospel and its deconstruction of Jewish and Gentile cultures: but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (v 23).

John 12.20-36 opens with some Greeks seeking Jesus. The lectionary skilfully presents this as a counterpoint to the I Corinthians reading. John then presents some sayings and preaching of Jesus reflecting on the call to discipleship and his coming death. Some of the great themes of John’s gospel (light, the judgement of the world, the glorification of the Son of man and the lifting up of the Son of Man) are reprised and woven together. A word of divine approval from heaven (v 28) attests to Jesus authority.

Wednesday of Holy Week
April 8, 2020
Isaiah 50:4-9aPsalm 70Hebrews 12:1-3John 13:21-32

The Isaiah reading presents a brief (5½ verses) song of the Servant.  V 6 has long been applied to Jesus. It presents the Servant as a Teacher (v 4), resolute (v 7) and powerful (vs 8-9).

Psalm 70 is a ‘prayer song of an individual in great distress’ (H-J Kraus). It emphasises the powerlessness of the petitioner. In v 4 something of the faith and confidence of the worshipping community breaks through.

Hebrews 12.1-3 presents one of those short, pithy and carefully worded descriptions of Christian worship and experience that has come to mean so much for the people of God. It mentions ‘the great cloud of witnesses’ (v 1) and calls us to ‘run the race’ following Jesus. Grounding its appeal in both the example of Jesus and the communion of saints, this 3 verse exhortation has been treasured by Christians in every age.

John’s depiction of the Last Supper is very different to Mt, Mk and Lk. The focus is on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (see the reading for Maundy Thursday – tomorrow). The only reference to sharing bread and wine is the cryptic conversation (misunderstood by the other disciples) between Peter, the disciple Jesus loved, Jesus and Judas. I have only participated once in a Communion service where this text was used as the framework for the service. It was in an ecumenical service in Sri Lank in 1983 led by the radical Catholic priest Fr Tissa Balasuriya. It was a public event and there were theologians of many parts of the world and different Christian traditions present. When I asked him how we could celebrate publicly the Eucharist when it was against Catholic rules to take Communion together, he said simply “Wait and see!” Having blessed the bread and wine, Fr Tissa said simply “He who betrays me is the one who dips in the dish with me” (Mt 26.23), after which he dipped the bread in the dish of wine, ate and sat down. All present had to decide whether we would ‘dip in the dish’ and so number ourselves among the betrayers of Christ! It was one of the most memorable and confronting experiences of Communion I have ever known.

Maundy Thursday
April 9, 2020
Holy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4, (5-10), 11-14Psalm 116:1-2, 12-191 Corinthians 11:23-26John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Exodus takes us right back into the time of Israel in slavery in Egypt. After a cycle of plagues and judgements, Pharaoh has still not relented and released Israel. In the final judgement the Lord will ‘pass over’ Egypt and kill the first born of every house unless the blood of the slaughtered lamb is on the lintel and the doorposts of the home. Maundy Thursday is the Christian name for the Thursday of the Passover so this reading gives us the deep background and symbolism of this night.

Psalm 116 as presented here is a psalm of thanksgiving appropriate to one of the great festivals of Israel. The ‘lifting up of the cup of salvation’ and ‘paying my vows in the presence of the people’ suggest the context of public worship and thanksgiving.

I Corinthians 11 presents in four verses the ‘words of institution’ of the Lord’s Supper, Paul’s simple testimony that has shaped the eucharistic theology of a wide variety of Christian traditions. Within the Free Church tradition it has been especially liberating and authoritative.

The John reading celebrates Jesus washing his disciples’ feet as an example and commissioning of them to similar acts of service (vs 12-17). For John, this act of service is more determinative of Jesus’ last gathering with his disciples than the sharing of a final meal. The sharing of bread and wine in John only occurs as the context in which the betrayal of Judas is both revealed and misunderstood by the disciples (see notes for Wednesday).

Good Friday
April 10, 2020
Isaiah 52:13-53:12Psalm 22Hebrews 10:16-25
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

Isaiah 52-53 is perhaps the most famous of the Servant songs and has been taken from earliest Christian tradition to refer to Jesus. Here on Good Friday, it is the one of the richest Hebrew Scriptures that anchors the death of Jesus in Jewish prophecy and historical memory.

Psalm 22, known by the first words in the Latin version – De Profundis, is the Psalm that Jesus quotes upon the Cross to express his sense of abandonment and suffering (Ps 22.1 cf. Mk 15.34, Mt 27.46). What is significant on this day is that we read the whole Psalm, not just the expressions of abandonment and suffering, but reading through to the affirmation and celebration of God’s goodness and ultimate victory in vs. 21b to 31.

There is a choice of two readings from Hebrews, both of which stress the role of Jesus as the new High Priest in opening a new way into God’s presence (10.19-21, 4.14-16). 10.20 refers to the tearing of the veil or curtain in the Temple in the comparison of entering ‘through the curtain (that is through his flesh)’ (10.20).

The John reading is the long reading of the Johannine Passion – two long chapters. It includes the arrest, Peter’s denial, and the long and complex interrogation by Pilate (including the rich statements by Pilate: ‘What is truth? ‘Behold, the man!’ ‘Here is your King!’ and ‘What I have written, I have written’). John’s passion includes the dialogue between Jesus, his mother, and ‘the disciple Jesus loved’. After the death of Jesus, his body is delivered to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two ‘secret disciples’, for burial.

Holy Saturday
April 11, 2020
Job 14:1-14
Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24
Psalm 31:1-4, 15-161 Peter 4:1-8Matthew 27:57-66
John 19:38-42

Holy Saturday is a time of waiting. The Hebrew Scripture passages are laments from Job (the Wisdom tradition) and from Lamentations (associated with Jeremiah). The Lamentations reading however, unlike the Job passage, concludes with a note of hope (3.21-24).

Psalm 31 expresses lament, trust and thanksgiving. It is presented as a prayer for rescue and deliverance.

1 Peter 4 seems to have been included because of its reference to the gospel having been preached to the dead (v 6), which according to Christian tradition was what Jesus did when he went down into Hades between his death and Resurrection – hence the linking of this reading to Holy Saturday.

There are two alternate gospel readings. Matthew 27.57-66 tells the story of Joseph of Arimathea burying Jesus. What is notable in this passage is the concern of the chief priests and the Pharisees to head-off the possibility of Jesus’ disciples ‘staging’ a resurrection by stealing the body. The irony of Pilate’s reply “… make it as secure as you can” (v 65) almost drips with mockery.

In the John reading, two prominent citizens (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) co-operate in receiving and interring the body of Jesus. John presents the Jesus movement as having connections with the upper levels of society (see, for instance, the disciple ‘who was known to the high priest’ (Jn 18.16)). That they were rich and devoted to Jesus is also reflected in them ‘bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds’ (v 39).

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