I am baptised

Meditations for Holy Week

by Ian W Halliday

I am presenting here three short meditations for use during Holy Week. Their original setting was for short services on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, leading up to the major festival services on Thursday, Friday and Sunday. I will not offer the full details of them here: that is for the presenters of the services to do as they feel led to do. These simple services, which may be viewed as "object lessons" can be used by Christians of all traditions. I used them in Anglican services of Compline (Night Prayer) but they can be used in any other context you choose. Further, they may be presented as one or as three.
Some of the items I have chosen to use will cause offence to people of some traditions. That is not entirely accidental. Why do we have as the focus of almost all of our churches a symbol of execution? Perhaps a gallows would be a decent replacement. Or maybe "Old Sparky"? Especially during Holy week, you will not always be comfortable.

The notice - John 19:19-22

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews."
Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

You need to have a notice printed out which says "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS". I found that it works best if you use the font "Stencil" in a document which is in Landscape format, with "Jesus of Nazareth" taking up the top half and "The King of the Jews" taking up the bottom half of the paper. These words should be stark when viewed from the back of your church or hall. There's nothing too elegant about them in the way they are presented here.
You also need the notice printed in another language which is well known in your community. Depending on where you are, this could be Spanish, French, Navajo, Maori, Bislama, ... as you read this, you could be anywhere in the world. The goal is to find a language or languages which will extend the number of people in your community who could understand what the notice says. Not people in your church (necessarily) but your community as a whole. That is what Pilate was about when he put the notice up. Are there more languages used where you are? More notices then.
If you have an "altar rail", this is probably the place to stick them. Make sure that they are visible from where your congregation are likely to be sitting. Probably one language on one side, another on the other side, but you know your church better!
As you speak to this, you probably don't need to use many more words. Pilate was a man who knew what he was doing. This notice pretty much spoke for itself. Was he making fun of Jesus by hanging a notice which was obviously absurd? Was he hanging a notice which would deliberately antagonise the Jews? Did he know that the man really was the King of the Jews but felt that he had been powerless to stop the execution? You may want to ask these questions or others like them. Don't offer answers - this is a time for meditation, not for answers. After each question, a pause for reflection.

The lots - John 19:23-24

When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
"Let's not tear it," they said to one another. "Let's decide by lot who will get it."
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said,
"They divided my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing." (Psalm 22:18)
So this is what the soldiers did.

As well as the notices, you need a small table with a backgammon set arranged as it is at the start of a game. This means that you need to have it open, with fifteen counters of each colour in place correctly, with two dice shakers clearly visible. I'm not talking about a small set, this is a large set. The one I use for this opens up to about twenty inches (50cm) square. Don't forget that tradition says the inner table should face towards the light. You don't have a backgammon set? Somebody in your fellowship probably does. Historical records suggest that the Roman soldiers who cast lots for the garment were playing a game remarkably similar to the game we know as backgammon. That is why I suggest using it here. Offensive to have a gambling game in church? Is it as offensive as gambling for a man's clothes while he is still being executed and can see what is going on?
As you are reading the section about this, you may want to pause and roll the dice and move the counters as if playing a game of backgammon. (If you don't know exactly how the moves work, don't worry. It's a symbolic act to show what happened.) We have a very moving moment here. Be quiet as you roll the dice and move the counters. Make sure that your congregation understands what is happening: they are gambling for the few possessions Jesus had and they care more about these than about the man. This has been predicted in Psalm 22, the very same psalm which begins with Jesus' cry "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

The wine - John 19:28-30

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, "I am thristy." A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, "It is finished." With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

I don't know whether your church accepts or prohibits the drinking of alcohol. Whichever it is, go into your local store and find the cheapest wine you can and buy a bottle of it. You may choose to restrict yourself to red wine. You will also need a small clean sponge, and I urge you to buy a natural one if you possibly can, a clean stick (preferably with a little prong on the end) and an earthenware jug which holds about a pint (half a litre). You will also need a corkscrew!
What is going on in this reading? There are several interpretations of it. One is that the people are making fun of Jesus by offering him vinegar, which is not generally considered a popular drink. Psalm 69:21 is the prophecy which has been fufilled here, but in what way? Another reasonable interpretation of the verse is to note that cheap wine, perhaps almost indistinguishable from vinegar, was part of the ration given to the Roman soldiers. This puts this act in a very different light. Instead of a mean act against a prisoner, it becomes a loving act: although what is available is not very good, it is the best available. Our offerings to God will not be very good either, but we must always strive for them to be the best available. (Incidentally, even if it was vinegar, was there anything else?) So we have an act here which is ambiguous - call on our congregation to consider quietly which path they would choose.
As you are doing this, open the wine, about half fill the jug from it and soak the sponge in wine. Put the sponge on the end of the stick and hold it in a way that the people can see what is happening. (Be careful, I'm not about to pay for cleaning your church carpet.) If your service is a Eucharist service, it may be appropriate for you to use what remains of the wine in that part of your service.

If this suggestion for a Holy Week service or series has been useful for you, please mail me and let me know. If you use these ideas in your services, please let me know. If you have any questions or suggestions for improvements, let me know those too.
Back to Sermon Index
Back to Home Page