Yesterday in worship Margaret played that old Gospel standard “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked,” and even though nobody sang the text, the tune alone was enough for me to hear its familiar words in my head –
I walked today where Jesus walked,
in days of long ago.
I wandered down each path He knew,
with reverent step and slow.
Those little lanes, they have not changed,
a sweet peace fills the air.
I walked today where Jesus walked,
and felt Him close to me.
One of the great benefits of a trip to the Holy Land is that it allows you to do this, to “walk where Jesus walked,” and when you do, the experience forever changes the way that you read the Bible. As the Princeton theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937) explained –
Christianity is based on an account of something that happened in the first century of our era… Almost nineteen hundred years ago, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the eternal Son was offered as a sacrifice for the sins of men. To that one great event the whole Old Testament looks forward, and in that one event the whole of the New Testament finds its center and core. Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. Hence appears the uniqueness of the Bible. All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event…(Christianity & Liberalism)
An event requires a place, and for Christianity that place is the Holy Land. Once you’ve been to the places where the events of Salvation History unfolded in time and space, when you go back to the texts, you can see in your mind’s eye what it might have looked like, and that changes how you read. It’s like when a favorite novel that you’ve read is made into a movie.
This past year Mary Lynn refused to see the movie “The Life of Pi” because, having read the book, she didn’t want the pictures of the story that she had in her head to be messed with by the vision that the actors, set designers and director were creating of it in their movie. She liked her version of it, and she knew that seeing the movie would necessarily and irrevocably change it. Well, going to the Holy Land, and walking where Jesus walked, does the same thing with Scripture. It contextualizes it, so much so that some call the Holy Land the “fifth Gospel.” Sailing on the Sea of Galilee, standing on the floor of the synagogue in Capernaum, wading in the Jordan River, looking out into the Judean wilderness, walking the way of the Cross through the streets of Jerusalem allow you to “see” where it all happened.
Because going to the Holy Land is expensive and exhausting, not everybody is up to making the trip. And so the church has devised some special ways of igniting the imaginations of the faithful through the use of spiritual disciplines so that they can see the places where the Gospel happened in their mind’s eye and thereby enter into the experiences more fully with their hearts. Holy Week worship is ground zero for these spiritual disciplines. Yesterday, Palm Sunday, Northway was jam-packed with them.
o Our 10:50 am worship service began with palm branches and a donkey making a circuit around the front parking lot. We sang and waved palms as we walked behind the donkey, recreating in our own little way Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
o Palm Sunday afternoon we hosted our second annual “Journey to the Cross” pilgrimage through six scenes scattered around the church with actors and props. We tasted some of the foods that would have been on the table in the Upper Room as Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples on Maundy Thursday, we helped Simon of Cyrene carry the cross for Jesus to Calvary, we sat with Joseph of Arimathea waiting and watching on Holy Saturday, and we heard Mary Magdalene tell of her experience at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. I personally led four groups through the experience, and I can honestly say that I was deeply moved on each trip as I opened my heart and allowed myself to enter deeply into each scene.
o And then in Vespers last night we prayed Pope John Paul II’s Scriptural Stations of the Cross before sharing in a simple communion service and singing the Lord’s Prayer a cappella, our voices echoing off the walls of the Fellowship Hall.
What a day!
Again and again, the disciplines and activities of worship in which the Gospel story was retold opened my heart to a deeper experience of the reality to which they point. Again, the observation of the theologian J. Gresham Machen proves insightful –
The happening of long ago, moreover, is in this case confirmed by present experience. The Christian man receives first the account which the New Testament gives of the atoning death of Christ. That account is history. But if true it has effects in the present, and it can be tested by its effects. The Christian man makes trial of the Christian message, and making trial of it he finds it to be true. Experience does not provide a substitute for the documentary evidence, but it does confirm that evidence. The word of the Cross no longer seems to the Christian to be merely a far-off thing, merely a matter to be disputed about by trained theologians. On the contrary, it is received into the Christian’s inmost soul, and every day and hour of the Christian’s life brings new confirmation of its truth… (Christianity & Liberalism)
Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus, called this the “interiorization” of Christianity. In an interview from 1997 when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratizinger, Pope Benedict XVI quoted the theologian Karl Rahner’s famous prediction that “the Christian of tomorrow will be a mystic, or he will not be at all,” and then he observed that “Rahner is correct in that Christianity will be doomed to suffocation if we don’t learn something of interiorization in which faith sinks personally into the depth of one’s own life and in that depth sustains and illuminates. Mere action and mere intellectual construction are not enough.” And where Pope Benedict said that the Christian faith most effectively sinks personally into the depths of ones life where it can sustain and illuminate is in the church’s life of public worship. In his exhortation “Sacramentum Caritatis,” Pope Benedict XVI reminded the church that the call from Vatican II for liturgical reform was a call for the “active and conscious participation” of all the faithful, and that involves a process of “interiorization.” He said that, as far as liturgy goes, we all need “an education toward inwardness.” And this is what Holy Week is for.
By re-enacting the events of Christ’s last days – His Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, His Last Supper in the Upper Room with His friends on Maundy Thursday, His agonizing hours on the cross on Good Friday, the emptiness of Holy Saturday’s waiting and watching and the glorious announcement on Easter Sunday that “He is Risen!” – establish the “hard historical facts” (Alister McGrath) of the Gospel story that the Holy Spirit then uses to stir our hearts and usher us into a present experience of God’s grace through the person and work of Jesus Christ. The way to that experience is through the stories that the Bible tells about who Jesus Christ was and what Jesus Christ did, especially during His final week, which is why you need to be in worship this week, Holy Week.
We began our Journey to Easter on Ash Wednesday by praying from Psalm 51, “Restore to me the joy of my salvation” (v. 12). The way that God answers that prayer is by using our faithful recital of the saving events that are narrated in the Gospel story as the openings through which the Holy Spirit rushes in to fill us with love, joy, peace and power to witness and serve in His name and after his example. DBS +