Dark is the night

Today, and still more than three weeks ahead of time, we move on from Good Friday to Holy Saturday (or Easter Eve).  This is the most solemn day of the Christian year, as if we try to put ourselves in the place of Jesus’ disciples, their last hope of him being saved from the cross has gone.  This is the theme of the service of Tenebrae.

This hymn, “Dark is the night” by Paul Wigmore, actually takes the theme of darkness as it features three times in the Gospel stories.  The other theme the three verses have in common is reference to Jesus’ friends (his closest disciples).  Verse 1 is set on what we call Maundy Thursday with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper and after sunset. The darkness is natural and real, but there’s a sense of moral darkness here too, as friends sleep while the Temple police come to arrest their Lord.  “Lanterns and swords no radiance, no defence” – they are dealing with an irresistible force in the face of which there is nothing to be done with the tools available, and they turn and run.

The second verse is set on Good Friday as all his friends (except for several women including his mother, and just one male disciple conventionally identified as John) deserted him or stood far off – “hiding from his death and loss”. The gospels record that the sun was darkened that day as Jesus died. Whether that is literally true or a metaphor we cannot say, but if not literally true, perhaps in the way that some people say they feel cold in the presence of a ghost or can sense an evil spirit.  The other events that occurred at the moment of his death were more physical – an earthquake that shook the rocks and caused the Temple veil to split. A ray of hope is suggested by the reference to the thief promised forgiveness and paradise by Jesus, the “first fruits of salvation”.

The third is set in the early hours of Easter day, before dawn and with the added darkness of a rock-hewn tomb, not to mention the grief of the friends (again women, initially) who come to complete the embalming of his body.  Perhaps the notion in these words that they have come “to find if death has won indeed, or risen he” is premature, as they seem to have had no idea that the body might have gone until they get there. Likewise the final line “we … prepare in faith his wondrous face to see” is anticipating the surprise of Easter.  For the moment, let’s stay in the darkness, because it’s only when we appreciate just what horrors happened on Good Friday and how bereft the world was with the death of its saviour, that we can be emptied enough to be filled with Easter joy when it comes.

The Bible in a Year – 23 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

23 November. Luke chapters 21-22

The best known Christian prayer is, of course the Lord’s Prayer or Our Father.   It does not appear in these chapters as such, but one of its phrases does.  The one that in the traditional English translation reads “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” and is rendered in Scottish English as “do not bring us to the time of trial, but deliver us from evil”.   I prefer that version and use it in my own prayer times.

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials”, Jesus tells his disciples (22:28). Twice, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus tells them “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’” (22:40, 46)   And before that, in the Temple, after predicting the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish way of life, he tells them “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place” (21:36).

The “times of trial” that Jesus foresaw were many and varied.  From mocking and slander, to discrimination and prejudice, to persecution and martyrdom, his true followers would never have an easy life. For the people of Jerusalem as a whole, he predicted warfare, siege, looting, and fleeing in haste as refugees, never to return.  More than that, he foresaw the eventual end of human civilisation following a time of natural disaster and warfare as nation fights against nation.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether any of the signs of the last days are being fulfilled in our time – people have thought so before and been proved wrong – what Jesus is asking of his disciples is a commitment to follow him through these times of trial, whatever happens. They may face poverty – but he sent them out with no money before, and they were fine (22:35). They may be tempted to deny Jesus, as Peter was – and gave in – but for those who repent there is always forgiveness. They would face evil in the form of foreign armies, homelessness (with all the disease and despair associated with refugee camps) and for some, the lions of the Roman amphitheatre.  But Jesus promised to be with them in all of this. Elsewhere he explains that the words would be given to people at the right time by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

For Judas, there was to be no repentance.  He was tempted by the love of money to betray his master, and ended his own life rather than face the consequences. Don’t be like him – pray for the strength to resist temptation, stand up to evil, and turn back when you fail (22:31).