Easter Worship

For this year’s Easter post, I thought I’d share an abbreviated version of what we do at my church. We’re a tiny congregation, which affords us the luxury of some habits which would be more difficult in larger congregations. On holidays, particularly Easter and Christmas, our worship service involves Scripture readings by members of the congregation, with our hymns and praise songs interspersed. The Scripture readings are hand-picked to tell the story of God’s redemption of mankind, from beginning to Christ. I pray that you are blessed by what you read here.


Man Made a Little Lower than God

God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” …God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27, 28, 31a)

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet. (Psalm 8:1, 3-6a)

Man Sins Against God

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned…Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come…For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 5:12, 14; 6:23a)

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God,
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. (Isaiah 59:2)

God’s Compassion for Man

The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. (Psalm 103:8-11)

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save;
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear.

Now the Lord saw,
And it was displeasing in His sight that there was no justice.
And He saw that there was no man,
And was astonished that there was no one to intercede;
Then His own arm brought salvation to Him,
And His righteousness upheld Him. (Isaiah 59:1, 15b-16)

‘Behold, days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good word which I have spoken concerning the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch of David to spring forth; and He shall execute justice and righteousness on the earth. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell in safety; and this is the name by which she will be called: the Lord is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:16-18)

Jesus Refers to His Death and Resurrection

They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking on ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were fearful. And again He took the twelve aside and began to tell them what was going to happen to Him, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34)

And He was saying to them, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. Therefore I said to you that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

Christ Crucified

Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put Him to death. They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered, “He deserves death!” (Matthew 26:59-66)

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. (Matthew 27:27-31)

They took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (John 19:17-19)

After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, to fulfill the Scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. (John 19:28-30)

Christ’s Resurrection and Exultation

And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:2-7)

 And behold, two of them were going that very day to a village named Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. And they were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus Himself approached and began traveling with them. But their eyes were prevented from recognizing Him.

When He had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight...And they got up that very hour and returned to Jerusalem, and found gathered together the eleven and those who were with them, saying, “The Lord has really risen and has appeared to Simon.” They began to relate their experiences on the road and how He was recognized by them in the breaking of the bread.

…While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:13-16, 30-31, 33-34, 36-39)

[God] raised [Jesus] from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:19-23)

Forgiveness and Righteousness in Christ

For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.  And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11)

Accept Christ — Repent of Your Sins and Be Saved!

Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)

But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:8-9)

“It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…”

(1 Timothy 1:15)

Happy Easter to you all!

Resurrection Sunday, and a story

It came into my mind this morning that it would be nice to have some sort of special Easter post. Resurrection Sunday is, after all, the most important celebration in the Christian calendar, no matter what your denomination. Had Christ not died in our place, we would not have freedom from our sin nature; had He not risen into glory, we would have no hope of glory and Life ourselves! All of human history revolves around this great Event. Indeed, it is the very eucatastrophe of history itself.

So I desired to have some relevant material to here present. But as the thought came to me this morning, I have little hope of producing something new for the day. I will soon be working on a review of Ben-Hur, which is subtitled “A Tale of the Christ,” but even should I begin that today, I doubt I should be able to finish it in time.

Instead, I post here a short story I wrote some years ago. It was one of those rare times where the story just sort of fell out of me and onto the page. I felt it in my heart, I knew in my head exactly what it should be. When I tried to edit it afterwards, it would accept none but the tiniest changes. At any rate, it is relevant to the theme of our Lord’s Passion, and I hope it gives some good to you.

In addition to the inspiration of the Gospel stories themselves, I also took inspiration from the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood.

Place of Honor

by David

I never harmed anyone, except for once, and this was not of my own choice.

My home was in the courtyard of the governor’s palace, in a corner mostly ignored by the gardeners because it was just inside the walls, where no fine plants of any kind were kept.  During the day I gratefully warmed myself as the sun beat down, but the dryness of its heat often left my skin hard and baked, all the water sucked out of it, and so I also welcomed the cold of night as a respite, though I felt less invigorated in those hours.  But more than anything I watched for clouds, not just for the shade they brought in the sweltering noon but because the dark ones brought down the cool waters of the heavens.  Oh, how I longed for those waters more than anything else, relishing every drop that burst on my skin and dashed the dust away, seeping into all my eager crevices and injecting my veins with life!  With the morning dew, this was all the water I would ever get, for unlike others of my kind who received such gifts from people, I was not beautiful, but thin, brown, and sharp when people came close.

They surprised me, they did, the soldiers, when they came in the evening and tore me from my place of rest.  I clung desperately to the wall but one drew his sword and hacked me away from it, and then the carrying was easy because I was so light and small.  Laughing uproariously, they shouted of “his” stupidity and “his” weakness; what a fool, what a stubborn pitiful fool!  Bad for him, but good for a laugh.  The soldier held me firmly but tenderly, mindful of my sharpness.  Orange light writhed between the great marble columns of the palace doorway, and as they carried me into a side room, closer to the barracks with a dirt floor, I could see more of them all around, some laughing together at a cruel joke, others looking bored, some disgusted, and a few who studiously kept any thought from flickering across their faces.

A circle, more or less, they formed, mocking a ragged figure who staggered bloody in the center with his back to me.  The pain of the soldier’s sword still lingered where he had hacked me, and I felt my life ebbing away.  His hands tightened around my body then, and bent me hard.  Excruciating pain, the snapping of some branches, but I had no voice with which to cry out.  I was lifted up, twisted upon myself into a circlet, and tied so.  They must have grabbed the mocked man to hold him still, but honestly I was too engrossed in my own pain to notice.  I was brought towards him, lifted above his head.  His eyes glanced up at me, once, and in them I saw the pain and the hurt of every living thing since the creation of the world, all our sorrows and rebellion, all the soullessness, even among plants such as I.  Forgive me, I whispered, hoping that he above all men might understand my cry.  I see who you are now.  Forgive me for what they will use me for.  And in his eyes I saw him answer, Do not worry, wild briar, for you will be remembered with honor far longer than they.

They jammed me onto his head, winding my branches into his hair and forcing my thorns into his brow so the blood ran over his eyes and dripped off his nose.  He cried out.  I recognized the voice as that which had caused my ancestors to burst from the new dust of the earth on the third day.  When they stopped beating him, he crawled slowly to his feet, and as I rose higher and higher on his head I felt the wind blow in through the open doorway.  It flew past us with a cry that sounded to me like the ringing of royal trumpets, and suddenly I felt proud, as though all the flowers and vines and bushes of the world now looked on my place of honor with envy.

“A crown!” laughed the soldiers.  “A crown of thorns for the King of the Jews!”

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Story originally published in Santa Clara Review, Vol. 97, No. 2.

Easter Sunday – Anglo-Saxon Poetry Review: “The Dream of the Rood”

Title: “The Dream of the Rood”
Author: Anonymous 8th century Anglo-Saxon, likely a member of a religious house.
Length: 158 lines
Synopsis: The nameless narrator dreams of the Cross (or “Rood,” for the archaic term) on which Christ was crucified. The Cross, finding its voice, relates to him the experience of the Crucifixion, and how it feels itself to be a fellow-participant in the event.
Version: I had the pleasure of translating The Dream of the Rood from the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) while at university, and it was the assignment I took the most pleasure in. While I’m proud of that effort, I’ll be using here Prof. Glenn’s translation, mostly because of convenience. It seems to be a good one, preserving the alliteration of the original as well as a fairly literal sense of the words.
Recommendation: T.G. Duncan, a professor at the University of St Andrews, believes this to be one of the finest religious poems of any language, and from my limited experience of that genre I agree. It is passionate, inspired, rich in symbolic imagery, and, especially for a Christian, can be quite emotional. The poet was a true artist, and The Dream of the Rood is wonderful.

Read it here in translation by Jonathan Glenn of the University of Central Arkansas! You can read more about the historical and cultural background of the poem here, as well as read the original Old English side-by-side with a modern translation, and on Wikipedia. If you want to hear the Old English read aloud (very cool!), listen here.

Key Thoughts

The poem is structured in four parts:

  1. Lines 1-27 are the Dreamer’s introduction, describing the glorious appearance of the Cross.
  2. At lines 28-77 the Cross takes over and tells of how, as a tree, it was cruelly cut down and fashioned into an instrument of death, only to be co-opted by the hero Christ as a vehicle for his victory over Death.
  3. In lines 78-121, the Cross then preaches a sermon of salvation to the Dreamer, which,
  4. in lines 122-156, the Dreamer repeats to us, the readers.

The imagery and metaphors can be difficult to decipher at times; this was the style of Old English poetry, to revel in the obscure and dreamlike, to delight in riddles. The poet here finds as many different words to refer to the Cross as he can: “wondrous tree” (“syllicre trēow”), “beacon” (“bēacen”), “gallows” (“fracodes”), “victory-beam” (“sigebēam”), and “glory’s tree” (“wuldres trēow”). Likewise he has many ways of referring to Christ: “Healer” (“Hǣlendes,” which can also be translated “Savior”), “young hero” (“geong hæleð”), “Man” (“guman”), “God of hosts” (“weruda God”)…you get the idea.

Notice the theme of strength and victory – this is a poem about a great battle, won when Christ voluntarily sacrificed Himself for a sinful mankind, and then conquered death through his resurrection. The poet views this as something so mighty and beautiful that it alone has the power to buy true life for mankind and all of creation.

Modern Christians may not recognize this Cross, whose appearance wavers between being encrusted with jewels and gold, and drenched in blood and gore.

Hwæðre ic þurh þæt gold ongytan meahte
earmra ærgewin, þæt hit ærest ongan
swætan on þā swīðran healfe. Eall ic wæs mid sorgum gedrēfed,
forht ic wæs for þære fægran gesyhðe.  Geseah ic þæt fūse bēacen
wendan wædum ond blēom; hwīlum hit wæs mid wætan bestēmed,
beswyled mid swātes gange, hwīlum mid since gegyrwed.

“Yet through that gold I clearly perceived
old strife of wretches, when first it began
to bleed on its right side. With sorrows most troubled,
I feared that fair sight. I saw that doom-beacon
turn trappings and hews: sometimes with water wet,
drenched with blood’s going; sometimes with jewels decked.” (lns. 18-23).

The change from bloody to bejewelled proclaims the preciousness of Christ’s blood, a central Easter theme. Of course, such blood would not likely be precious if the story ended with death, but the fact that the blood is expected to become a figurative cleansing agent for men’s souls makes the wearing of it a sort of badge of honor for the Cross.

I also find Christ’s portrayal quite interesting. The gospels affirm Christ’s identity as the Passover lamb of the Jewish seder; that is, the meek and humble sacrifice. But there is another element to the Crucifixion that is often overlooked – Christ’s power, even in death. Read the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you will not find a Jesus that is a victim, but rather one who is always in control of events. He gives the Romans permission to torture Him, He chooses to go to the Cross, and He voluntarily gives up His spirit to the Father (that’s right, Christ wasn’t killed, as though some outside force robbed Him of life; He gave up His spirit before the natural moment of death, displaying His self-control and strength of will). And The Dream of the Rood very consciously depicts this. Jesus is a great hero, the greatest, “strong and resolute” (“strang ond stiðmod”), and described with royal terms: He is “heaven’s Lord” (“heofenes Dryhten”), the “Wielder of Victories” (“sigora Wealdend”), the “Prince of glory, Heaven’s guardian” (“geweorðode, wuldres ealdor”).

Ongyrede hine þā geong hæleð, (þæt wæs god ælmihtig),
strang ond stīðmōd. Gestāh hē on gealgan hēanne,
mōdig on manigra gesyhðe, þā hē wolde mancyn lysan.
Bifode ic þā mē se beorn ymbclypte. Ne dorste ic hwæðre būgan tō eorðan,
feallan tō foldan scēatum, ac ic sceolde fæste standan.
Rōd wæs ic āræred. Āhōf ic rīcne cyning,
heofona hlāford, hyldan mē ne dorste.

The young hero stripped himself then (that was God Almighty),
strong and resolute. He ascended onto the high gallows,
brave in the sight of many, there, [since] he wished to release mankind.
I trembled when the man embraced me. However, I dared not bow down to the earth,
fall to the surface of the earth, but I had to stand fast.
I was raised [as a] cross. I lifted up the mighty king,
the lord of the heavens; I dared not bend down. (lns. 39-45)

This is no execution! Christ is preparing for battle, like a mythic hero of the pagan traditions. No man puts Him on the Cross; He mounts it Himself.  No man kills Him; He eagerly relinquishes His own life.

Yet it is not only mankind that benefits, for the poet understands Christ’s resurrection to be so mighty that it redeems all of creation from the deathly effects of Adam’s sin (as enumerated in Genesis 3) – even an inanimate object such as the Cross.  Notice that the Cross is relating its own conversion experience. As mankind was seduced by the devil in Genesis to become sinful creatures, so the Tree was cut down by evil men and made into an instrument of torture and death. Then, the Cross is washed over completely in Christ’s blood; in its own words,

…eall ic wæs mid blode bestemed,
Begoten of þæs guman sidan, siððan hē hæfde his gāst onsended.

I was all drenched with blood,
covered from the man’s side, after he had sent forth his spirit. (lns. 48-49)

This is as literal a baptism as you can get.  God promises holiness to Christians when He says ‘You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine’ (Leviticus 20:26), and likewise the Cross of the poem is become holy through its baptism.  It exults in its salvation:

Iu ic wæs georden wita heardost,
leodum laðost, ær þan ic him lifes weg
rihtne gerymde reordberendum.

Formerly, I was the most fierce of torments,
most hateful to people, before I opened the right
path of life to them, the speech-bearers. (lns. 87-89)

Like all Christians, the Cross of the poem has taken part in Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s a unique way to portray the wonderful theological truth that all of creation is wrapped up in God’s plan. In Genesis, all of creation fell with Adam’s sin. In Christ, all of creation is redeemed because of His death and resurrection. Be not proud, O death, for where is thy sting now? You are conquered, overthrown, and cast out – the Lord of Life has done so!

Se sunu wæs sigorfæst on þām siðfate,
mihtig ond spēdig, þā hē mid manigeo cōm,
gāsta weorode, on godes rīce,
anwealda ælmihtig, englum tō blisse
ond eallum ðām hālgum þām þe on heofonum ær
wunedon on wuldre, þā heora wealdend cwōm,
ælmihtig god, þær his ēðel wæs.

The Son was triumphant on that expedition,
mighty and successful, when he came with the multitude,
the host of souls, into God’s kingdom,
the Lord Almighty, to the delight of the angels,
and of all the saints, who in the heavens before
dwelled in glory, when their Ruler, the Almighty
God came, where his homeland was. (lns. 150-156)

Happy Easter to you all! I pray that your day be bright, beautiful, and full of joyful love.

Also, if you read and liked the whole poem, I myself wrote a short story inspired by it, on a similar theme, that you can read here. Let me know what you think of it!