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Alexamenos graffitoThe Alexamenos graffito, a satirical representation of the Christian worship, depicting a man worshiping a crucified donkey. This is a modern-day tracing of a photograph from "Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries" (1898) by Rodolfo Lanciani.To most of us the answer seems obvious: Jesus. But there is more to it than that, as illustrated by the two illustrations that accompany this article. One is the only physical remnant we have of an ancient crucifixion—the ankle bone of a young Jew named Yehohanan, who was crucified not long after Jesus himself. We know that Yehohanan was crucified because those who retrieved his body could not get the nail out of his ankle and so buried him with it. The other is a photo of a graffito on the Palatine Hill in Rome which dates to about the year 200. It depicts a man worshiping a crucified donkey, presumably Jesus, and is accompanied by an ancient “flame” which alleges that “Alexamenos is worshipping [his] God”. Taken together they remind us that Good Friday has two, not just one aspect: the first, its physical horror; the other, its somewhat ambiguous meaning.

Yehohanan’s crucifixion has been endlessly studied, but it is a reminder that Jesus’ execution was by no means exceptional. The Romans used it for at least 700 years before Constantine banned it out of respect for the Saviour. In the first century BC, during the revolt of Spartacus, 6,000 slaves were crucified at intervals all along the road from Capua to Rome.

By Rubén Betanzo S. - Hombre_de_Hombre_de_"Giv'at_ha-Mivtar".jpg, Composite illustration by Rubén Betanzo S. at commons.wikimedia.org.Today the Alexamenos graffito is of interest in part because it was drawn at a time when people could still see crucifixions; Christian representations of crucifixion began to be made only some centuries after crucifixion itself had been banned. But the graffito is more important than that: it reminds us that what was important about Jesus’ crucifixion was not its horror (then all too familiar) but what it meant. Its original artist thought it had a meaning: Alexamenos’ religion is foolish. But in saying so he called attention to the fact that the only reason Alexamenos worshipped this strange creature was because he too thought it had meaning. It is the meaning that explains why Good Friday is “good”.

We don’t know the details of what Alexamenos thought, but we do know that it was positive. The Church’s faith is that whatever happened on Calvary was “for us and for our salvation”. Beyond that, there’s never been any formal declaration as to its exact instrumentality. Even in the New Testament we can see authors struggling to come to terms with the meaning: how do you explain the crucifixion of the Messiah even if he did rise from the dead? We won’t worry here about the details; what matters is the consistent claim that all of it—_all_ of it—was for us and for our salvation; and not just for our salvation as a group, but for our salvation as individuals. That is what makes Good Friday good. Keep this in mind, and remember that today the Collect of the Day applies especially to you:

Almighty God, we pray you graciously to behold this your family, for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed, and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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The liturgy for this day includes the ritual of foot washing. Many of us participate in that part of the liturgy.

Washing the Apostles' Feet (top); Last Supper (bottom.) Panel from the Maesta Altarpiece of Siena, 1308-1311. Artist: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319.If one were to write an icon for this Holy Day the icon would include Jesus, Peter, the other disciples, a basin, water jug, towel, and a table on which the Passover meal was set. I would paint Peter as both indignant and wistful – as one wanting Jesus’ love and fearing it. And the other disciples might be portrayed as surprised, annoyed, confused or loving.

What is the message of such an icon?

If we were to engage in the liturgical act of washing the feet of another, or having our own feet washed, some of us might feel awkward, embarrassed, or reluctant; or we might welcome the tender touch of hospitality. Some fear touch. It is good to accept a loving act – a life-giving gift and an invitation to share in Jesus’ ministry of grace.

In John’s gospel account of the Passover meal, (John 13.1-15), the foot washing happens before the giving of the bread and wine. The washing is a preparation for receiving the gift of Jesus’ life. It is a willingness to open one’s self to God’s loving touch. The disciples did allow Jesus to wash their feet and to be their servant, teacher and Sovereign. Jesus then imparts the gift of his life to them: “This is my Body broken for you; this is my Blood poured out for you. Take and remember. Do as I have done for you.”

As we accept the life of Jesus into our lives, we are enlivened and we shall seek to serve others in the name of Jesus. Many opportunities are given – the offering of food and other material goods; words of encouragement; care of the vulnerable; loving touches; messages of hope.

The actress, Marlene Dietrich wrote a “kitchen slogan” which reads: “Don’t complain in the morning about a day’s work. It is so wonderful to go to trouble for the people one loves.”

As we share in the solemn rites of Holy Week, may we be open to experience God’s immense love through the powerful message of Holy Scripture; through the loving ministries of Jesus, our Sovereign’s disciples; as we receive the Eucharistic bread and wine; and as we hear Jesus’ invitation to serve and care for one another.

“So let the love of Jesus come and set thy soul ablaze, to give and give, and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously the God who gave the worlds that are, and all that are to be.”
​(from a hymn by Bishop Geoffrey A. Studdert-Kennedy)

Br. David Bryon Hoopes, OHC, is Prior of Holy Cross Priory, Toronto

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Cvjetnica (Croatia), Palm SundayCvjetnica (Croatia), Palm Sunday, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity LibraryI have always loved Palm Sunday for as long as I can remember. There is something so unique and festive when we attend a Palm Sunday service, making our procession into church with lovely Palm crosses in our hands, and singing “Ride on! Ride on in Majesty!” The celebration is so joyous and spontaneous, and the fact that Jesus was actually going up to Jerusalem to suffer and die for us seemed to be so far away.

As it happened, three years ago I was given a new experience that enabled me to see Palm Sunday in a new light. I remember it was Lent, 2013, and during all those weeks I was taken up with getting treatments for cancer in a downtown hospital. I had to make a daily trip for my radiation therapy for five weeks, including on my birthday. This new experience brought me more in touch with the reality of mortality, especially when I met so many other patients along the way. However, it was not a negative experience. I was often filled with a sense of peace and gratitude, that I did not go through the ordeal alone. Jesus suffered for me, and He understood how I felt. His presence was with me in every treatment room. The fact that it was Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter made my illness more symbolic and easier to endure. To my surprise, I found it a truly healing experience.

Since then, Palm Sunday and Easter are never the same to me again. I still enjoy the pomp and special celebrations, but now I appreciate Palm Sunday at a deeper level. What Jesus must be thinking as he rode into Jerusalem in triumph, fully aware of the Passion that awaited him at the end. Yet He graciously enjoyed the Last Supper with His disciples in the Upper Room, and took care to prepare them for what was to come. While His love and humanity touch me deeply, Palm Sunday and Easter fill me with Hope.

May this year’s Holy Week and Easter bring us much peace and joy!

May Kong lives in Toronto and is an Associate of Holy Cross Priory

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“Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that … our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; …” (Collect for Fifth Sunday in Lent, from A Monastic Breviary, 1976 Holy Cross Publications)

An appropriate prayer for this Sunday as we move on to the end of Lent, and as many of us grow weary of our efforts! This little story illustrates how we often react:

On a visit to Toronto some years ago, the temperature averaged minus five degrees going down to minus thirteen at night. One morning, after a snowfall overnight, I was looking out of the window as the plows went up and down the avenue clearing the roadway. I saw a man walking with his dog, out to exercise his pet in spite of the weather situation. They crossed the street and it appeared that they would continue up the opposite road. But, as they reached the sidewalk the dog sat down and refused to move! The man gently pulled on the leash to no avail. The dog would not budge. Snow was still falling, and it was cold. The man bent down, talking to the dog, but still no movement resulted. He stood upright and tried once more to continue walking. The dog still refused to move. Then the man crouched down, with his hands on the dog’s head, and continued talking to the animal. Finally, the dog got up and trotted off behind his master.

It would have been easy for that man to get angry with the dog, but he did not do that. He understood the dog’s hesitation. We often behave like that dog as we encounter strange and unwelcome situations in life. We find ourselves facing challenges that are unpleasant and cause us fear and concern. We find that we have to walk roads that are strange and difficult. Sometimes, like that dog we sit down and refuse to go any further. The wonderful thing is that God never gives up on us. God is patient, waiting for us to come to ourselves and continue on the journey. God talks gently to us and gives us a chance to come to terms with ourselves and where we are, so that we can make our own choice about moving on. In our times of despondency and depression, when we cannot help ourselves, God never leaves us alone. The patience of God never ends. God waits with us, until we can respond and eagerly follow along the road where new adventures, new experiences of life await us.

animation of a normal human walk cycle, by user SoylentGreen on Wikimedia Commons Let us evaluate where we are at this point in the Lenten season; being honest as to whether we are just sitting down, like that dog in the snow, or whether we are walking on down the road in company with our Lord and Master, knowing the Love which God always offers to us.

“… as we progress in this monastic way of life and in faith, our hearts will warm to its vision and with eager love and delight that defies expression we shall go forward on the way of God’s commandments. … so that through patience we may be granted some part in Christ’s own passion and thus in the end receive a share in his kingdom. …”
— Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict, 2003 Canterbury Press Norwich)

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Lent 4photo by the author, Bonnie BellH.A. Williams in an early sermon called True Wilderness comments that “Lent is supposed to be the time when we think of Jesus in the wilderness”. I read this sermon each year and try to use this time for stock taking, looking at where I have been this past year and where I am going: Easter Sunday is in one sense the beginning of the new year.

My life is now at one of the significant crossroads, the one called retirement and mature age; although most of life is over, I can live what time remains with awareness and deep meaning.

I have a small wooden cross inlaid with green stone that I use to mark holy space in my small apartment. In it I see my life reflected, particularly during Lent as I examine my life. These forty days are a time for letting go of last year’s disappointments, celebrating it’s satisfactions, and planning for moving forward in new ways. I feel that as we approach our later years (with poorer health and less money) it is time to rejoice in all that is good and beautiful, and to relinquish all that is not. So Lent for me is this time of “stock-taking” which is essentially a time of aloneness, or sitting in the wilderness of my being, examining all that I have been and all that I might strive to be.

I set my cross before me each morning. The base is my body which must be cared for and, as age creeps on, requires more daily maintenance. I am blessed that it still functions well. The arms are my head and heart. I know that the aging brain takes longer to learn and the memory is slower but I look forward to new experiences and taking up new things, in part because it no longer matters that I achieve high marks, set targets, or await praise and commendation. I can now focus on the joys of learning, meeting new people, exploring the world around me. So in Lent I look for the opportunities that this wonderful city provides to grow and expand my mind.

My heart belongs to love and fellowship. So in Lent I examine my relations, being thankful to be blessed with an abundance of wonderful friends and a close-knit family. It’s a time to rejoice in past friendships but also to look at relationships which which I must slip away or just sever outright (not always easy to do). As we age, we gain commitments, change priorities, and often just have less time. I am thankful for the joys that each friend and acquaintance has given me, but sometimes I need to recognize that it is time to move on, or time to allow them to slip away from me. I am also blessed with opportunities to interact with young people and be reminded that the wisdom of mature age is to learn to listen. I no longer need to impress anyone, to gain new networks, or even new friends. I can offer a listening ear, or the fruits of my own journey, wherever they are needed.

The top of my cross is my soul and the centre of the cross, to which all the arms point, is Jesus. Lent is the time to put the body, mind, and heart in order, to review what I’ve done with them in the past year, and to plan for their betterment in the year to come.

Finally I must learn how to nourish the soul. In the conclusion to his sermon, H.A. Williams says “To love is to give. To give is to be. To be is to find yourself in communion with all about you. And this communion is glory. Christ’s glory and yours. … Lent we discover, is Easter in disguise.”

So as I find myself no longer employed, watching my budget, and dealing with the aches and pains of an aging body, sitting in this wilderness I count myself blessed that I am here, loved and loving, and after a Lent of stock-taking I will be ready to rejoice in another Easter and another new beginning.

Bonnie Bell lives in Toronto and is an associate of Holy Cross Priory.

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