Each Maundy Thursday, we stand by the tomb and sing the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The event happened two millennia ago in a land far across the sea. It occurred amidst people who spoke a language very few of us today can understand. How could we possibly have been there? But still we sing the answer, “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” The distant story moves us still. Convicts us. Gathers us up. Changes us. Because it’s not just ancient history. The unbroken witness of the people who belong to Jesus is that we are included in his passion and resurrection!
The four Gospels devote nearly a third of their content just to the eight days we call Passion Week, the time from Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday to his resurrection on Easter. His whole ministry becomes concentrated in this week in Jerusalem. It has all come down to this. Here we see most clearly who Jesus is. Here we see most starkly the human reaction to Jesus the Son of God who came to love and save us. We see acts of humble, sacrificial devotion. We see acts of foul betrayal. We encounter embarrassing denials and beautiful gestures. Through the parables he told during Passion Week, we hear Jesus describe the various ways people respond to him. We see his bravery as he engages the questions and accusations of the earthly authorities. Passion Week provides a window into the heart of Jesus and the hearts of those who encountered Jesus on his mission to save the world. As such, it provides a window into our hearts as well.
Scripture teaches that Jesus suffered and died for us (2 Cor. 5: 16). He could do this because the man Jesus is also the Son of God and our Creator (Col. 1: 16; John 1: 3). As Maker, Jesus is connected to all of us. So what Jesus did as a man he also did as the God who relates to each one of us. His life, death and resurrection are of the highest significance to the human race. But each of us has to get spiritually joined to these events to access their full benefit. We get united to this Jesus by his Spirit through faith (Rom. 6: 3-4; Eph. 2: 8-10; Gal. 4: 4-6). Believing in Christ and entrusting ourselves utterly to him, we get taken into Jesus’ story as the defining narrative of our lives. His story becomes our story. We get the benefits, and the mission, of all he said and did. Then, we realize, yes, we were there!
So by interacting with the characters of Passion Week, we can engage with our own responses to Jesus. We can find courage. We can be warned. We can be moved to love Christ more dearly. We can expose our own fierce desire to protect ourselves. We can see just how much it took for Jesus to persist in fidelity to his Father through the rage and rejection of the world in order to fulfill his plan of rescue for the human race. Yes, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble. Because I know I was there. I know I am like each and all of the people and powers Jesus encountered. And, despite myself, I want so much to grow in faithfulness to Jesus.
I hope you will join me in encountering the people of Passion Week over these next 42 days. I pray that as you take up this study, you will grow closer to Jesus so that during Passion Week 2020 you will experience ever more deeply the sorrow and the triumph, the horror and the splendor of the week Jesus gave himself utterly so that we might be saved thoroughly from sin, evil and death.
HOW TO USE THIS STUDY
Entering the Drama
I have precious memories of an Easter afternoon when my father took me to see a Passion Play at Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami. The field had become a stage on which the events of Jesus’ final week were enacted before the great crowd. Passion plays, of course, are a great and ancient Christian tradition around the world. For Passion Week is high drama. This is the climax of Jesus’ life among us. Every encounter is charged with significance. Every person who takes the stage has an eternally important role to play. Every line spoken remains inestimably important to us.
So I’m inviting you to consider the characters the Gospels record as part of Passion Week as actors in a play. The script contains the drama of our redemption. As in any play, there is a protagonist, a hero, who of course is Jesus. There are also antagonists, both spiritual and human. There are mixed characters, the ones most like us, who can be faithful in one moment and faithless in the next.
While the historical events of Holy Week are unrepeatable, the spiritual dynamics of these intense days continually play out in our daily lives. Drama shows us ordinary life in concentrated form. The gospel accounts of the drama of Jesus’ final week can be revealing and encouraging to us as we seek to live out loyal love for Jesus amidst our ordinary temptations, sufferings, resistance and distractions.
Each day in Lent offers three sections, sometimes four, for engaging with the characters and situations of Passion Week:
FOLLOWING THE SCRIPT
Here we meet the characters through the passages in Scripture where they take the stage. Some days we will look back before Passion Week to learn the motivations for their actions in Jesus’ final days. The verses are the scripts for the scenes in which these people play their Passion Week roles. They are our source material.
During rehearsals, directors offer notes to the actors about their parts. They help the players go more deeply into character. They give ideas for how better to express feelings and motivations. In this section, we will make a bridge between our world and the world of the Biblical characters. Though we may be centuries, continents and cultures removed from their lives, human emotions remain constant across all times and places. These notes attempt to draw us close to the people of Passion Week. This is a time for you to connect to the characters.
PRAYING IN CHARACTER
Praying with people draws us close to them. Praying as someone takes us deeply inside the heart and soul of a person. Based on our scripts and notes, each day we will have opportunity to step into the Biblical character and pray from his or her perspective. In this way, we will feel more personally Jesus’ interactions with each person. We will come to experience how we are like each character. And we will engage our Lord as he draws each of us more deeply into himself.
About a dozen days contain bonus material. To stay with our theatre theme, we’re calling these encores. Just a bit of extra for reflection and prayer.
DAILY QUOTES TO PRAY
For an actor to bring a character to life, the lines have to be learned so well that they come off the page and into the present moment. We won’t be learning all the lines of the scripts we read. But we will daily be reading aloud two key Scripture passages that relate to our study. These verses take us straight to the heart of why we read the Bible: so we may have present and vital communion with the Triune God and one another.
1) 1 John 1: 3. Every script from Passion Week is a witness to the things Jesus said and did. The ancient account becomes presently powerful by the work of the Holy Spirit in our reading and contemplating. This passage from 1 John explains how the ancient word reaches across the miles and centuries to draw in each new generation of believers. We draw as close to Jesus as the disciples who were with him when we encounter Jesus through worship, Word, sacrament and prayer. This is a key passage to know:
That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1: 3).
2) John 20: 31. John concludes his Gospel by reminding his readers of his purpose in writing. It’s not just to provide an exciting account of an interesting person. We read the scripts of the Gospels in order to be brought to belief: active devotion of our lives to Jesus as the Savior, the Lord and the Son of God who became Son of Man on our behalf. Such active belief creates life by the power of his life. We come out of the darkness into the light. We are born anew into living hope. We pass from death to everlasting life:
These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20: 31).
So I will be inviting you to say aloud these two verses every day of Lent. By the end of our 42 days, you will have committed them to memory and their meaning will have opened to you in new, unexpected and enlivening ways.
In Lent 2020, my prayer is that you will meet the people of Passion Week in such a way that you are taken deeply into the heart of the drama of our redemption. And that from such identification, you will be strengthened for daily discipleship and a glorious celebration of Jesus’ Easter victory.