As I drove to my church's Good Friday service I uttered a prayer that included some words like, "Let me see what You want me to see." To be honest, I'm not sure exactly what I prayed because it was just an earnest prayer to begin preparing my heart for whatever the night held. As an employee of my church, I had helped with many parts of our Easter events, but Good Friday is an evening that our pastor holds dear to his heart. For several years we've had the tradition of a short worship service and then a modernized stations of the cross experience. While I knew about certain elements - cotton balls, grape juice, and club soda - because I had bought them, I knew little more about the evening.
I've always struggled with prayer. I believe in prayer because the Bible tells me to, and I believe in prayer because I've heard from trustworthy friends about the miracles they have seen, but if we are being honest I've had a hard time finding moments that I could say were direct answers to prayer. Of course there have been some, but it's hard to hold onto "some" over decades of faith. I don't blame God or the power of prayer for the "some"; I recognize it largely a result of my lack of commitment to prayer. And so like many times, I found myself throwing out a prayer as I drove to church because I realized I was entering a truly holy time of the year without much prayer. God, forgive me.
In Matthew 26:6-13 Jesus is anointed while at the home of Simon the Leper. Side note: I've recently enjoyed thinking about how people are identified in the Gospels. Was Simon the Leper still living with leprosy, or had Jesus healed him of the disease? It seems like a simple answer at first, of course Jesus had probably healed him, but if that is the case, why is he not referred to as the one healed of leprosy? It'd be like a biblical artist formerly known as Prince. Another fun one to think about is The Other Mary of Matthew 27:61. Really? The only way to distinguish her was as "the other"? I digress.
Simon the Leper had Jesus over for dinner when a woman pours expensive perfume from an alabaster jar on Jesus' head. In my church's tradition we talk a lot about this woman. Twice a year we collect an "alabaster offering" that goes directly to the mission field to help acquire property and construct buildings. I do love it, but until last night I'd never seen it happen. As the last details of service were coming together I watched a friend pour small amounts of good smelling oil onto cotton balls. Unfortunately, a few cotton balls in she ran out of the lavender scented oil she had and switched to the frankincense oil instead. I don't know for sure that the woman in the Bible poured frankincense on Jesus' head, but I do know it is a perfume and the oil my friend used costs $90 for one tablespoon. Yes, you read that right: $90 for one tablespoon. Without even knowing it, my friend had poured out her alabaster jar.
One subtle element of the crucifixion story that you may have missed is the crowd. In most church plays the crowd is there to yell "crucify Him" and there was even an armed crowd when Judas initially betrayed Jesus, but they do little more than that. At Passover Jerusalem would have been filled with Jews who traveled into the city to celebrate the holiday. How many were there: One thousand? Ten thousand? One hundred thousand? A million? The crowd that could have come out to watch the crucifixion events unfold are staggering. And the more that were there for crucifixion, the more that would be saying to their friends on Sunday morning, "Hey, you remember that guy we watch be crucified? Something happened." Well we certainly didn't have a million people at our Good Friday service. We didn't even have one thousand. We had 41. And I know that because earlier in the day my pastor and I had a conversation about how many papers to prepare for one of the stations. Is 40 enough, I asked. I'd love to have 40, he said. Sure enough, God did His thing. He sent 41 people out to our little church on Friday night as a way of reminding us that He can do so much more than we imagine.
The Scattering and the Gathering
When I think about Good Friday, I often think of that lone disciple mentioned in the gospel of John (the beloved disciple, traditionally John). We know what became of Judas (eek) and also Peter (sigh), and I envision the other nine running home to pack bags and get out of town. It's possible that they were part of the crowds that watched from a distance, but they certainly are not identified.
Who is identified are two new characters, the secret disciples, Joseph and Nicodemus. In John 19 we read that Joseph had been a secret disciple out of fear of the Jewish leaders. If you've ever been to Sunday School you remember that Nicodemus had visited Jesus at night (and if you're a little rusty on your Bible quizzing facts you can read that account in John 3).
There comes a moment in each of our lives that we have to stop living in the shadows. We can no longer let fear rule us, and we must decide to do what is right. For these two men, their decision to put their faith into action at that moment secured them an amazing part of the greatest come back story ever. I can't help but wonder what might be waiting for me if I were to do the same.