"On the sabbath, they rested according to the commandment."(Luke 24:56b)
Not even an image of a grave or a tomb suffices to signify this day of emptiness, desolation and grief.
The last day of the Lenten season is treated as a day of preparation, time for spring cleaning in church decorating and making them ready for the celebration of Easter. It's quite understandable that people want to do this, yet it contrasts with the sheer emptiness of the day following the burial of Jesus, of which scripture says so little, and for obvious reasons.
One of the key tenets of God's law and commandments for the Hebrew people was the reservation of one day each week for rest recreation and spiritual renewal. It was understood as essential for health in personal and social relationships, and it applied equally in a analogous way to cultivated land.
"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." (Exod 20:8)
"Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may be refreshed."(Exod 23:12)
The fact that the Gospels report arguments about what constituted a breach of sabbath keeping law and regulation between Jesus and the religious authorities tends to emphasise detailed prohibitions that were characteristic of later stricter Judaism.
"The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are your disciiples doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. “So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”(Mark 2:24 & 27-8)
"The leader in charge of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed her on the Sabbath day. “There are six days of the week for working,” he said to the crowd. “Come on those days to be healed, not on the Sabbath.” But the Lord replied, “You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” " (Luke 13:14-16)
Sabbath observance was positive in its intention, as Jesus was quick to remind his critics.
Jesus was buried hastily without completion the customary funeral rites. The women who wanted to do this duty as an act of closure, setting them free to mourn him properly, could do nothing on the sabbath. They wouldn't seek to do anything that would express contempt for the faith which Jesus had so richly shared with them. Besides, they were still in a state of shock at what happened to him so quickly, so beyond their control. All that was left to them was to wait the long agonising wait until the sabbath was over. If the tomb was more than a sabbath day's journey from the place where they were staying, they wouldn't even have been able to visit and keep watch nearby, and there was that guard mounted at the tomb entrance to maintain security.
This was hardly a day of rest, recreation and renewal for any of those who had witnessed Jesus' suffering and death. We can only reflect on our own response to traumatic events and how the memories replay themselves time and time again in our minds, as we wonder if there was any missed alternative to whatever we were helpless to prevent. For the men who had forsaken him and fled into hiding, there was the added shame of knowing their failure to stand by Jesus. On top of this, the sheer pain for all of them, losing their most beloved teacher, leader and advocate.
This day was unlike any other sabbath day observance before or since. Yet, the sudden wounding experience of death and bereavement is known to many if not most human beings at some time in their lives.
In retrospect, in the light of the healing and transforming encounters with the resurrected Jesus that occurred in following days, Peter, followed by other early Christian writers, felt free to imagine Jesus at work this day in the realm of the dead, taking the message of salvation to preceding generations who would not be excluded from the divine plan, but liberated from bondage to sin and death to take the place prepared for them in God's eternal realm.
"For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient..." (1 Pet 3:18-19)
In the perception of their law compliant contemporaries, this could considered the ultimate sabbath restriction breaking initiative. But Jesus himself, early on in his ministry issued this challenge.
"He asked them, "Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?" But they remained silent. " (Mark 3:4)
This day, in the minds of his followers is when Jesus took the offer of life to the most unimaginable of places, before returning to reveal the resurrection to those in deepest grief and shock. It was spoken of in mediaeval Europe as 'the Harrowing of Hell'. The Eastern Orthodox second Troparion of Holy Saturday, from much earlier says this
"When thou didst descend into death, O Life Immortal, then didst thou annihilate Hell with the radiance of thy divinity. And when thou hadst raised up the dead from the nethermost regions, all the powers of heaven cried aloud: O Life-giver, Christ our God, glory to thee!"
There is little mention of this in scripture. It is a glimmer of light in a dark and empty day of waiting, however, and there are Psalm verses that anticipate to this future, oft quoted in the earliest Christian preaching.
"Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices; My flesh also will dwell securely. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever." (Ps 16:9-11)
As finite mortal human beings, we do not see the whole picture of God's creation and providence, let alone the full meaning of the mystery of salvation through Jesus Christ. Yet, with St Paul, and with the poet of the Song of Songs we can declare 'Love is stronger than Death'
"For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge .… "(2 Cor 5:4-5)
The arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane, reported in St Mark's Gospel, uniquely contains this passage
"A young man was following Him, wearing nothing but a linen sheet over his naked body; and they seized him. But he pulled free of the linen sheet and escaped naked."(Mark 14:51-2)
This has often been regarded as a guarded self reference on the part of the evangelist to a point in the story at which he was there in person. Mark is said to have been Peter's scribe when the latter was recording for posterity what Jesus said and did. Was this his un-ostentatious signature?
Exposure of complete nakedness was considered shameful in Hebrew culture, in a way it wasn't in Greek society where men stripped naked to take part in athletics, and the human form in its entirety was the subject of admiration and artistic representation.
The Genesis stories account for the abhorrence of complete nakedness. It wasn't like that to start with.
"Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame." (Gen 2:25)
After their act of disobedience to God, however, they behave altogether differently. The origin of shameful feelings is thus explained.
"Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loin coverings. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. Then the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked?"(Genesis 3:7-11)
The couple, once they are aware that they have done something they were warned against, have the impulse to cover, not the whole of themselves, but the part of their bodies associated with desire and pleasure they don't know how to control. They don't know how to give an account of themselves and this feeling is stronger than any sense of defiance or mischief they may have entertained.
Shaming is associated with humiliation, revelation of fault and transgression in a broader sense.
"They will be put to shame and even humiliated, all of them; The manufacturers of idols will go away together in humiliation."(Is 45:16)
"Men will come to Him, And all who were angry at Him will be put to shame."(Is 45:24)
"I said, "O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens." " (Ezra 9:6)
It carries the sense of being totally exposed and vulnerable to attack, punishment or condemnation.
The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane escapes by being stripped naked to his own shame, and causing offence to anyone who might catch sight of him running for his life.
Before Jesus was crucified he was stripped of his garments. The Gospels don't mention that he was stripped naked however. Christ crucified is generally portrayed wearing only a loin cloth, not naked.
It isn't necessary to presume that iconographers down the centuries have done this out of respect for Jesus' modesty. Publically displaying an condemned criminal naked would have caused great offence to the Jewish populace, and incite a protest riot. For Jesus to be accused of blasphemy, and abused so cruelly was shame enough. There was nowhere he could hide, no way to protect himself. This was the risk which he had freely and willingly undertaken to accomplish his Father's will. as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says:
"Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."(Heb 12:2)
The young man who evaded arrest in Gethsemane represents something more than an ephemeral anecdote in the Gospels. He is confronted with the violence of a 'religious' police force, and with Peter's violent response confrontation. He is witness to Judas' act of betrayal, whose motives he might not have had any reason to doubt previously. His instinct is to flee and tell the tale, and the shock of these events leaves him stripped bare, exposed, vulnerable, ashamed in more senses than one.
Do we not feel shame as well as horror at atrocities we learn of, almost on a daily basis, revealing man's inhumanity to man? The story of Christ's passion has the same effect, stripping us bare of our defences, our excuses, and pretences reminding us of our weakness and unhealed wounds, our need for shameful selves to be covered by God's compassion and healing grace. There is only one prayer left that any of us can say.
Jesus had a keen sense of what is essential about a life of faith in God, and in discussion with the guardians of orthodox Jewish teaching his summary of what is most important about God's law is not on his own words, but in direct quotations from the Torah - Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18b.
"One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." " (Mark 21:28-31)
His choice of texts reflects the priority of the Good News about God's kingdom which he believes he must convey to the world, that it is a kingdom where love reigns, first and last.
On this unique day in the Christian calendar, we hear how Jesus re-iterates and develops this teaching for the intimate circle of his companions, though not this time by means of quoting scripture, but by actions he employs to show them what he is talking about.
He follows Jewish tradition in the way he prays before, during and after meals, thanking God the creator and provider of all for the gift of food and drink, and for making his people who they are, in recalling their God given liberation from slavery and journey into the freedom of the Promised Land. He augments the received tradition of prayer however identifying himself with the broken bread and wine out-poured that they share with him.
"While they were eating, He took some bread, and after a blessing He broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is My body." And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them."(Mark 14:22-4)
In the light of what happens to him in the next few days, we learn to understand that this action with these words points to his self-sacrificial death, whilst pointing beyond it to his resurrection presence with them, as they continue to repeat his words and actions and remember him.
Before Jesus made this change to their traditional table prayers, this moment of each meal shared was one of pure worship, a wonderfully mundane expression of loving gratitude to God, fulfilling the first Commandment. Associating the prayer with his death and resurrection, takes this act of worship to another higher level altogether, in which the domestic and the cosmic are made one.
Then, after the supper, Jesus washes the disciples' feet, insisting that any and every person entrusted with responsibility and power over others must be able to serve them in the humblest of things, and make themselves as dependent and vulnerable as a slave in respect of their real needs, always seeking to put the needs of others first.
“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."(John 13:14-17)
Loving your neighbour as yourself, the second greatest commandment is a noble, if general statement. Jesus makes it concrete not by talking but by serving them, with no thought for his status. Is he perhaps already aware that he is soon going to lose every shred of human dignity? His concern is simply to show his friends that love is never a matter of mere words, but of words and deeds together. Divine truth is not a matter of ideas expressed, but something that is lived, something done, right action. His last supper is then, the occasion for his most memorable teaching.
It is noteworthy that the first three Gospels record the changes Jesus makes to the prayers, but not the foot washing. John records the foot-washing after the meal without mentioning the prayers. If indeed Mark is the first to record an account of this innovation in traditional Jewish prayer, he is mentioning something which groups of disciples have been doing regularly over the previous thirty years based on recollections of eyewitnesses passed on. He makes a written account of an oral tradition.
For John this is so much a given practice that his intended audience doesn't need such a record. He is keen to remind them of what they may well be prone to forget - that Jesus was among them as 'one who serves', and that they should remember to do likewise in their ministries, as those who love God and love their neighbours as themselves.
Today's Eucharist Gospel readings in both the Roman (Matt 26:14-25) and Common Ecumenical (John 13:21-32) lectionaries speak about the role Judas plays in precipitating the succession of events that led to the death of Jesus. Introducing his account of the Last Supper, John says:
"The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot to betray him."(John 13:3)
Matthew and John state that Judas makes his offer to the religious authorities to tell them where Jesus can be found before the meal takes place.
"Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said [unto them], What will you give me, if deliver him to you? And they agreed to give him thirty pieces of silver. From that time he sought opportunity to betray him." (Matt 26:14-16)
Then, at the conclusion of the meal
"After he received the piece of bread Satan entered into him."(John 13:27)
First, the devil is described as motivating Judas to act, then Satan. Both words in Jewish tradition are used to refer to heaven's adversary, but there is a distinction between them. The devil is 'diabolos', a power or a person sowing division and chaos, un-doing the created order, if one thinks of God as the One who brings order from chaos at the beginning. Satan on the other hand, is originally a Persian juridical word, equivalent to prosecuting attorney - the Accuser - a more personal role, rather than the more general idea of a divider.
Either way it's a hostile interpretation of the role of Judas that is reflected in the New Testament, but not in all ancient religious thought. Judas is considered by some Gnostic Christian writers as one without whom the work of divine redemption could not have been completed, that it was his destiny of necessity more than it was his choice. He is the one who triggers the inevitable course of action.
"So after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night." (John 13:30)
Judas knows that Jesus and the disciples will go to the Garden of Gethsemane to relax and pray after the meal in the cooler night air. He will lead the religious authorities there. John perceives his actions throughout as evil and corrupt, he doesn't trust him, but it doesn't follow that John has interpreted his intentions aright.
"Jesus said to him: "Do quickly what you are going to do."(John 13:27b)
Had Judas told him a lie? Did Jesus know what he was considering? Did they discuss an initiative Judas was keen to pursue. His secret visit to the religious authorities might have been an effort to arrange a meeting with Jesus for them away from the public eye, where he could in private prove to them he was the Messiah.
For someone ambitious enough to see himself as a deal-maker on behalf of the coming Messiah, Judas may have naively disregarded the ill-will towards Jesus,. The religious authorities took his lead as an opportunity to make an arrest. Judas' possibly well intended plan went terribly wrong. Then he was seized with suicidal remorse, and earned universal anger and condemnation for his perceived act of betrayal. His certainly can be described as a diabolical act, considering the way Jesus' arrest scatters the disciples into hiding.
Judas greets and betrays Jesus with a kiss, perhaps thinking until this moment that things will now start to be different. He gets no opportunity to exercise any role in this situation. He is nothing like a 'Satan', has no part to play in the fake juridical proceedings which follow, not even as a witness. He has been duped, played by the religious authorities and discarded, totally underestimating the malice they have towards his master.
Scripture is silent on these matters. It just reports the reaction that everyone feels betrayed, regardless of the reason or process behind it. There is no doubt about the murderous ill-will of the religious authorities, threatened as they were by inability to consider the integrity of their own position.
Whether Jesus knew exactly what Judas intended or not, we can never know, but on the basis of the little Jesus is actually reported as saying, he didn't attempt to control him or persuade him to act in some other way. All of the disciples must learn from their own successes and failures. The tragedy of Judas is that he cannot reach out and seek forgiveness. He is the unmerciful judge and jury of his own catastrophic error, and his own executioner. All this adds to the burden of sadness that falls upon Jesus on his last most painful day among us.
The Gospel for Mass in the Roman Lectionary today (John 13:21-33 & 36-38) focuses, as does tomorrow's Gospel from Matthew on the part played by Judas Iscariot in betraying Jesus to those who were seeking to kill him. Not infrequently Judas is portrayed differently from the other disciples, making him seem sinister, villainous, but there is no evidence to support this in the stories scripture tells. At the least, iconography makes him out to be left-handed and in the ancient world this could be enough to lead to someone being regarded with suspicion.
"See, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table."(Luke 22:21)
Judas is shown to occupy an important position at the table, reaching out with his left hand towards the same dish as Jesus in Giampetrino's copy of Leonardo's original Last Supper, and knocking over the salt with his right, as he does. His face is impassive, whereas most of the others are gesturing with astonishment - "Lord, is it I?" John, on the right of Jesus is being asked by Peter "Ask, who it is he means." Nobody is named, but Jesus responds to John's enquiry by saying that it is the one to whom he gives a piece of bread that he has dipped in the supper dish.
John identifies the recipient as Judas, but it's hardly likely that he was the only disciple to be favoured this during a meal. Jesus however, then gives Judas leave to go and attend to other duties as treasurer of the common fund. Was there something understood between them? An unfinished argument about the way forward, leading to Judas taking an initiative nobody else has agreed to?
There is another Jude or Judas among them, described as Judas (not Iscariot). The man himself is never mentioned without being referred to as Jesus' betrayer. John also speaks of Judas Iscariot as a thief because of his abuse of the common fund. He is the target of communal anger for what he does in bringing Jesus to the attention of the religious authorities. Yet, without his vain disastrous attempt to force Jesus to demonstrate his power and reveal his true nature, the circumstances in which God's infinite mercy and compassion could be revealed, would not have occurred. This paradox is beyond our comprehension, but as St Paul says:
"At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly."(Romans 5:6)
On the face of it Judas acts on his own, over and against the group. His story is an illustration for all disciples in every generation that warns of the fatal risk attached to doing this. We are as Paul says:
Today's Eucharist Gospel reading from John 12:1-8 recounts the other supper Jesus and his disciples took part in, the week before Passover, with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Mary scandalises Judas by anointing the feet of Jesus with precious ointment. He interprets this for those present as a significant gift in advance of his burial. None of them are aware of just how great are the threats he faces, or the dangerous crisis that overshadows them all. It's the last reported gesture of loving kindness he accepts before violence breaks out upon him, and his Passion begins.
Speaking of the ointment and Mary's action Jesus says
"Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial."(John 12:7)
There are many and varied artistic representations of this moment, but this story revives the memory of St John's City Parish Church in Cardiff, which has two fine Victorian stained glass windows which portray this story, both made and installed in the last years of the nineteenth century. No explanation has ever been offered for this co-incidence. But it seems this story caught the imagination of some wealthy people in that era when the city was growing rapidly due to the coal export boom. It was perhaps a way of encouraging self effacing generosity in relation to God and his church.
Variations of this story appear in all four Gospels. Mark (Mk 14:3-9) and Matthew (Matt 26:6-13) relate that it's Jesus' head that gets anointed. Luke and John relate that his feet are anointed. The setting of the story is different in Luke's version, which comes earlier, in a section of teaching about forgiveness and love, in Galilee, perhaps Capernaum.
"And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner."(Luke 7:37-39)
Matthew and Mark's version is set in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. John's version is also set in Bethany, but among familiar friends at the house of Lazarus and his sisters. plus the disciples. All three state that this anointing is to be understood as a prophetic sign of Jesus' impending death.
Anointing the head was a common gesture of hospitality (cf Psalm 23:5b), along with washing the feet (cf John 13:5). Anointing the feet of the sick for healing, and of the dead, as part of the mourning ritual before burial was also common custom. It may be understood as a gesture of healing towards a body that is tired and in need of soothing at the end of life's rough journey. Jesus here is near the end of his journey with the Good News of God's reign.
Neither of the windows in St John's church depict the anointing, but both depict the offering of the 'alabaster jar' Luke speaks of. In one of the windows is inscribed a modest tribute to the one in whose memory the window was installed: "She did what she could."
Jesus did not rebuke anyone for paying such loving attention to himself, but what he did say poses a challenge to anyone who has to give an account of themselves as his disciple.
"Inasmuch as you did/didn't do this to the least of my little ones, you did/didn't do it to me." (Matt 25:40 & 45)
This day takes its name from the Gospel story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, recounting the way he was honoured by crowds of people cutting down palm branches to cover the streets he rode through on a donkey, as if he was a celebrated hero.
In places where there are few Palm trees, it is customary to import branches for use in ceremonial re-enactment of the story, and weave crosses from leaves to bless and give to worshippers as a reminder of this occasion, and what happened in the days that followed.
Palms are among the best known and cultivated plants, with about 2600 known varieties. They have been important to humans throughout much of history, in regions of tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. Many common products and foods are derived from palms, making them one of the most economically important of all plants. Today they are a popular symbol for the tropics and vacations. Historically they were symbols representing victory, peace, and fertility. They are part of the biblical landscape, now as they were two thousand years ago.
"Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters."(Exodus 15:27)
"She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment."(Judges 4:5)
The Springtime festival of Tabernacles involved living outdoors in leafy shelters, as a reminder of the sojourn in the wilderness. Abundance of palm trees above all made this possible.
"Now on the first day you shall take for yourselves the foliage of beautiful trees, palm branches and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and rejoice before the LORD your God for seven days. 'You shall thus celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year." (Lev 23:40-41)
Jericho, one of the oldest of human habitations, was sited in an oasis area of the Jordan valley, renowned for its Palm trees.
"the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar."(Deut 34:3)
Palm branches were carried in the funeral processions of ancient Egypt, symbolising eternal life, and the idea may have carried over into Hebrew culture, as palm trees appeared as a decorative motif in the account of building Solomon's Temple.
"For the entrance of the inner sanctuary he made doors of olive wood, the lintel and five-sided doorposts. So he made two doors of olive wood, and he carved on them carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers, and overlaid them with gold; and he spread the gold on the cherubim and on the palm trees." (1 Kings 6:31-33)
Palm and olive branches were carried in Roman festive processions celebrating military achievement, and the Palm was associated with Nike, the goddess of victories. Jesus' entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey and hailed by the crowds is reported in all four Gospels with small variations. Matthew and Mark report simply that 'leafy branches' were cut and spread in his path, John alone specifies palm branches. John is the evangelist who interprets the passion and death of Christ as a triumph over sin and evil, hence his allusion to this particular entry into Jerusalem as a victory procession, by referring to the use of Palm branches.
"They took the branches of the palm trees and went out to meet Him, and began to shout, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel."(John 12:13)
The sense of celebration and the popularity of Jesus is, however, short lived. Any suggestion that he might be regarded as a King fills the Jewish leadership with anxiety, and a determination to get rid of him before his presence in the holy city causes trouble with their Roman overlords. The fact that Jesus goes on to take action against the money changers in the Temple arouses even more anxiety and resentment against him from the religious authorities, and plotting to turn the crowd of his supporters against him develops.
The church on this day not only remembers this moment of worldly glory given to Jesus, but reads through one entire version of the Passion story for the first time of this week. Other versions will in their turn be re-read and re-enacted in the days following, inviting us to listen and learn anew from each the meaning of his death 'for us and for our salvation'.
In a modern leisure-laden society, beach donkey rides or encounters during a farm visit will for some provide childhood memories of animals that have accompanied human journeys across the earth for the past six millennia.
Lukes' Gospel doesn't mention how Joseph and Mary, heavy with child travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor does it mention which animals were in the stable of the inn where she gave birth, but the use of donkeys as beasts of burden and means of transport already had four thousand years of history behind it since the first wild asses of north east Africa were domesticated and bred by nomadic herders and traders. Donkeys nevertheless are commonplace in Nativity Plays and stories. They are however referred to in many other places in scripture.
The book of Numbers chapter 22 contains a surreal comic folk tale of a speaking donkey whose master Balaam is a diviner, called upon by the king of Moab to pronounce a curse on the children of Israel as they are passing through on their way to the Promised Land. He cannot bring himself to do it, and when he is tempted by the thought of reward to have another try, the donkey stubbornly refuses to allow him to proceed on his way. The donkey can see God's angel barring the way but Balaam cannot, but eventually he comes to this conclusion
"How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom God has not denounced?" (Num 23:8)
Donkeys were everywhere in the cities and the landscape, both domesticated working animals and wild ones. "An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master's manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand."(Isaiah 1:3)
"He sends forth springs in the valleys; They flow between the mountains; They give drink to every beast of the field; The wild donkeys quench their thirst." (Ps 104:10-11)
As robust hardworking beasts of burden they could be badly treated, left to die when old and weak. In times of famine, and among the poor, they would be taken for meat. In the hands of Samson, the jawbone of a dead animal picked up in a field becomes a mass murder weapon.
"He found a fresh jawbone of a donkey, so he reached out and took it and killed a thousand men with it." (Judges 15:15)
Those who are more privileged and wealthy get to ride a tamed one as a status symbol. They get a passing mention in Deborah's victory hymn.
"You who ride on white donkeys, you who sit on rich carpets, and you who travel on the road - sing!" (Judges 5:10)
Zechariah foresees the arrival of God's anointed Messiah into the holy city in a triumphal procession, as he comes to restore the fortunes of his people.
"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey."(Zech 9:9)
The evangelists considered this prophecy fulfilled when Jesus entered Jerusalem publicly for the last time to the acclaim of the people. Jesus is portrayed preparing for this moment thus: "When they had come near .... Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to Me." "(Matt 21:2)
Matthew cites Zecharaiah 9:9 in full commenting "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet."(Matt 21:4)
G K Chesterton's poem gives a donkey's testimony to the experience of being part of the story of humanity. Read it here. It fits well with what St Paul says about God's mysterious way of working.
"God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God." (1 Cor 1:27-9)
God as creator of that exists is the source of life in all its fullness. One marvellous things that sustains life in face of adversity is the capacity of the human body to self-repair after injury and recover from sicknesses of many kinds. The body deteriorates with age and eventually dies, but healing of wounds and recovery from sickness is an experience common to all humanity. Medical science gives us deep insight into physical healing processes, and yet there is still a mysterious elusive element about the way mechanisms which produce healing will work with one person and not another.
Not without reason has healing long been regarded as a divine gift, no matter what medicinal means, or special conditions applied, (whether magical and primitive or modern scientific), to ensure it can happen. Those who help others to get well and return to active life again have long been regarded as people with a God-given healing gift, regardless of what they actually offer to a sick person.
There are dozens of verses in the bible that are concerned with the healing of people, also many prayers, notably in the book of Psalms. Here are three typical examples
"Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress. He sent forth his word and healed them; he rescued them from the grave. Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men." (Psalm 107:19-21)
"O Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me."(Psalm 30:2)
"The Lord will protect him and preserve his life; he will bless him in the land and not surrender him to the desire of his foes. The Lord will sustain him on his sickbed and restore him from his bed of illness." (Psalm 41:2-3)
The prayer uttered in the next verse of this Psalm mentions something important in terms of the relationship between healing and forgiveness.
"As for me, I said, "O Lord, be gracious to me; heal my soul, for I have sinned against you." (Psalm 41:4)
Sin, can be best understood as the cause of suffering - both sin as willful transgression of 'the maker's instructions', and sin which is not intended to cause suffering, but is simply the result of ignorance or misfortune from whose consequences there is no defence. Humans sin against others and are sinned against, Sin is sickness of the soul needing both pardon for offences and healing for a wounded spirit, of the afflicted are to become whole and return to enjoy fullness of life once more.
This unusual image of Jesus about to heal a paralysed man whose bed has been lowered down through the roof of the place where he is teaching, depicts an occasion when Jesus discloses the unity of healing and forgiveness in God's providence, both in debate and action.
"Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins have been forgiven you,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,"-- He said to the paralytic-- "I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home." (Luke 5:23-4)
"Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise. "(Jer 17:14)
God is to be praised because "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds."(Psalm 147:3), albeit through the ministry of compassionate and gifted others.
The ministry of Jesus is one of teaching, and encouraging people to be reconciled with God and each other. so that peace and wholeness is achieved according to God's will 'on earth as it is in heaven'. Reconciliation and the practice of forgiveness are about healing of broken relationships, but Jesus' ministry is not so limited. He heals sick individuals to empower them as witnesses to God's grace
"But the man from whom the demons had gone out was begging Jesus that he might accompany him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, "Return to your house and describe what great things God has done for you." So he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city what great things Jesus had done for him."(Luke 8:38-9)
Healing enabled sufferers to take their rightful place in society again, since many kinds of personal sickness in the ancient world, if not today, estrange sufferers from everyday life. Every aspect of the ministry of Jesus declares the Good News that God is reconciling the whole world to himself, that He wants to heal the broken relationship between Himself and humankind, both sinning and sinned against, since left to ourselves this results in self destruction. Jesus offered to all who listened to him a new life with God through forgiveness and healing, but in the end this offer was rejected as he himself was turned against, betrayed and unjustly killed. In the act of dying, Jesus forgave all who rejected God in him. The truth he lived and died for was upheld by his resurrection from death.
Jesus sought to make real in his own life the role of the suffering servant Messiah figure of Isaiah's poetry, (Isaiah 42-53). Naturally his disciples, in telling Jesus' story and proclaiming his resurrection, turned to this passage to help interpret the meaning of his life and death. Whilst it is not the only reference of healing in the prophet's writing, it is by far the most significiant, declaring to the reader.
"... he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed."(Isaiah 53:5)
Today's disclosure that the tragic Airbus crash in the French Alps Maritimes causing the death of 150 people was the result of a deliberate act by one of pilots makes it a mass murder accompanied by the suicide of the perpetrator. For me this brought to mind the final act of Samson in the Book of Judges.
"And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life." (Judges 16:28-30)
Samson was a man of violence, an appalling character, nothing virtuous about him, yet regarded as an Israelite hero, championing his people's right to exist in the Promised Land, among the population of tribes who shared their name with the land, Philistia, that may have been much more sophisticated than these rough and ready nomads, looking to settle down, in the same region.
St Paul quotes the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32:35 in warning the faithful against vengeance and retaliation, it's a precept of Mosaic teaching ignored countless times, or else its justification has been argued from circumstances. Paul is convinced that Christ's way of pardon and reconciliation is the right path for his disciples to follow, to break the deadly cycle of evil, and suffering so destructive in human relationships. We have to learn not to react to events but let them take their course in God's mysterious providence.
"Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord." (Rom 10:9)
God's wrath is not as simple as an expression of anger or outrage with devastating consequences, but rather a way of thinking about the consequences of evil having their own ultimately deadly cycle of causes with unavoidable effects. Paul summarises thus in Romans 6:23 "The wages of sin is death."
Samson's self inflicted death is not the only one in scripture. Abimelech in Judges 9:54, also Saul and his armour bearer in 1 Sam 31:3-6 are wounded in battle and call upon their servants to shorten their suffering and disgraceful weakness by killing them. Saul's armour bearer then kills himself. This is no different from the behaviour of the warrior classes in many other ancient cultures, men wanting to be spared shame by having their mortal weakness exposed and their heroic reputation besmirched. It is ultimately no more than an expression of male vanity sustained by the prevailing culture.
Zimri became king of Israel in a murderous palace coup, (1 Kings 16:10) but the army rejected his bid for power, electing Omri as their sovereign, so Zimri sets the royal palace on fire and dies in the blaze. In 2 Sam 17:23, Ahithopel finds himself disgraced and rejected as Absalom's advisor, so goes home, puts his affairs in order and then hangs himself, and this too is the course of action taken by Judas Iscariot, overcome with remorse when he realises that his cunning plan to hand Jesus over to the Jewish authorities and force a convincing display of power in the confrontation that follows, goes disastrously wrong. He attempts to return the bribe he took for information leading to Jesus' arrest, and his action is rejected with contempt.
"Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself."(Matt 27:3-5)
Human pride generate illusions of knowledge and power, and a sense of superiority over others that leads to the worship of god made in our own flawed image. Those in scripture who killed themselves were people of self-belief, power and influence generated by their own ambition. When truth burst the bubble of illusion, they found themselves weakened and ashamed, then acted as judge and jury on themselves, taking their own lives, rather than submitting to God's judgment, in which the hope of mercy always remains.
People also kill themselves, or let themselves fade and die un-necessarily because they are sick and no longer want to care for themselves. The despair and pain of living longer becomes unbearable. The Psalms are full of the pleas of those who are weak, vulnerable, oppressed, outcast, pleas which conclude by expressing trust in God's ability to vindicate those who suffer. These are the prayers of survivors.
Those who do not survive, unable to express trust in what is beyond themselves, have no voice. Effectively they give up facing themselves and God, and let themselves go to nothing. It's not what God intends, but that's how it is for many. Opinion in Judaism was divided about life after death, if not the value and meaning of life itself.
"It is not the dead who praise the Lord, they go down to the place of silence. But as for us, we will bless the Lord from this time forth and forever more."(Psalm 115:17-18)
The 'us' here is those who choose life, even in the face of death. Jesus tackled the issue in his unique way.
"But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord 'the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him." (Luke 20:37-8)
Does this extend to those who reject life and reject God? Or does God always leave a way open for them to return? There is so much that we have yet to learn.
Today is the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a festive occasion in the midst of Lenten seriousness.
St Luke portrays the angel Gabriel speaking to Mary about God's favourable regard for her. She is the one chosen to become the mother of him who will be Son of God, the divine Word in human flesh. In simple and humble trust she consents, saying
"Here I am, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word."(Luke 1:38)
These words echo Psalm 40: 7-8, quoted in Hebrews 10:7, part of the explanation develop there of the meaning of Christ's self-sacrifice.
"Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired; My ears You have opened; Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, "Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart."(Ps 40:6-8)
Luke is well aware of the importance of Isaiah's Servant Song in the spirituality of Jesus, something he would have learned as he grew up at home with his family, from his mother. Her devotion to God led her to see herself as His servant (handmaid), so her trusting response to this angelic encounter is understandably natural.
When Jesus is presented for dedication in the Temple after his birth Simeon speaks about his destiny and that of his mother. It's another kind of annunciation, one that heralds the passion from afar.
"Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” "(Luke 2:34-35)
Mary does not protest in any way about this added, less agreeable dimension to her destiny. She does express distress at the thought of losing him when he goes missing during a Temple pilgrimage journey home, aged twelve (Luke 2:41-50), but once normality is returned the story says of Mary:
"His mother treasured all these things in her heart."(Luke 2:51b)
There is a particular group according to Luke that gathers by the crosses erected on Golgotha, allowed to draw near presumably because they were not considered a threat. These were
"the women who had followed him from Galilee" (Luke 24:49)
Luke also says they are the ones who take charge of performing his burial rites.
"The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments." (Luke 24:55-56)
John actually identifies Mary as one of the women who is there during Jesus' final agony, but she says nothing.
"Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene."(John 19:25)
Simply in being there, she fulfils Simeon's prophecy thirty three years earlier.
Mary is simply present one more time, at prayer with the Apostles after Jesus' ascension, waiting with them for the promised Spirit.
"All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."(Acts 1:14)
After her terrible time of sorrow and separation, she is re-united with her son, raised to life in vindication of his obedience and trust. Her delight in doing God's will is restored forever.
The Epistle for Passion Sunday in the 1984 Welsh Book of Common Prayer opens with these words. It was read at the celebration of the Eucharist in St James' Tongwynlais today. Coincidentally, I preached my first sermon at Evensong on this text as a theological student forty eight years ago in this church.
"For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake." (2 Cor 4:5)
The concept of service and those who carry it out can be represented by very many different images. A servant looks after the material needs of others, providing food, clean clothing, help to wash, dress, or physical support to get around if this is needed. A servant is employed to put the needs of another before their own, and for most of human history this role has carried a low social status, or none at all if the servant is compelled to perform duties for others because they have debts that cannot be repaid no matter how much they work to pay them off. Or, they have been sold into slavery, like Joseph:
“Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him. Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt. " (Gen 37:27)
Joseph earned his liberty through his wise insight and planning ability. Like many others he came to a valued position of trust. Slaves and servants could become part of an extended family or clan, and weren't always traded on by their masters. They may have had material security, but could be without rights over their own bodies. Abraham's son Ishmael was born to a surrogate mother.
"Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai." (Gen 16:1-2)
They could even inherit a portion of family wealth, and take on the clan identity as happened when all the males in Abraham's clan were circumcised
"Then Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all the servants who were born in his house and all who the were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s household, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the very same day" (Gen 17:23)
Slavery and bonded labour were so commonplace that the Torah sets some guidelines for the humane treatment of those who are not free, on the oft repeated precept 'Remember you once were slaves'. The New Testament writings presume slavery and bonded servanthood to be unavoidable aspects of the social status quo. The moral obligations of master-slave relationships are expressed by St Paul, in the understanding that there are higher things at stake than social status.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. (Col 3:22)
"Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free. And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him."(Eph 6:5-9)
"Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord's freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ's slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men." (1 Cor 7:21-23)
Paul works with the image of slavery to show the difference that the grace of God can make to transform a human being.
"Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification."(Rom 6:16-19)
The Greek word 'doulos' equally applies to a hired servant as it does to slave. The term 'servant' is used to refer to those who help those in authority. All who dedicate their lives to their King, or to God as King, are regarded as servants, out of devotion or obligation. There are also many instances of people voluntarily dedicating themselves to the servant role for the benefit of others.
"Truly I am your servant, Lord; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains."(Ps 116:6)
I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes.(Ps 119:25)
This usage passes into the Gospels, notably
"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my saviour, for he has looked with favour on his lowly servant, from this day forward, all generations will call me blessed." (Luke 1:46)
"Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in in peace, according to thy word."(Luke 2:29)
Several of Jesus' parables refer to relationships between master and slaves, but it's the way that Jesus identifies with the image of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah's poetry that is the foundation of the Good News as preached by his apostles. The strongest indication of this is here, where Jesus is responding to a dispute about status among his disciples.
"Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”(Mark 10:42-45)
"For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." (Luke 22:27)
And here in dispute with the scribes and pharisees
"Do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. 11"But the greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted." (Matt 23:10-12)
Servant is a title attributed to Jesus in a prayer by the disciples
"Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." (Acts 4:30)
Acts 8:32 directly quotes Isaiah 53:7-8 showing that the Servant Song was a key part of the earliest apostolic preaching.
Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself of divine characteristics in order to identify with humanity in his suffering from sin, who
"made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness"(Phil 4:7)
The most eloquent metaphorical image of Jesus taking upon himself the form of a servant is when he washes his disciples' feet at the Last Supper (John 13:1-15)
But this action declares the equality of of all in the fellowship of God's kingdom, but in a way that challenges every person of faith to take responsibility for freely offering themselves in service to others.
"If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him."(John 13:14-16)
We live no longer for ourselves but for the sake of him who died and rose again for us. We live to point the world to Christ, saviour of us all.
In today's John's Gospel, Jesus is portrayed disputing with Temple teachers and leaders about the nature of his authority, and his claim to an close relationship with God, whom he regards as a witness confirming the truth he proclaims. It's in this context he declares.
“I am the light of
the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have
the light of life.”(John 8:12)
This precedes the story in the next chapter of the healing of the man born blind, where this statement is repeated.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."(John 9:5)
It's not the first time the association of Jesus with light has been presented in this Gospel. It occurs in the discourse after his night meeting with Nicodemus, where he offers this strategic analysis of the fallen human condition.
"This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil."(John 3:19)
The first section of John's first chapter is not part of the narrative, but a formal introduction, a prologue to the whole Gospel message, proclaiming Jesus to be the incarnate Son and Word of God. This is where the association of Jesus and light begins.
"In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it."(John 1:4)
The prologue also introduces John the Baptist, identifying him relation to Jesus who is the light.
"There came a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light." (John 1:6-7)
God in the moment of creation is proclaimed to be the author of light.
"And God said "Let there be light." And there was light."(Genesis 1:3)
This idea is modified later in the first Johannine Epistle, where God is identified with what his Word created.
"God is light, in him there is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while walking in darkness, we lie, and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light, we have fellowship with one another ..."(1 John 1:5b:7b)
As his passion approaches, John portrays Jesus speaking in these terms
"You are going to have the light just a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you. Whoever walks in the dark does not know where they are going. Believe in the light while you have the light, so that you may become children of light." When he had finished speaking, Jesus left and hid himself from them.(John 12:35-6) I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.(John 12:46)
In what he says metaphorically speaking its clear that he understands himself to be God the Father's only Son. This is the truth by which he lives, and it is the basis on which he sacrifices his life. His truth, at a spiritual and moral level puts all human existence and behaviour under scrutiny, not just because he is a manifestation of the divine, but because he has fully taken upon himself human nature. He is the 'proper' man, the archetype of genuine humanity, reveal what human beings can be and can achieve when they walk in the light of divine truth.
From Jesus's teaching in Matthew's Gospel, however, comes a statement which is even more challenging, because of the way it identifies us with him.
"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden... let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven."(Matt 5:14 & 16)
The most striking image of today comes from the Gospel read at the Eucharist. Jesus is portrayed in the Temple speaking with some of his disciples, alluding to his death and its eventual outcome.
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."(John 12:24)
This single grain of spelt, an ancient strain of wheat, is the width of a fingernail. We're used to seeing them in large numbers and associate them with sowing and harvesting. Alone like this, its potential is unrecognisable. Cast into soil it seems lost, yet while out of sight in the darkness of its natural environment, it soon begins its growth into a mature plant in which this seed is replicated hundreds of times over. Domestication of wild wheat is thought to have begun 9,500 years ago. Globally, it is the main source of vegetable protein in the human diet. It finds mention in scripture almost forty times.
"For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey "(Deut 8:7-8)
God's Promised Land is a a fertile place where wheat and barley crops have already been cultivated for over six thousand years. The rhythms of sowing and harvesting, and the ritual celebrations that accompany this punctuate the passage of the year.
"This is the offering that you shall offer: a sixth of an ephah from a homer of wheat; a sixth of an ephah from a homer of barley"(Ezek 45:13)
"You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the turn of the year."(Exod 34:22)
Having enough wheat to meet everyone's need was considered a blessing from God worthy of praise.
"Praise the LORD, O Jerusalem! Praise your God, O Zion! For He has strengthened the bars of your gates; He has blessed your sons within you. He makes peace in your borders; He satisfies you with the finest of the wheat." (Ps 147:12-14)
Abundance of wheat at harvest time gave farmers an opportunity to be generous to poorer neighbours by allowing them to follow the reapers and collect up stalks of grain discarded or missed entirely as was the case with the widowed Ruth
"So she stayed close by the maids of Boaz in order to glean until the end of the barley harvest and the wheat harvest. And she lived with her mother-in-law." (Ruth 2:23)
John the Baptist speaks of Jesus as one who will come like a harvester and sort out the wheat from the chaff.
"His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."(Matt 3:11-12)
In warning Peter that his own impetuosity puts him at risk, Jesus returns to this image, but uses it quite differently.
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers."(Luke 22:31-2)
He speaks about separating wheat and weeds at the right time in a parable about divine judgement.
"He presented another parable to them, saying, "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. "But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also."(Matt 13:24-30)
Wheat was ground into flour for consumption as bread, and some of it became a thank-offering to God in appreciation for his bounty. Also at Passover, unleavened wheat bread was a feature of the celebration commemorating God's people's deliverance from captivity in Egypt.
"... unleavened bread and unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers spread with oil; you shall make them of fine wheat flour. You shall put them in one basket, and present them in the basket along with the bull and the two rams. " (Exodus 29:2-3)
At the last supper Jesus followed Passover custom. The bread he blessed was made of wheat. Paul repeats what he's learned, from the other Apostles, repeating what is stated in the first three Gospels
"For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread"(1 Cor 11:23)
And when Paul strives to explain the resurrection of the dead he falls back on an image which has already been made familiar by Jesus in speaking about about the meaning of his own death.
"... that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own."(1 Cor 15:37-8)
The most profound significance has become attached to the most commonplace of earth's foodstuffs, and not without good reason, to keep us mindful of all God has done for us.