What’s it all about: Passion-tide and Easter
The eight days starting on Palm Sunday and going through to Easter Sunday mark the period of the core defining events of the Christian faith. These events cover the week of Jesus’s final entry into Jerusalem. During the succeeding days he experiences confrontation with the Religious Authorities – the High Priests and Sanhedrin (Religious Council) – His final Passover meal with His closest Disciples, and His betrayal, a sham trial, inquisitions by King Herod and by Pontius Pilate, the Roman occupation Governor.
His execution by crucifixion took place on what we call Good Friday. Finally, on Easter Day, we mark Jesus’ resurrection from the Dead.
Palm Sunday: Early on the first day of the week, having spent the Jewish Sabbath sharing a meal and time with His close friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, (whom Jesus had only recently brought back to life), Jesus makes what He knows will be His final “formal” entry into Jerusalem – just a mile and half from Bethany. He rides on a Donkey – the traditional sign in that culture of a King coming in peace, not war. The ordinary people, increasingly excited by His teaching and His miracles of healing, are beginning to believe that He could indeed be the Messiah. The Messiah, the promised saviour of the Jewish nation, who would come, in their eyes, to lead a rebellion that would expel the occupying Roman army and return Judea to its own people. The lay their cloaks and branches of palm trees on the road in front of Jesus, and cry out urgently and passionately Hosanna!, Hosanna! …. Save us, Save us NOW! – Do it NOW! They want action.
The Pharisees implore Jesus to silence the crowds – they distrust Jesus – they fear His teaching – it threatens their interpretation of Scriptures and their view of social order. They are alarmed by His increasingly significant healing acts – reviving the daughter of an official called Jairus; she was said to be dead. And most recently bringing back to life Lazarus, who had been dead and buried for five days. As much as anything, the religious elite fear for their own positions and for their nation if the Romans react repressively to a civil disturbance … and all in the days leading up to Passover – the major Jewish festival marking a past salvation – the Hebrew exodus under Moses from captivity in Egypt.
But Jesus comes in peace. He heads for the Temple – the focus of worship to the Jewish people. He has been there many times before, but now, as He arrives at its gates, he is struck by the trading in small birds for the Sacrifices made by the people – and by the corruption of the money exchanges – where ordinary Shekels are to be exchanged for the special Temple Currency needed to buy the sacrifices. In a rare show of passion and anger Jesus moves through the throng, upsetting the tables of the Money Changers, knocking over the chairs of the sellers of sacrificial Doves, and pushing aside the corrupt traders.
“And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. And He said to them, “It is written [in the Scriptures] , ‘My house shall be called a House of Prayer’; but you are making it a robber’s den.” (Matthew, Ch. 21, v. 13.)
Following His teaching, healing, raising of the dead and entry into the city as a King, this act was a final act of ‘casting down of the gauntlet’ to the Religious Authorities. They had already resolved to kill Jesus to bring an end to what they perceived was His sedition against the Jewish faith. Now they decided they needed to act quickly – and have Him put to death before the coming Sabbath at the height of the period of celebrations for Passover.
Over the next three days Jesus again spent each day in the Temple, teaching and healing the sick, returning each evening to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany to rest.
On His way into Jerusalem on the Monday of that week, Jesus and his Disciples pass a fig tree. Jesus looks for a fig to eat, but the tree is barren. Jesus curses it for its barrenness. Some scholars interpret this as a symbolic expression of Jesus’ disappointment with the religious leaders of that time, as to some the fig was the symbol of the nation.
As Jesus and His disciples enter Jerusalem on the Tuesday they note that the cursed fig tree has withered “to its roots”.
Over these days, Jesus teaches His followers a great deal about His imminent death, and resurrection, of which He is well aware, and challenges those who hear about their own faith, honesty and integrity – particularly galling for the religious leaders who claim piety and adherence to the minutiae of the religious laws and observances. As the people were preparing to select and sacrifice their chosen lamb or goat kid for the imminent Passover feast, Jesus is to be the ‘sacrificial lamb’ for the whole world at that Passover festival. The disciples still don’t fully understand what Jesus is talking about, and become confused by His teaching. Naively they say that they will willingly go where Jesus is to go, or question that as they do not know “where Jesus is to go” how can they possibly follow Him.
As the excitement and tension of Jesus’ presence in the city grew, and with the eight-day Passover festival period due to commence with the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the Thursday evening of that week, the religious leaders sought how best to arrest Jesus and have Him legally executed. They needed to arrest Him quietly, using some sort of trick to catch Jesus, as they feared a riot if He were to be arrested in the open with the crowds around Him. They needed someone who would betray Jesus at the right time … and they found a ready and willing volunteer – Judas Iscariot.
Some scholars think that after two hectic days of preaching and teaching the people, healing the sick and debating with Pharisees and Sadducees who wished to trap Jesus into blasphemy or another breach of religious teaching as a pretext for His arrest, Jesus and His disciples spent the Wednesday of Holy Week resting in Bethany ahead of the Passover celebrations. Some think he had left the City by the early afternoon of Tuesday, and had spent the rest of that day teaching out on the Mount of Olives outside the city gates, before retiring to Bethany for the night. Certainly there are those who believe that Jesus and His close followers were entertained to an evening meal in the house of Simon the Leper – a close friend of Jesus. It seems to be on this Wednesday evening, when there was (according to John) a very relaxed atmosphere around the table, that Jesus first alludes to His imminent betrayal. When asked by John who is to betray Jesus, he indicates that it will be the person with whom he shares a portion of Bread and Fish. He passes this to Judas Iscariot, but for some reason the Disciples don’t understand what is to happen, and when Jesus bluntly tells Judas to ‘do what he has to do’ they assume that as their money keeper, he is being sent to purchase supplies for the forthcoming festival, or perhaps to give alms to the poor. Nevertheless, Judas leaves to meet up with the Chief Priests and make arrangements to betray Jesus for arrest.
Judas was a sympathiser of the fundamentalist Zealot group – freedom fighters or terrorists depending on your perspective – who were seeking to destabilise and if possible overthrow the Roman occupation. Judas was also a thief. As the treasurer of the group of Jesus’ core Disciples he “had his hand in the money bags” for his own benefit. With all the events of the last few days, it was finally clear to Judas that Jesus was not going to be the conquering King who would lead the rebellion and free Israel and Judea from Roman tyranny. So he turned against Jesus, and betrayed Him to the Chief Priests. Judas’ reward was “30 pieces of silver”. Did Judas plan that Jesus’ would be executed, or did he just imagine that Jesus would be flogged, put in prison for a while and then released – His ministry discredited and the “Jesus movement” at an end – leaving the Zealots to plan another way to rid the country of the hated Romans? We will never know, but it appears that in the end Judas saw the reality of what he had done. According to tradition he went back to the High Priests and threw the thirty pieces of silver down in front of them. Then he went outside the city and committed suicide by hanging himself, possibly his dying body falling in the act of doing so, so that it was badly disfigured.
Maundy Thursday: During the following day, what we now call Maundy Thursday, preparations were made for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, which marked the start of the Passover Festival. This meal commemorated the meal which the Israelites were directed to eat on the night before their exodus from Egypt – unleavened bread and the roast lamb or kid whose blood they had daubed around their doorways as a sign to “The Angel of the Lord” who had ‘passed over’ Egypt punishing the Pharaoh and his people for their slavery of the Israelites. During Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ close disciples, Simon Peter and John, are sent into the City to prepare a selected “Upper Room” for the feast, and to obtain the food and supplies required for the meal, including the ceremonial slaughter of the lamb or kid they will roast and eat during the meal.
Jesus and His disciples gather in this Upper Room at dusk, as the Hebrew day changes. As the new day – The day of the Feast begins, Jesus undertakes the role of the most menial servant, and washes the dust off the feet of His disciples. He is clearly demonstrating His role as a servant rather than an earthly “king”. Simon Peter, aghast that the man he recognises as the Messiah is doing this, questions Jesus’ actions, but Jesus makes it clear that unless Simon agrees to having his feet washed he cannot call himself a true follower. Jesus explains that each follower must be a servant to all others, and in this way will glorify God, and reflect Kingdom of Heaven values.
Jesus then puts His robes back on again, and they enjoy the Feast. During the meal Jesus makes a point of breaking and sharing bread – which He likens to the imminent breaking of His own body as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. he also shares a cup of wine – which He likens to the spilling of His blood to form a “new Covenant” between God and the people of forgiven sins and the prospect of eternal life, . Covenants were often marked in some way by the blood of sacrificial animals in that culture.
Towards the end of the meal, Jesus again alludes to His imminent death, and knowing full well Judas’s role in events, effectively gives Him a sign that he should leave and meet up with the guards in the command of the Chief Priests’. After the meal, Jesus and His disciples go out onto the Mount of Olives – singing hymns and praises to God. Jesus takes a last look at the city of Jerusalem from this vantage point, before they descend to the Garden of Gethsemane where, in a corner of this quiet spot He prays to His father God, a very human request that if possible the terrible events which are to follow can be put aside. He rebukes His disciples who fall asleep while He prays, but ultimately His prayers are prayers of submission to God’s will. The quiet is then broken by the sound of an armed group, led by Judas who have come to arrest Jesus. To avoid confusion in the gloom, Judas greets Jesus with a kiss – a pre-arranged signal, and the guards seize Jesus. Simon Peter briefly draws a sword and wounds a guard, but Jesus calms the situation and heals the man’s wounds. He mocks the guards for having to come stealthily in the dark to arrest Him, when he has been in open sight, in the Temple, for much of the previous four days. Jesus is then led away to the offices of the Sanhedrin. The disciples scatter in fear, and only Simon Peter follows at a safe distance. He lurks in a corner of the courtyard of the building, trying to learn what is happening.
As a stranger, Simon Peter is noticed in the firelight, and is challenged that he is one of Jesus’ disciples. Fearful for His life, three times during the night Simon denies knowing Christ. As the first glimmer of dawn emerges, a Cock crows – and Jesus, who is being held across the courtyard, catches Simon’s eye. Simon is reminded of Jesus’ warning earlier that evening, when He predicts that soon all of the disciples will desert Him. Simon has boasted that whatever the others do he will never leave Jesus.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” (Matthew, Ch. 26, vs. 24).
Simon leaves the courtyard and weeps bitterly as he recognises his human frailty, and shortcomings.
Good Friday: In the early hours of the first Good Friday morning, Jesus is brought before the High Priests and Scribes of the Temple for interrogation. This “trial” requires that, under the religious law of the time, that the testimonies of at least two of the ‘witnesses’ brought to give oral evidence against the accused must agree before the prisoner can be pronounced guilty. A considerable number speak out before finally two both state:
“We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.'” (Mark, Ch. 14, vs. 58) To Caiaphas and the other senior religious leaders this was the opportunity they had been seeking. If the temple were not to be rebuilt with human hands then this world need God’s intervention. So they challenged Jesus:
The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew, Ch. 26, vs. 62 – 64).
At last they had a statement from Jesus they could consider blasphemy from His own lips. Caiaphas questioned the Sanhedrin on what they had heard. There was little dissent from the view that Jesus should die. The Sanhedrin taunt Jesus, trying to provoke a response which will feed their perceptions of Jesus as a blasphemer and danger to their positions.
The Chief Priests needed to keep the civil authorities “on side”. Only the Roman occupying forces could legally sanction and carry out the death penalty. As a result, Jesus was sent before Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Judea. With only a small peacekeeping force in Jerusalem, possibly supplemented by additional troops from neighbouring towns due to the greater crowds in the City for Passover, Pilate needed to keep the peace. There had already been an insurrection which he had put down, arresting Barabbas, one of the ringleaders. Not wishing to incur the significant expense of mobilising the Legion in Caesarea some 100 kilometres to the north, Pilate sought the route of least impact. Learning the Jesus was from Galilee, and hearing that King Herod Antipas, “puppet ruler” of Galilee and Perea in the north, under the sanction of the Roman occupiers was in Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Pilate sent Jesus to Antipas for conviction and judgement, hoping to avoid having to deal directly with what was to him, essentially a domestic Jewish religious matter.
Herod however was intrigued by Jesus, and sought to get Him to perform a miracle. Jesus however remained silent in the face of Herod’s questioning. Under pressure from the Chief Priests who wanted Jesus dead, and mindful that even Herod could not invoke the death penalty, Herod returned, or was persuaded to return Jesus to Pilate. Pilate’s wife was troubled by a dream from which she gained a clear understanding that Jesus was innocent of any crime. She sent a message to her husband, “Have nothing to do with this innocent man”; meaning do not condemn Him to death – he has committed no (capital) crime. Pilate seeks a way out. The custom is to release a prisoner as a gesture of goodwill at Passover. Pilate offers the crowd which has gathered Jesus’ freedom, but the religious leaders have planted agent provocateurs in the throng. They cry out for Barabbas to be released. Pilate asks them what he should do with “The King of the Jews”, and they cry out all the more for Jesus to be crucified. Sensing a risk of a riot, Pilate ceremoniously washes his hands of the matter and having ordered Jesus to be scourged (a vicious form of flogging with a multi-thonged whip tipped with sharp metal barbs) he hands Jesus back to the Sanhedrin for crucifixion. In doing so, despite seeking to have nothing on his own conscience, he has effectively authorised the death penalty. It will be Roman soldiers not ceremonial Temple Guards who carry out the sentence.
After the scourging Jesus is ridiculed by the troops who place a crown of vicious thorns upon His head, dress Him in a “royal purple” robe and mock Him. At about eight in the morning Jesus is made to carry the cross bar of His own cross out to the place of execution. It is a hill just outside the City Walls, called Golgotha – the place of the skull – so named because of the appearance of the rocky outcrops from a distance. Jesus, weakened by the stresses and strains of the night, by the scourging and torture, and no doubt by the hatred, anger and aggression of the mob as he makes his way through the city streets, struggles under the weight of the cross. The soldiers commandeer a visitor to the Passover – Simon of Cyrene in north Africa – to carry the cross. At Golgotha, at about 9 in the morning, Jesus is offered Myrrh to reduce the pain, which he declines, and is nailed to the cross which is hoisted upright. On Pilate’s orders a notice is nailed to the top of the cross, written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. It reads “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews“. The Chief Priests argue that Pilate should change the wording to say that “He claimed he was King of the Jews“. Pilate replies “What I have written, I have written“. The routine execution of two convicted criminals also takes place at the same time. One rails against Jesus, taunting Him to save Himself and them. The other, contrite, upbraids the first. “We have been rightly found guilty of our crimes, but this man is innocent“. Almost as an afterthought he asked: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answers him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”.
The taunts of the bystanders continues. The soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garments, not wishing to tear his one-piece cloak. Jesus sees His own mother, and other women who have been among His disciples over the course of His ministry, standing nearby, alongside John the Apostle – who is still a very young man. Jesus hands His Mother, Mary, into John’s safe keeping. A drink mixed with vinegar is offered on a sponge on the end of a spear, and at about mid-day an eclipse of the Sun occurs and the sky turns black, adding to the sense of gloom and despair. Jesus cries out to God. At the very moment in which His sacrificial act of taking the sins of the whole world on His shoulders takes place, it seems that even God has to look away from the focus of evil and sinfulness: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me“. Almost immediately Jesus knows His sacrifice is complete. “It is finished” He cries as the act of Salvation of the World takes place. There is an earth tremor and the curtain which screens the Holy of Holies in the temple from the eyes of ordinary worshippers tears from top to bottom.
By 3.00 pm even the Guards are sufficiently convinced He has died that they thrust a spear into Jesus side as confirmation. The reality of Jesus’ divinity is clear for all there who are seeking the truth of God. Even the Roman Centurion in charge of the execution party is heard to say “Truly, this man was the Son of God“.
Late in the afternoon Jesus’ body is lowered from the cross, and Nicodemus, a Sanhedrin member who has followed Jesus’ ministry closely, and has become a disciple, persuades the Roman Authorities to release the body to him for burial. Assisted by another disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, they take the body to a nearby cemetery and lay Jesus in a newly cut rock cave tomb – possibly one prepared for future use by Joseph himself. A huge boulder is rolled across the entrance to the tomb, as was the normal practice. Mindful of Jesus’ previous claim that He would rise after three days, both the Chief Priests and Pilate are wary of any risk of further disturbance if there were to be an unauthorised removal of the body and subsequent claims by the disciples of resurrection, so the tomb is sealed, and a guard placed over it.
By now it is nearly dusk, and the mourners hurry home before the start of the Passover Festival Sabbath on the Friday evening – one of the major days of the festival. The Sabbath, Holy Saturday, is a day of rest and quietness. The Disciples gather together in the upper room where they have eaten the Passover Meal on the previous evening. They are scared and distraught. Their Master is dead. The door is locked as they gather in grief and fear.
EASTER DAY: Jesus’ body has been buried in haste, with whatever preserving ointments could be purchased late on the Friday afternoon. Early after sunrise on the Sunday morning, the first day of the week, three of the women disciples return to the tomb, to more properly bathe and cleanse the body and complete the rituals of anointing. Mary Magdalene, Mary (of Clopas) the mother of James the younger and Joseph, (sons of Alphaeas), Joanna the wife of Chusa, and Salome, the mother of James and John, arrive hoping that the guards will assist them in rolling back the stone and allow them access to Jesus’ body. When they arrive, the guards have already fled, and the stone has rolled away. They enter the tomb and in place of the expected body of Jesus sits a young man in brilliant white garb. He tells them that the man they seek (Jesus) is not there, but has risen and gone ahead of them to Galilee as he had promised.
Amazed and confused, the women rush back to the upper room to tell the other disciples what has happened. Simon Peter and John rush to the tomb followed by Mary Magdalene. John, being much younger outruns Peter but is to anxious on arrival to enter the tomb. Simon however goes into the tomb and find things as the women have said. Mary Magdalene who has now returned to the tomb, is left alone in the garden as the two Apostles rush back to the Upper Room to confirm the women’s news. She is too distraught by the events of the past few days to take in what the Angel has told them. As she wanders, in tears that even the body of her Lord has gone, she sees a man whom she assumes is the gardener. She asks him where the body of Jesus has been taken, so that she may go to Him and take care of matters properly. The ‘gardener’ simply says to her “Mary”. At once she recognises the voice as Jesus and falls at His feet but the risen Jesus has been transformed. He tells her not to hold onto Him “as I have not yet risen to my Father”. Jesus tells her to return to the gathered disciples and tell them what she has seen. Mary is overjoyed and she too returns to the Upper Room to explain that she has met the risen Christ.
Later that day Cleopas, whom some scholars think is the brother of Joseph and therefore Jesus’ earthly uncle, and another disciple, are returning to their home in Emmaus, about six miles from Jerusalem. As they walk along the road, pondering the events of the previous week together, another walker appears, as if from nowhere, and joins them. He asks what they are discussing, and on hearing that it is Jesus of Nazareth – whom they believe to be the Messiah, the stranger proceeds to explain in detail how the life and death and resurrection of Jesus fulfil all the ancient Old Testament prophesies. Amazed and heartened by His teaching, when the reach Emmaus they invite the stranger into their home for a rest and meal. Only when the stranger breaks and blesses the bread do they recognise Him as Jesus, who them miraculously disappears. Despite the lateness of the hour the two disciples feel compelled to rush the six miles back to Jerusalem to tell the others in the Upper Room that they have seen Jesus. While they are exchanging their news in the locked Upper Room, Jesus appears before them all, and they are overjoyed.
Jesus has risen from death, just as He promised. The Cross, and Death have been conquered.
Jesus’ complete ‘sacrifice’ for our sins which make us remote from God – “dead” to God have been atoned for,
and we can now come to God guilt-free and receive His Grace and everlasting like in the Kingdom of Heaven.