Sunday, 17 April 2011

The Week That Changed The World

"For as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth; so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations."
Isaiah 61:11

This week the Jewish and Christian faithful celebrate the most important festivals in their calendars. The events commemorated with great love by the respective communities, were and continue to be hugely influential in creating the world that we all live in, and are largely thankful for, today. They have shaped the world view of billions of individuals and entire societies the world over.

Monday evening sees the beginning of the Jewish festival of Passover, which recollects, and relives, the resurrection of the Jewish nation after centuries shackled in Egyptian bondage. Jews gather around the family table to transmit to the next generations the memory of the genesis of their nation and to give thanks to God for their spiritual freedom and for the eternal and solemn covenant between themselves and He who intervened in history and delivered them out of slavery and who led them to their own land, in which they were to create a holy and righteous society that would instruct the whole world in the meaning of a national and personal life devoted to the will of our Heavenly Father.

Today Christians celebrated Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem which begins the commemorations of Easter that recollect the events of that tumultuous week, culminating in his death and resurrection. For his whole ministry Jesus had been preaching about the imminent appearance of the Kingdom of God, in which God's will would become manifested on earth as it is in heaven. To this end he strove to reach out to those amongst his nation that had distanced their hearts from God, and to bring them back into a life of righteousness under the loving presence of the Divine. It is clear that by the time he arrived in Jerusalem he was convinced that the time had arrived for all that the prophets had announced in the past to come to fruition.

As he, his disciples and presumably many other pilgrims, made their way over the Mount of Olives towards the holy city, the following words of the prophet Zechariah were in his mind;

"Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem: behold thy king cometh unto thee: he is just and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt, the foal of an ass." Zechariah 9:9

Jesus asks his disciples to go and fetch for him the colt of a donkey from a nearby village, and then proceeds to ride into the city, surrounded by his followers and crowds of people rejoicing with him and reciting words from Psalm 118 that Jews to this day recite on Passover as a hymn of praise.

"Save now*, we beseech thee O Lord" (*hoshiana in Hebrew, a phrase known to Christians as hosanah). "Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord".

In addition they expressed a faith they shared with Jesus, that the time for the fulfilment of prophecy was at hand:

"Blessed is the kingdom that cometh, the kingdom of our father David" Mark 11:9

In order to stress the point that the messianic age had finally dawned Jesus went into the temple and proceeded to overturn the tables of the money changers, driving out from the temple precincts, the traders that were selling to the pilgrims the required sacrificial animals, while expounding;

"Is it not written "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations" but you have made it a den of robbers." Mark 15:17

No doubt Jesus had the words of Zechariah 14:21; "and in that day, there shall be no more a merchant in the house of the Lord of hosts" at the forefront of his mind.

The significantly symbolic entrance into the city and the disruption in the Temple did not go unnoticed by the authorities. Passover, the Jewish festival of independence, was a tense time in Roman occupied Jerusalem. The city was swollen with thousands of Jews from all over the known world on their annual pilgrimage, or as they called it in Hebrew; Chag HaPesach, think Mecca during Hajj to get some idea of the event, (Chag and Hajj incidentally stem from the same Semitic linguistic root). The Romans concerned by the sentiments of the feast were present in ever greater numbers to keep things under control, and even the Roman procurator would relocate to Jerusalem from the coast for the duration of the festival to keep his eye on the events. And now appeared a man seemingly presenting himself as the foretold King of Israel, with much support from the people, creating havoc in the Temple! For a modern parallel imagine a Jew, declaring himself the sovereign of Israel, entering the Temple mount during Ramadan and evicting the Muslim worshippers from the mosques on that site! The outcome of such an action would be disastrous. As today, also yesterday.

The Sadduceean authorities, most certainly pressured by the Romans, strove to annul what they saw as a real threat to the stability of the city, and before the week was out, a great shock gripped the city, Jesus of Nazareth was dead on a Roman cross and the prophecy of Zechariah was left unfulfilled, even to this day:

"I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off....there shall be no more curse but Jerusalem shall dwell safely"9:10-14:11

When Moses came, at God's command, to the Egyptian Pharaoh and demanded the release of the Hebrew slaves everything must have looked very positive. Moses came with the absolute conviction that God was to fulfil His promise and redeem His people. The people themselves must have held their breath in hope that finally the promise made to their ancestors was about to be fulfilled and a new life was set to begin and yet we are told:

"And the same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people and their officers saying, ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves. And the tale of the bricks which they did make heretofore, ye shall lay upon them, ye shall not diminish aught thereof: for they be idle; therefore they cry, saying, Let us go and sacrifice to our God." Exodus 5:7-8

Things got worse, much worse as a result of Moses' intervention and subsequently the people lost all spirit. What followed was months of catastrophes in Egypt with seemingly no end in sight and then suddenly the nation was free! Free and finally taking their place on the stage of history. So sudden was their salvation that to this day the symbol of the festival is unleavened bread, dough given no time to rise. From great disappointment emerged great joy and hope. Likewise the horrific event on the Friday after Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem was not the end of his story. From bitter disappointment and grief emerged a speedy and meteoric spread of Jesus' teachings and faith which took the philosophy and morality and some of the theology of the nation redeemed from slavery, and delivered it to the farthest reaches of the earth and eventually to most of the world's cultures and peoples, ensuring that the world would never be the same again.

This for me will be my main meditation during this Passover and Easter. Despite how often we see our attempts to do what is right end in failure, or see our strivings to govern our lives by the righteous ordinances of the Master of creation fail before any evidence of success, we are never to give up. No matter how many times we fail to improve the society in which we live, we are never to be despondent. For our Heavenly Father is always present with us as He was with His people Israel in Egypt and as He was with our teacher Jesus, and from our assumed failures He can bring out seeds of great success. Both the spring season with its flourishing of new life and the lessons of those events that happened in those days thousands of years ago at this time, can fill us with a renewed conviction to live our lives rightly and thereby attain that salvation promised to us by the word of God, the teaching of Jesus and the conscience divinely placed within us.

"When we say we believe in "salvation by character" we affirm a truth of spiritual experience: we assert that salvation does not depend upon any external scheme, such as that of vicarious suffering, but on the moral co-operation of the human spirit with the Divine Spirit. It is the assertion that the means of grace are always present, if man will make use of them. It is a declaration that every noble aspiration, thought, wish, word and act assist in upbuilding the spirit: and it is a call to perseverance in the ways of truth and righteousness with the help and by the grace of God.
Alfred Hall "The beliefs of a Unitarian."

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