There were several very heart-warming local events this weekend. The Sheriff’s department in a central Florida county organized an Easter Egg Hunt for a group of blind children. The deputies made beeping electronic Easter eggs for the kids. Closer to home, the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in Safety Harbor sponsored a craft day for children. The children who attended were taught how to use woodworking tools, and afterward they were treated to Ice Cream.
Major holidays tend to evoke very positive sentiments in most people. The collections of food and toys that happen before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and our local collection of baby items for The Kimberly Home are further examples of the generosity that inspires people at holidays. The charitable organizations which benefit from these events depend on these annual acts of generosity. Our Holy Thursday collection, for example, goes to FEAST Food Bank to help their ministry to those in need in the Clearwater/Palm Harbor area. While these sorts of activities produce many positive benefits, none of them fully represents the meaning of the associated religious holidays.
The Scripture readings during this Triduum focus on Jesus’ act of laying down his life for the salvation of the world. Tonight’s Second Reading contains a well-known line from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul wrote, “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
The events of Jesus’ Passion can make his death look like the unfortunate consequence of his conflicts with the religious authorities in Jerusalem, but nothing could be further from the truth. The biblical authors want us to understand very clearly that Jesus chose to lay down his life as an act of obedience to God and generosity for the world. Jesus’ free choice to go to the Cross requires us to imitate his example. Paul wrote, “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” (Romans 6:5)
In order to have a share in Jesus’ Kingdom where sin and death have been vanquished we must first choose freely to have a share in his Passion and death. We must lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus.
We might well ask what this means. Does this biblical command require or encourage self-destructive behavior? Should we go looking for opportunities for suffering and martyrdom? Again, the biblical authors take great care in describing precisely what it means to lay down one’s life in imitation of Jesus.
After the Sabbath’s prohibition of work had concluded, some women among Jesus’ disciples went to his tomb to anoint his body. (Luke 24:1) It was Jewish custom to anoint the body of a deceased loved one in preparation for burial. Because Jesus had died on the eve of a Sabbath, this customary anointing had to be delayed. The women among his disciples went to the tomb to perform an act of mercy and devotion. Their first thought was not for their own safety, but of reverence and affection for Jesus.
When they found the tomb empty they ran back to the rest of the group, and reported their amazing news to the Eleven. (Luke 24:9) We know what happened afterwards; various groups of disciples had experiences of the Risen Lord, and they became fearless preachers of the Resurrection. They spent the remainder of their lives bringing others to faith in Jesus; they laid down their lives in service to the world.
Just as with Jesus’ first followers, we accomplish the command to lay down our lives by our faithful discipleship, that is, by living daily his teaching. Some few believers are called to heroic service. Through the centuries, a few have been called to martyrdom. For most of us, however, “laying down our lives” is something accomplished in mundane ways, over the period of an entire lifetime.
Discipleship isn’t seasonal, like the periodic outpourings of generosity at holidays. Discipleship is a daily walk with Jesus. Laying down one’s life means offering one’s total being, and for the whole of one’s lifetime. Tonight we renew the vows of our Baptism in which we promised to love God above all else, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Covenant love is less a matter of heroics, and more a matter of constancy. The Lord promises that if we live and die with him, we will reign with him. I invite you to recommit yourself now to this new life in Christ.