April 10, 2009

The Holy Week: Part V – Take up Your Cross

The Lord slowly stepped forward as the large wooden cross beam was placed upon his bruised shoulders. The sting of pain shot down his back as he bore the burden of the cross. As he began to walk the path that led through the city, he looked to the several women who had fallen to the ground by the overpowering of emotion. Step by step he carried his cross through the city until just before he reached the outer gates of the city where he fell to the ground. Exhaustion had over taken him and the loss of blood had exhumed his energy. The Roman soldier behind him cursed at him and brought his staff down upon his back with a crack! The pain was so intense that Jesus crumbled upon the stone walkway. “You! Carry his cross!” the Roman soldier yelled to an innocent onlooker. The man who had come from Cyrenian for the Passover looked in fear as he knelt down and took the cross beam from the Lord. Lifting it upon his shoulders he could feel the blood that had been on the cross drip down upon his back. He would carry the cross for a man he had never know; yet this Man knew his heart better than any other person on earth. This Man, though unable to carry his cross at this time, had born a burden far greater than a cross; he had carried the very weight of the world!

The day was Friday at about midday. Jesus had been condemned before the Jewish court, and then again condemned by the Roman government. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was then flogged 39 times; however, no evidence is given of the exact number in the gospels (see John 19:1). Whatever the case, though flogging could kill a man it was not designed to kill but to make the suffering on the cross all the more agonizing. Upon being flogged to the point that exhaustion and pain would almost overtake the body, Jesus then was commanded to carry His cross through the city (now traditionally marked in Jerusalem by the Via Dolorosa).

This Friday I had the opportunity to attend Catholic mass and then a Christian procession with some friends through Salt Lake City. As we began the procession we were asked at each of the seven stops “Who would carry the cross of Christ?” These words were very powerful as I thought of how Simon, though he was forced to carry the cross, symbolically took the place of each of us. In a sense, we each must ask ourselves if we would be willing to carry the cross. In fact before His death, the Lord commanded His disciples: “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). As I followed after those who were carrying the cross through the city, I thought of that day when His disciples had the choice to follow Him, even in death. I thought of what it must have been like to be there and see before you your Lord and Master carrying a cross that He did not deserve to carry.

For the Lord has truly carried our cross. He has carried our cross not only through the streets of Jerusalem, but He has carried it through a garden on the Mount of Olives. He has carried our cross into a dungeon filled with murders, through a trial where even those whom He would save would mock Him on every turn. He has carried it as He was bruised and scoured for our sakes. He has carried our cross as He looked into the eyes of His accusers not with hate, but with love unfeigned; enough love that He would even carry the cross for them. He carried the cross as He was hung on a tree only to be mocked and scorned by the very ones who would find access to His grace. Yet, all that He asks of us is to be willing to carry this cross that He for us has born. Not that we too shall suffer as He did, for He carried the cross for us that our burden may be light. He carried it so that when our cross is placed upon our bruised and weary shoulders, we may know that He stands by us to lift His back beneath the load that we might bear the weight more easily.

Thus, we each must ask ourselves, will I carry the cross I am called upon to bear? Will I follow the Lord in no matter what the circumstances may be? Will I look to Him that I may have my burden made light? Will I likewise help to make the load light for others? Will I turn away the weary, or will I put my shoulders beneath their loads that they might not falter? Will I lift those who may have fallen on their path to Calvary? Will I give relief to those who thirst as they trudge towards their hill of Golgotha? In short, will I follow the Savior and do His works?

April 9, 2009

The Holy Week: Part IV - Gethsemane

The night was dark and the air was crisp as Jesus and his disciples approached the temple mount from Mount Zion, where they had just partaken of the Passover feast. They had traveled this road many times, but this time Jesus led them through the temple courtyard on their way to the garden where Jesus loved to ponder and teach. As they walked through the large court of the gentiles towards the Golden Gate, Jesus looked upon the temple as if it were his last time he would see it. He loved this place, and his eyes now glistened as he stared up at the magnificent temple of God. The full moon shone upon the gold and shimmered in the night reflecting a beautiful glow across the entire court. They continued their walk and left the temple court walking through the gate and down the stairs that led to the bottom of the Kidron Valley and into the garden called Gethsemane. The old gnarled trees were in full bloom and the flowers were illuminated by the full moon above. The night was beautiful, yet Jesus seemed forlorn and weary. “How could he be so mournful on such a night as this?” thought Andrew as he walked beside his Lord and Master. Passover was considered by most, the greatest of all the feasts. As they entered the garden, opening the small wooden gate that creaked on its hinges, Jesus asked that only Peter, James and John come into the very midst of the garden. The rest of the apostles lied down near the outer wall to rest. As the four continued to walk past the large olive trees, a shadow seemed to cross the face of the Lord, a shadow that seemed to darken his very being. “Tarry ye here, and watch with me,” said the Lord with a heavy voice. He then continued into the very most center of the garden. As he fell to the ground, he winced out in pain. With sweat falling from his brow he looked to the sky. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.” As the very weight of the world came upon him he wept. It seemed as though he, like the tender olive, was being crushed by the great weight that lie on his shoulders. After several hours, the Savior rose, wiping his blood speared face with his robe, and coming to the side of his three chief apostles. “Behold, the hour is at hand, and the Son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Upon hearing this, Peter looked into the face of the Master. Though he seemed to have stayed awake the entire night, a light emanated from his weary face. His eyes seemed to show more compassion and love as Peter had never seen before. Within himself Peter asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Truly they had been spiritual slaves, yet on this night a new power seemed to be born; a power that would bring one at one with God. (See Matthew 26:36-45, Mark 14:34-42 and the Jewish Pesach Seder)

The atonement of the Savior is the most significant event to take place in all of history. While in a garden called Gethsemane, because of the large olive presses that were there in contained, the Savior knelt and ransomed man from sin and death. Gethsemane means “olive press” and thus was the tool used to make the freshly harvested olives into the life giving olive oil.

Olive oil for centuries was considered one of the most important substances for life in the Mediterranean. This rich golden oil was used to light the home of every family in Judea. Oil was also used to light the inner chamber of the Temple in Jerusalem. It was used to cook most food and in particular was used in the process of making bread, the very staff of life. Olive oil was also used to help create many ointments that were used for both the living—for healing purposes, and for the dead—to anoint the body prior to placing the body in the tomb. Even Jesus was anointed about a week before His death by Mary, the sister of Martha (see John 12:1-9), and then again after His brutal crucifixion by this and other faithful women (see Luke 24:1). Thus, it is highly significant that Jesus would chose to suffer and bleed in a garden of olive trees. He could have chosen any place to perform this sacrifice. Yet, He knew that by atoning for the sins of man within the gates of this garden, the meaning of His atoning sacrifice would be given a brighter light and imagery that would fill our lives for centuries to come; even into the eternities.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ proclaimed “I am the light of world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). We live in a world full of darkness and despair. We are surrounded by turmoil, financial crisis and by eroding values. We often feel that the path before us is dark and weary, yet if we will but only look to the Savior of the world, our path will be lighted, yea even to the overshadowing of all fear and gloom. As we learn to follow Him—which means we live as He did—we can take of His light that we may have no reason to fear.

The Lord also proclaimed “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). While in the garden of Gethsemane the Lord, through His infinite suffering, was empowered to provide eternal life to all mankind. Just as the Israelites in the days of old were fed from above by manna that came down to provide them with the very essence of life, so on this night of nights in a garden and later on the cross and then through the empty tomb, Christ has provided each of us with the very essence of life. Through His suffering we can overcome all suffering. Through his death we can overcome the chains of death. Through His life we can have even eternal life.

In addition, the Lord has stated: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Through the atonement of Christ we can be consoled and healed of not only our spiritual, but our physical and mental pains. Just as olive oil was used in times of ancient to anoint the body to provide relief and comfort, so the atoning suffering of the Lord will bring relief and comfort to those in need. This relief will not only be provided in life, but in death. Truly, His life and teachings are as an ointment of power that is poured out upon our head and upon our soul that we may live forever more in peace.

As He knelt there alone in Gethsemane, He was literally weighted down, or pushed down upon by the sins and sorrows of the entire world. This burden, like the large stone that was placed upon the olives to squeeze out the precocious oils that they contained, likewise pressed upon His very soul that He bled from every pore (see Luke 22:42-44). The blood that He shed for our behalf, like the olive oil, gives light, life and comfort to our souls.

Because of what Jesus Christ did on our behalf while in this garden filled with olive trees, we have a light that will never be extinguished. We have a light that will enable us to enter back into the presence of the Father to pass by the angels and to enter into eternal life and exaltation. For truly, as Paul so eloquently stated, “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession” (Hebrews 4:14). Let us each go forward with faith in our hearts, and the Light of the world as our guide that we too may enter into everlasting life.

April 8, 2009

The Holy Week: Part III - Passover

As the disciples sat on the ground surrounding the Master, they listened to him as he told the story of the first Passover night that took place almost 1500 years before. He told them of how Israel had been in bondage by the Egyptians and that on that night, because of the death of the first born son of Pharaoh, and the sacrifice of the lamb, that Israel would now be freed. He told them of how that after having sacrificed the lamb, they took of its blood and spread it upon the doorposts of each home as a token of protection. Then Jesus took the unleavened bread that had been prepared for the feast and broke it into pieces. “Take, eat; this is my body.” The disciples each stared in wonder as they each partook of the broken bread. Then Jesus took the cup of wine and said: “Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” As Peter stared on in amazement he asked within himself “what is the meaning of this?” “What did the Master mean by saying this was his body and bread?” (see Matthew 26:26-28)

The day was Thursday, the first day of the Passover feast. As the evening approached Jesus and His disciples gathered in a large upper room on Mount Zion. The home most likely belonged to the mother of Mark (the gospel writer) who would be only a young man at this time. The gathering most likely consisted of not only the twelve disciples, but also other men and woman who had become followers of Christ as Passover was a time for the entire family. All of the preparations would have been made before hand and the table (most likely a triclinium, a low "U" shaped table) was set with all of the necessary elements for the Passover. It would include the sacrificed lamb, the maror (a combination of highly bitter herbs), the haroset (an apple mixture much like chunky apple sauce), the wine, and the unleavened bread.

The meal would start with a prayer after which the guests of the feast would partake of the first cup of wine called the “cup of blessing” (see Luke 22:15-18). The leader would then break a piece of the unleavened bread and hide it within a white cloth that would be passed around, later to be “redeemed” by the host (in this case Jesus). The story of the Passover would then be recounted as the participants would remember that night long ago when the Israelites were freed from their Egyptian captors. As a critical part of this recitation was the question that was asked by the youngest member of the group (possibly John the beloved): “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Whereupon the head of the home would tell the son that they were slaves in Egypt, but the Eternal Father brought them out by His outstretched arm. Jesus must have been filled with emotion beyond compare as He responded to this question; for truly on this night the true deliverance of all mankind would be accomplished.

Next, Jesus would explain the symbolism of each of the items found on the table. The lamb represented the unblemished lamb that had been slaughtered that they might be freed from the angel of death. The unleavened bread represented the swiftness of the flight for the Israelites, for they would not have time to use leaven or yeast in their bread as they left Egypt in haste. The bitter herbs were to represent the bitterness of bondage in Egypt. The apple mixture was to represent the mud made by the Israelites to create the wonders of Egypt.

Upon completing this explanation, the celebrants raised the second cup of wine (the “cup of remembrance”), blessed it and then drank of it. Then each partook of a piece of unleavened bread, bitter herbs and the apple mixture (if you have never eaten bitter herbs as part of a Passover, words cannot describe how horrendous this moment is). With the fumes of the bitter herbs in their mouth, the participants now would partake of the Passover dinner. It is significant that that which takes away the terrible aftertaste of the bitter herbs is that of partaking of the sacrificed lamb.

After the meal was complete the master of the table would then ask for the piece of bread to come forth that had been hidden. He would then “redeem” the piece by bargaining or purchasing it from the holder that all might partake of it. At this point Jesus then took of this piece of bread and said “Take, eat; this is my body” (see Matthew 26:26). It is highly significant that He would use the piece that was to be redeemed or purchased, for He who was the “bread of life” would redeem all that they might be able to partake of life eternal. The company then would bless and partake of the third cup of wine, called the “cup of redemption.” At this point, Jesus would take of the cup and say “this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (see Matthew 26:28, Luke 22:20). Again, it is considerable that this third cup was called the “cup of redemption,” for truly it was through His blood that all would be redeemed.

The last part of the Passover meal was the partaking of the fourth and last cup of wine called the “cup of hope and freedom.” Jesus concluded the Passover meal by stating: “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (see Matthew 26:29). Thus, Jesus tells his disciples that He will not partake of this last cup of “hope and freedom” until the second coming when the millennium will be ushered in and true hope and freedom will reign on earth.*

Each week as we partake of the sacrament we have the opportunity to participate in this symbolic ritual; a ritual that can teach us of true deliverance and of true hope. Each of us has sinned and has thus come short of the glory of God. We all are in spiritual bondage and are unable to free ourselves from these eternal chains. The only way we can be released is if we have the power of another who can reach down to us and raise us from our depths of sin and despair. Jesus Christ has come to earth to pull us from the depths of this captivity. He has given His life, being the firstborn of the Father, that we may each be freed. As we partake of the sacrament we remember the atonement of Christ, just as Jews remember, by the Passover meal, the captivity and the redemption of the early Israelites from Egypt. We remember that it was because Christ’s body was bruised and broken for our sakes that we are freed. Just as His body was broken, so is the bread broken and torn to represent His suffering. We remember His shed blood in Gethsemane and on Golgotha by partaking of the water or wine. As we partake of these emblems we literally make these elements a part of our body. Likewise, for the atonement to have full effect in our lives, we must make it part of us; we must allow the atonement to nourish and strengthen our very souls. As we learn to make His atonement a part of our soul and become at-one with Him, we will be freed from our spiritual and physical captors that hold us captive. I pray that on this holy day we may ponder and think of the sacrifice the Savior offered on our part that we might be freed. I pray that we each may become at-one with Christ through this supernal ordinance of the gospel.

*The above description is only a possible depiction of the Last Supper according to current Jewish Tradition on how the Passover is to be performed and the use of the four Gospels to fill in other missing information.

April 6, 2009

The Holy Week: A Fruitless Tree

Jesus and his disciples walked along the dirt path that led from Bethany towards the temple mount in Jerusalem. As they walked they approached a large beautiful fig tree. They each were hungry, as they had not eaten much during that morning, as Jesus had wanted to arrive at the city as early as possible to be able to preach to the people in the city. Thus, as they neared the tree they had hoped that they would find a few figs that could provide them with some food. After all, the leaves had begun to come forth, meaning that the tree should have fruit. As they came to the tree Jesus reached forth his hand and combed through the branches, only to find leaves. With a glimmer in his eye Jesus said: “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward forever!” The disciples looked on in disbelief by his words. Why would he curse the tree for such a simple thing? What was the meaning of such an act? (see Matthew 21:17-19)

The cursing of the fig tree took place most likely on Monday, the second day of Jesus’ Holy Week. The incident is often misunderstood or questioned, yet with the proper understanding of the context of the incident one can find beautiful meaning and depth. Directly following this account in Matthew, the Lord tells His disciples that they too can perform miraculous things as He had just done. “Verily I say unto you, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; it shall be done. And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Matthew 21:21-22).

Immediately following this promised blessing to His disciples, Jesus is found in a confrontation with the chief priests as to His authority. As Jesus most likely sat under the large portico that surrounded the temple He asked them by what authority John the Baptist performed his work. They in turn could not reply, for by accepting John they would condemn their own authority (as they were supposed priests like unto John). By rejecting John they felt that they might offend those who listened, for most considered John to be a prophet. With this interchange, Jesus gave several parables that paralleled the lives of these chief priests.

The first parable tells of a man who had two sons and asked both to go do a work. The first said he would not but later did, while the second said he would and did not. Jesus then asked who was faithful to the father. Of course, these chief priests had been asked to do a work by the Eternal Father, even that of accepting and proclaiming the holy name of Jesus Christ. After all, this is what John did, and he was a priest like these men. However, they had said they would do his work, but then went and not only never fulfilled their word, but would soon go about to kill the very Son of God. (see Matthew 21:28-32)

The second parable that Jesus taught showed this exact sentiment. The parable teaches of a man who had a vineyard and had husbandman who were to care for it while he was away. When the time came to harvest, these men who were caring for the vineyard decided that they could profit from the earnings of the harvest by taking these profits unto themselves. When the master sent messengers to ask for a reporting, they stoned them, cast them out and rejected them. The master then thought that perhaps by sending his own son they would respond and give a reporting of their actions. However, these men seized the son and killed him that they might not have to deal with the master. Again, we can see a direct correlation to the fact that these chief priests had been entrusted with the temple and had been asked to keep it sacred and holy. However, they had not only polluted it, but they had used it as a means to earn profit by charging exorbitant fees for those who wished to exchange money and to buy animals for sacrifice. It was not that they were not permitted to do this, for it was highly difficult for a traveler to bring money that could be used in Jerusalem when each city had its own currency, and likewise hard to bring an animal that could be used for sacrifice on their long journey. However, it was the fact that they desired to make a profit on this that caused their condemnation. To further condemn them, within only a few short days these same men would seek the life of the Son, even the Son of the Eternal Father. (see Matthew 21:33-46)

The third parable Christ gives is in regards to a father who is to provide a marriage ceremony to his son. He in turn invites all of the people, and in particular the leaders of the community. However, when the men hear of the wedding, they turn down the invitation and say they have other tasks to complete. These men had been invited to partake of perhaps the most joyous and greatest event to ever take place upon the earth. Many have longed to live during the time of the Savior, to hear His words and to accept His light. Yet, we have not been blessed to live during His day, but these supposed “men of God” did live during His day. They were being asked to partake in the most glorious event of all eternity. However, they turned away the very man who would exalt and bless their lives forever more (see Matthew 22:1-14). According to Matthew, these men were very aware that Jesus was speaking of them, as they desired all the more to take away His life so that He would cease to threaten their power (see Matthew 21:45-46).

Thus, with this context we can understand that Jesus while cursing the fig tree spoke of these same men who should have born much fruit. They had been given great blessings and had thus been required to provide fruit to nourish and support the world with life eternal. These priests instead of providing life and vitality, they provided death and apostasy.

However, this is not where the parable ends, for each of us has been called to perform a work. We have been asked by the Master to follow Him. We have been asked to become like Him and to help others do likewise. How do we respond to this invitation? Do we say we will and then do not? Or do we say we will not and do?

We have each also been entrusted with a sacred temple of God, even our bodies. How do we use our bodies? Do we use them to earn money or to obtain wealth and prestige? Or do we use these same bodies to lift those in need and strengthen those whose knees quake? Do we use our voice to proclaim the word of God like unto John the Baptist? Do we use our hands to create works of art that will praise and proclaim the truth? Do we use our ears to listen to those in want? Do we use our feet to walk in His ways? Do we use our eyes to look for those whose heads hang low?

We likewise have been asked to participate in a glorious event, even that of the preparation of the Second Coming of the Lord and Savior. How will we respond to this invitation? Will we turn and find other compromises that may take our time away from the Lord? Do we spend hours watching television or wasting our time on the internet, or do we spend this same time in proclaiming and preparing the way for the Lord’s return? When the Lord returns will we be found ready and prepared to enter into His glory and rest? Will we wait with anxious anticipation for the time of His return? Will we glory in the time of His triumphal reentry into the world?

In short, when the Lord comes to us, will we be able to provide fruit that is precious beyond all else, or will we be like unto this barren fig tree that when given the opportunity to serve was found without? If we are found laden with fruit we will be able to perform all things as the Lord promised His disciples. “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive!” (see Matthew 21:22). That we might be found worthy at that future day, laden with fruit and heavy with good works that glorify the Father and the Son is my prayer.

April 2, 2009

The Holy Week: Part I - The Triumphal Entry

As the young colt walked slowly down the side of the Mount of Olives, the crowds began to gather in great numbers. Many had anticipated the coming of Jesus to the city of Jerusalem for the feast of Passover; for they had hopes that he was the promised Messiah. The Lord looked out over the masses that thronged the path that led to the Gate Beautiful and he smiled as he approached the large stone gate. Robes and branches had been strewn across his path that even the hoof of his animal might not touch the bare ground. As Jesus rode in the midst of the crowd they began to wave cut palm branches and shout “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The hundreds of waving branches appeared as an endless sea that swayed in the breeze. Little did they know that within the week this same Messiah would be scourged and crucified on a cross. (See John 12:12-15)

When Jesus entered Jerusalem a week before His crucifixion, He entered as a king and a ruler. The day was Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath. Entering on a donkey, He rode as David and Solomon did of old. To enter on a horse would mean He entered as a conqueror, taking the city by force. Entering on a donkey meant he entered in peace, showing he would conquer all things not by compulsion or force, but by love and long suffering. Like this animal that only lived to serve its master, so Jesus only lived and died that we might have life. He, like this animal, submitted His will completely to the Father.

The waving of the palm branches, as part of the triumphal entry, and the shouting of hosanna is significant in that this same ritual was done during the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast, which is celebrated during the fall of each year, was to commemorate the wandering of Israel in the wilderness and the eventual entering into the Promised Land. Later, however, this feast also took on new meaning with the coronation of the kings of Israel, and the dedication of the Temple of Solomon (2 Chronicles 7:8-9).

Thus, Jesus was being welcomed as a King of Israel, the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords. This act of worship by the Jews fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah which stated: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.” (Zechariah 9:9). The people were expecting a kingly messiah, and thus when Jesus allowed them to honor Him in this manner, they must have thought that He would free them from their Roman captors. However, they did not understand that though He would come as a political Messiah to free man from all earthly powers, He first would come to free them from a greater captivity of sin and death.

Often we are placed with the question that these Jews had to ask themselves. What type of Messiah are we waiting for? What type of freedom will he bring us? When we try to imagine up a god that does not truly represent the Lord, in essence we create our own god and place this personal creation above the true God of earth. When we do this, we lose sight of the true power and meaning of the atonement and thus lose access to His grace. For it is only after we understand who Christ is that we can practice faith in Him. For without a correct knowledge of God we cannot know what power He has, or what we can expect of Him. We cannot place faith in something we do not understand.

In regards to the dedication of the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles, it is significant that on this same day, Jesus would come into the temple and cleanse it, and make it His own. Thus, He would be welcomed into the city as King, and then come into His house and cleanse it and sanctify it for His work. We likewise, must allow the Savior to come into our lives and cleanse our “temples” of all that is impure. If we resent His actions, like those of the Jewish leadership, we too will have our “temples” destroyed and burned. If we, like the disciples, allow Him to cleanse us and make us pure, we will become great men and women who can literally change the course of mankind.

Each of us has the opportunity to accept or reject the Messiah. We can welcome Him with praises of Hosanna, with lying down of our all before Him, or we can reject His teachings and strive to thwart His mission. By learning to follow Him and learn of His true mission, attributes and power, we are enabled to gain His same power and then become at-one with Him. Only then can the atonement of Christ cleanses us and purify us, only then can we be whole.