As one reads through the Psalms in the course of the Daily Office Lectionary, different images, analogies, and metaphors come and go, escape notice and then grab your attention. The psalm used in the Daily Office of Evening Prayer on Wednesday in the Second Week of Lent this year contains such an image. In Psalm 119 at verse 83 is this statement, “I have become like a leather flask in the smoke….” (BCP 1979, p 770) The King James Version renders this, “I am become like a bottle in the smoke,” and the New International and New Revised Standard Versions use “wineskin”.
An old commentary from the 1890s explains the image this way:
As a wineskin out of us hung up among the rafters of the roof grows shrivelled and blackened by the smoke till it almost loses its original appearance, so the Psalmist is growing emaciated and disfigured by suffering and sorrow till he can scarcely be recognized. (Alexander Francis Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, Cambridge University Press: 1895, 1901, p. 718)
It might not be our image today, but one must ask “What does this image evoke for us in the 21st Century?” Surely we are not unfamiliar with the sense of being dried up to the point of cracking, hard to the point of no flexibility, parched to the point where moisture is the only hope.
What makes you dry up? What hardens you? What parches you? Do you know what it is that leads you into such a condition?
These are good questions for reflection as we complete this season of Lent.
For the Psalmist, the source of “moisture” which would cure his smoke-shriveled condition was God’s Law, the Lord’s statutes. The Commandments were evidence of God’s loving-kindness which would revive him (v. 87).
For us the “cure” is Easter, the great festival of the Resurrection, the promise of New Life. The dryness of Lent will end with the great feast of Christ’s Empty Tomb. Cries of “Alleluia!” will sound again and like a long drink of cool, refreshing water will revive our spirits.
But as the old saw says, the night is always darkest before dawn and in the liturgical cycle of the church year, the driest time is right before the most refreshing.
Holy Week, with its round of services recalling, reenacting, and retelling the worst events of history, its stories of betrayal, of unfair trial, of torture, and of death, must be lived through. We cannot fully appreciate the reinvigorating refreshment of Easter unless we experience the fullness of Holy Week.
Palm Sunday, if weather permits, those at my church will once again walk with our Lord as he triumphantly enters to the city of Jerusalem; our Procession of the Palms includes the grim reminder that that parade ended not in enthronement, but in execution and death as we walk through the Old City Cemetery adjacent to our church property. Maundy Thursday, when we recall how Jesus and his friends celebrated the commemoration of liberation and religious identity which is the Passover, reminds us that that feast was Jesus’ Last Supper. Good Friday, with its long meditations on the Crucifixion, Jesus’ “seven last words”, and his grizzly death, always raises (particularly for children) the question, “What’s ‘good’ about this day?” And Holy Saturday, with its deathly quiet, the tomb sealed shut ….
Like a wineskin in the smoke, indeed! By the end of Holy Week we are shriveled, dried up, exhausted, unfit for much of anything … and then there is Easter!
This year we will begin our Resurrection celebrations with an evening offering of the Great Vigil at 7:00 p.m. after sundown on Holy Saturday and continue with an early, simple eucharist at 8:00 a.m. on Easter morning, and then the Festival Eucharist at 10:00 a.m. Our parish’s brass quartet will play at the Festival Service. Whatever the weather, the day will be bright and brilliant and refreshing!
A Lutheran pastor blogging on the internet has offered this reflection on Holy Week and Easter:
I hate holy week. And yes, I’m a pastor. I really hate Lent too. No other time of the year do I feel more depressed; no other time of the year do I feel less motivated to do anything worthwhile. I go through the motions. I get my sermons done (barely) and I do the liturgy. Why this is I do not know. But I hate holy week, and the reason is, I have discovered after five years of this, is that no other time of the year do I really come face to face with the unbelieving human demon that I am like I do during Lent, and especially holy week. So I hate it. I am depressed, because I see that I am not pious. I cannot keep the fast. I cannot pray more fervently like I know I ought. I am weaker than weak. I have no discipline. I think that God does this to me on purpose, because if I got through Lent and observed every jot and tittle of Liturgical tradition, I would really be tempted to boast about how pious I was.
I love it because it makes me thirsty for Easter. I do not love the resurrection any other time of the year as much as I do after Lent and Holy Week. It is a refreshing message. It is like a drink of cool water after a hot and dry stint in the wilderness. My faith is not in vain. The things that I am doing week in and week out are not futile and meaningless, even though to the mortal eye it seems that way. The Resurrection of Christ validates everything we do, say, and think as pastors, as Christians, as parents, as anything. Because if Christ lives, and is not buried in Palestine, but lives and breathes and blood runs through his veins and his heart beats like mine, then I also know that His Word is powerful, because it is not the Word of a dead person, but it is He Himself speaking. I know that the Sacrament that I distribute every week is not just ordinary bread and wine, but His true and living Body and Blood. I don’t know what I would do if we didn’t celebrate Easter every year. So for this, I love Holy Week.
So hate it, or love it … Holy Week is vital! Join your parish family for the full range of services which prepare us for and celebrate the greatest gift of God to humanity. Be a part not only of Easter morning, be a part of Holy Week.