#31 The Victory
(First, an aside regarding my last post: I didn’t encounter any awesome opportunities to stand up to the culture of death yesterday. Bummer. But I’ll continue to keep an eye out!)
I attended the Byzantine church this Sunday, which infused my experience of Palm Sunday and my perspective on Holy Week thus far with a different tone than the Roman liturgy for Palm Sunday usually does for me. At a Roman Mass, the stark contrast between the crowds chanting “Hosanna” on Sunday and chanting “Crucify him!” on Friday is an unnerving look at our all-to-familiar human tendency toward fickle, thoughtless words and deeds. Unlike this Roman tradition of (dual) dueling Gospels, the Eastern rites read only the former Gospel story, as recorded by John. On Sunday, I heard of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, greeted as victor by cheering, palm-waving children, and of his presence at a grand feast celebrated in honor of his raising Lazarus back to life after he had been dead four days. Palms and pusswillows were blessed and given out per Byzantine custom. (It’s my understanding that pussywillows were traditionally used for Palm Sunday because eastern Europe is noticeably lacking in palm trees; also, they make awesomely wild-looking altar arrangements with the palms today.) I stood in that church, taking in the incense and the gleaming gold icons, singing hosannas and alleluias (Byzantine’s don’t give up the alleluia for Lent), and it hit home: the victory is already won. In Holy Week, we place ourselves with the disciples in their fear and uncertainty, but we already know that Christ has won victory over death. Even Jesus’ disciples, in the midst of their doubt and shock at seeing him degraded and killed, had prior proof in the form of Lazarus that God’s power to create trumps death’s power to destroy. The one certain fact of all human life, that it ends with death, has been overturned by Jesus Christ. The one miracle that goes beyond “unexplained” to unimaginable is the power to restore life after it has been snuffed out.
What does that mean for us, for all the sinful tendencies we’ve been noticing and struggling with throughout Lent? It is all too easy to hide from the true depth of our sinfulness out of fear that it can’t be cured. Let this knowledge take away our fear. Lazarus’ sister Martha warned Jesus not to roll away the stone of her brother’s tomb because, after four days dead, his corpse would smell. Yet Jesus had the stone removed, and called Lazarus back into the world of the living. If he can open a four-day-old tomb, then he can look into our sinful hearts without being overwhelmed by the dirtiness inside. We are broken and diseased, but Jesus is accustomed to lepers and the like. His light shines in the darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it.
Right now, personally, I feel like I’ve been trying to cover up my sinful nature in hopes that it will go away without having to look directly at it. But much like slapping a Band-aid over a wound without cleaning it first, I’m just trapping all the badness in there and letting it fester. Metaphorically ripping off that Band-aid and looking clearly at what’s beneath will be about as pleasant as it would be to literally do so, but it’s necessary. I think that’s the point of Holy Week: having tried our best to reign in our sinfulness this Lent, we can frankly admit that drastic cases call for drastic measures. No amount of talk therapy or motivational posters will get us from our present sinful state to one of immaculate holiness worthy of Heaven. Following commandments would be a great start, but we seem to be as adept at screwing that up as the people of Israel were in the Old Testament. The only way out of the hole we’re in is to somehow offer a truly worthy sacrifice to the Lord for our sins. I know we’d all like to consider ourselves the sort of selfless person who would offer to take another’s place in death. But this one time, we can’t do anything of the sort. I’m not capable of being a spotless offering to God, none of us our. So we have to let the One who is sinless go through with this. Tomorrow night, we have to let him be captured. Friday, we must let him be killed. We need saving and Jesus demonstrated that he was willing to save us with his own lifeblood. It’s kind of scary, kind of sick, kind of sad. But it’s necessary. And if we want to live, we have to admit that. Once we admit that we’re so far lost, we needed Jesus to give his life to save us, then we can stand strong in his victory over death and know that we will not be defeated. Working through the startling reality of Holy Thursday and Good Friday will finally bring us to the Victory of Easter.