At an annual festival in Bali each March, around 70 Hindu young men and women dress in traditional sarongs and pray in the local temple in Sesetan before parading in lines through the street and choosing a partner. As a gamelan orchestra chimes in the background and to the cheers of onlookers, they kiss for around 15 seconds before priests step in, soaking them with buckets of water.
The ceremony, dating back to the late 19th-century, is said to ensure the good health and prosperity of those taking part and of the whole village. For the same reason, the crowd welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday. They cheered because they hoped he would bring them good times and because it was fun.
Our emotions can be fickle. It’s doubtful whether many of the liaisons created at the kissing festival will come to anything. The crowd’s enthusiasm for Jesus drifted away as the unorthodoxy of his approach became clear during the week which followed. Any real change in the fortunes of individuals or of peoples takes more than momentary enthusiasm or passion.
Jesus’ feelings were not so transitory. In his compassionate response to people who came to him for help, in his anger in the Temple, in his struggles in Gethsemane, we see him responding to what happened to him with deep emotion. It was perhaps one of the things which kept him going through his last week of life.
Passionate feelings like his can be harnessed in the cause of creative change. Most people prefer more superficial expression of passion – it’s more comfortable – but allowing strong emotions to emerge, sometimes from deep within us, can be a powerful force for good.
Read: Jesus was “moved with pity” (the word used means a churning in the gut) (Mark 1.41)
Rejoice: in the people or issues about which I feel strongly.
Reflect: Do I have any strong feelings which don’t at the moment have an outlet?
Remember: “Negative” feelings like anger can also be a valuable resource.
Resolve: to seek God’s help in finding ways of channelling my strong feelings into creative actions.
A grizzle cock pigeon, known to the Air Ministry by the codename NPS.42.31066, is more intimately known as Gustav. This was the pigeon that brought back to London from the Normandy beaches the first news of Allied success on D-Day in 1944.
During his mission, Gustav was reportedly buffeted by a headwind of up to 30 miles per hour and his view of the sun – his primary means of navigation – was obscured by heavy cloud. But the plucky feathered warrior persisted and delivered the good news from the beaches to waiting military chiefs back in England. Gustav’s feat earned him the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Sadly, Gustav found peacetime more perilous and met an end when his breeder stepped on him while mucking out his loft.
Courage is an admirable quality and one any of us might need at any time. From going to the defence of someone being threatened to standing ground against criticism of one of our actions or beliefs, we never know when bravery might be called for. Jesus, in the last week of his life, needed constant reserves of courage when his ideals were challenged, his friends uncertain of him and his physical well-being attacked.
As the manner of Gustav’s death suggests, courageous actions bring no guarantee of security. Neither, of course, does faint-heartedness though it often seems a safer bet than fearlessness. Nothing guarantees us protection from harm but there are times when what’s called for is courage with all its attendant risks. Jesus’ bravery took him to the cross. Let’s hope that if guts is what’s needed from us today, we won’t falter.
Read: Be strong and courageous (Joshua 1.6)
Rejoice: in people we know who show courage in their lives.
Reflect: Is there any situation I’m facing where I ought to be showing more courage?
Remember: being courageous in apparently inconsequential situations can be just as demanding and just as important as in more obviously important ones.
Resolve: to let Christ’s courage inspire me.
Every July, the Bentley Brook Inn in Derbyshire hosts the Ben & Jerry’s World Toe Wrestling Championships. Contestants sit opposite each other on the “Toedium” and, locking big toes, place their feet on a small wooden frame, the “Toesrack”. At the cry of “Toedown”, they try to wrestle their opponent’s foot to the floor. It’s a straight knockout competition with recent winners embracing the title ‘Toeminator’.
Trials of strength aren’t always physical. They take place between parents and children, between partners, among work colleagues. Sometimes they are the product of creative competitiveness though they can be motivated by envy, by a desire to wield power or by sheer unpleasantness. Whatever the source, they can help us discover more about ourselves and our own identity as we explore the boundaries between ourselves and others.
In the last week of Jesus’ life, the religious leaders of the time engaged him in a trial of strength. They were pushing him to reveal his identity in a way that would give them an excuse to accuse him of blasphemy. Put up or Shut up might have been their slogan. In the way he responded to their envious opposition, Jesus revealed more about himself. But the fullest statement of his identity came not in answering their questions but in bowing to their hostility and giving himself into their hands.
We can learn much about ourselves from such battles of wills, sometimes finding new strength and sometimes accepting appropriate limitations. Sometimes going with any opposition produces greater learning than resisting it. Victory in toe wrestling or in any battle of wills is less important than taking the opportunity to discover more about who we are and how we best relate to others.
Read: You shall no longer be called Jacob but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with humans and have prevailed. (Genesis32.28)
Rejoice: in times when opposition to me, to my hopes or ideas, has proved beneficial.
Reflect: If it feels as though I’m being obstructed in any plans I have, might God be trying to tell me something?
Remember: It’s sometimes appropriate to give in to opposition.
Resolve: to seek God’s wisdom in knowing when to persevere in spite of resistance, and his strength to do it.
An Australian company offered mobile phone users a way out if they began to regret being on a date. All they had to do was discreetly dial three numbers and then hang up without saying a word. “Virgin Mobile will call them back a minute later with a perfect excuse to get them out of there. We’ll even talk them through what to say.”
It’s not just on dates that an opportunity to escape might appeal. Some way of disentangling ourselves from situations where we don’t feel comfortable might be useful in other contexts too. Sometimes though, taking an easy, especially a dishonest, way out is not the best option. Often we owe it to the person we want to escape from to tell them why. Sometimes for their benefit, the right thing to do is to stick it out. Or, because feeling ‘uncomfortable’ can lead to new discoveries, we would on some occasions do ourselves a favour by facing up to an awkward or problematic situation. There are times when perseverance, even if painful, is what we should be choosing.
As Jesus “set his face” to go towards Jerusalem where he knew he faced almost certain death, there must have been many times when he wished for a way out. But his conviction that this was the right thing for him to be doing kept him going even when his courage threatened to fail him and he pleaded in his prayers for another way.
We may be faced with the choice whether to withdraw or persevere in a big or in a more trivial area of our lives. Whatever the context and whatever the decision, the challenge is to show respect to the others affected and to keep going when we believe it’s right to do so, even if stopping would be easier.
Read: Father, remove this cup (of suffering) from me; yet, not what I want but what you want.(Mark 14.36)
Rejoice: in relationships in which I feel perfectly safe.
Reflect: Am I avoiding any situation that I ought to face up to?
Remember: sometimes I may need to leave one challenging situation alone because another is a greater priority.
Resolve: to call on God if I need help to escape from, or engage more deeply with, a situation.
In the Spanish town of Villaralto, Judas plays a bigger role in the Easter celebrations even than Jesus. On Maundy Thursday, the townspeople hang out life-size, straw figures of Judas over the main streets. After mass on Easter Sunday, the town gathers in the streets to share hot chocolate and biscuits and join in the ceremonial destruction of these Judas figures.
Judas has long been a hate-figure in Christian mythology. He represents those parts of all of us which are disloyal, cowardly, easily-led and greedy. As the inhabitants of Villaralto lay into the straw images of Judas, they are symbolically expressing anger against him. But perhaps they are also angry because of their inability to deal with these and other failings when they become aware of them in themselves. They project onto Judas their frustration with themselves.
Jesus got very angry with some kinds of human sinfulness, especially the kind that involved exploiting others. But he was also understanding of human frailty and, according to one way of interpreting the events, appears even to have had some sympathy with Judas. He must have done him the honour, as it would have been seen, of inviting him to sit close to him at the last supper because surely Jesus’ virtually affirmative reply to Judas’s question “Is it I?” must have been sotto voce.
Jesus reacts to human failure more often with understanding, sympathy and forgiveness than with fury. His attitude to Judas, as to many others, suggests that God’s approach is gentler and more compassionate than it is angry. Perhaps we should react to those parts of our personalities and lives we find distressing with a similar gentleness and understanding.
Read: Jesus said: Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9.2)
Rejoice: in Jesus’ understanding of our weakness.
Reflect: which failures in my life do I find particularly distressing?
Remember: they are forgiven.
Resolve: to check when I feel angry with others that I’m not really angry with myself.
London’s 1,300 mile sewerage system is having half a billion pounds spent on it. Designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette following “The Great Stink” of 1858 when there was a massive overflow of raw sewage into the streets, the system now needs new underground chambers. As London grows and the climate produces more flash storms, new storage chambers are required to prevent a 21st century Great Stink.
As we walk the city streets, we’re not normally aware of the effluent flowing beneath us. Nor are we aware, in the normal course of events, of the undercurrents of violence, pain and corruption that lie beneath the surface of our society and, in many cases, of our own lives. Occasionally something happens to reveal them and we have to face their sometimes devastating effect.
The events on a hill outside Jerusalem that we recall today revealed a brutal and cynical aspect of the Judaeo-Roman culture of the time. But Christ’s death also had cosmic significance. It reflected what human beings down the centuries and all over the world have been capable of. It revealed a rebelliousness against goodness, love and God that lies beneath the surface of many people and is part of our culture as well as many others.
The new underground chambers are to store London’s sewage until it is passed to treatment works in Beckton and Crossness. Here it is turned into electricity. Today is Good Friday because Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection is seen as a way of preventing “The Great Stink” of humanity at its worst from overrunning us. Instead our human waste is converted into something purposeful and creative. Let’s today allow the remembrance of those events on Mount Golgotha to remind us both of the harsh realities of our world and the possibility of its transformation.
Read: God sent his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to deal with sin. (Romans 8.3)
Rejoice: in God’s ability to make something creative even out of human failure.
Reflect: Have I ever experienced good coming from evil?
Remember: God’s working creatively now to transform what lies beneath the surface of my life.
Resolve: To let him do it.
A new town designed primarily for deaf and hard-of-hearing residents is planned for Sioux Falls in South Dakota. It will have all the usual amenities: hotels, a convention centre, and churches. Streets, shops and public buildings will all be designed to eliminate any disadvantage caused by deafness. Speech and sound will be kept to a minimum and sign language will be the preferred way to communicate. A comparatively silent environment may well appeal, and not only to the hard of hearing.
Silence is what epitomised the atmosphere of Calvary once the crowds had dispersed and the now lifeless bodies on the crosses were left to hang there. But the sight of the one on the central cross spoke volumes. The signs were there for those who could read them of love generously and courageously offered and violently and bitterly rejected. The battered and tormented body proclaimed loudly the brutality of which human beings are capable and the willingness of God to be on its receiving end. It’s not surprising that central image has become the symbol of God’s self-giving care for all people.
Today silence is a fitting reaction to such love. But there are other kinds of response. One is to demonstrate that same selflessness in the way we love and, silently but in a way that can say so much, to make our lives signs of generosity and self-giving love.
Read: There was silence in heaven for about half an hour. (Revelation 8.1)
Rejoice: in actions which speak louder than words.
Reflect…. or rather, today simply look: at your image of Christ on the cross without thinking about it.
Remember: When God’s silent, it doesn’t mean he’s absent.
Resolve: to value, without always trying to fill, moments of silence.