Who Might We Become if We Walk in the Steps of Christ?
Reflections on Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday (Philippians 4:4–9) by Teva Regule at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA on March 31, 2018.
Today we commemorate the Raising of Lazarus of Bethany. Since (at least) the fourth century, this event has been celebrated in conjunction with the Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Together, they mark a short festal interlude between Lent and Holy Week. We have just finished our yearly journey through Lent and will soon continue our journey through Palm Sunday and Holy Week, commemorating the steps of Christ and participating in His journey. Today we are invited to walk to Bethany, tomorrow to Jerusalem. Who might we become if we walk in these steps?
Throughout history, people have journeyed to physical spots or destinations of spiritual significance to them. The Jewish people traveled to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the site of their temple, the privileged locus of the presence of their God. In establishing a covenant with the ancient Israelites, God commanded that they should come to Jerusalem three times a year to keep feast to Him. Every able bodied Jew was to travel to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Unleavened Bread, the Feast of the First Fruits of the Harvest, and the Feast of the Ingathering or what is now known as the Feast of Tabernacles (Ex. 23.14). In the Gospel narrative of Palm Sunday, Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. Unleavened bread is the bread of the desert. By the time of Jesus, this feast was associated with the journey of the ancient Israelites through the desert—the Passover event.
Passover refers to God’s “passing over” the houses of the Israelites when He took the first-born sons of the Egyptians the night before He delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. The Passover festival is the yearly remembrance of the journey out of Egypt, through the desert, and into the new land. To this day, every Jew remembers this event as if they, too, came out of Egypt with their ancestors.
For this pilgrimage (like so many others) it was not only the destination that was important, but the journey itself. Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites were led out of slavery in Egypt. They passed through the Sea of Reeds, escaping Pharaoh and his horsemen and chariots and subsequently journeyed for forty years in the desert. Their journey was not without difficulty—they experienced trials and tribulations along the way. However, they were guided and protected by their God—by day, in the form of a cloud and at night, by a pillar of fire. The Lord cared and provided for them during their journey, supplying them with quail and manna to eat and making water come forth from the rock in order to drink. Although they doubted their God at times, they continued to follow in the footsteps of Moses. On Sinai, they were given the Decalogue—what we commonly call the Ten Commandments—to help guide their lives. After forty years, they were no longer a disparate group of various Hebrew tribes. They had been formed and shaped by their journey and had become a people. They were then led into the Promised Land.
The metaphor of Passover is often used to help us understand more fully our Christian baptism. Today, we celebrate one of the four ancient baptismal days of the Church. (The others are Pascha, Pentecost, and Epiphany/Theophany.) Just as Lazarus is given new life through Jesus, our baptism initiates us into a new life. This life requires that we not only renounce sin, but turn and follow Jesus. Cyril of Jerusalem (4th c.) suggests that just as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, over the “tyranny of old” (which was his way of alluding to Pharaoh, MC 1.3), Jesus Christ leads us out of the realm of sin and death. Through baptism, we are no longer captive to Satan, but free. As free persons, we begin a journey to the new land—what Christian hymnography calls the “new Jerusalem.” Our baptism is only the beginning of this journey. A life in Christ is a process of following in His footsteps.
What might it mean to follow in the footsteps of Jesus? Palm Sunday and Holy Week give us a preview. In the narrative of the Gospel for Palm Sunday, we celebrate the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. It is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry on earth. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey as king and prophet, fulfilling the oracle of Zechariah (9.9), “Lo, your king comes to you; triumph and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey…” A crowd goes out to meet him singing, “Hosanna! (literally, “Lord, save us!) Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” They had heard of his encounter with Lazarus and recognized him as someone special. The procession is led by children and one can imagine the crowd following behind Jesus as he passed them and made his way into Jerusalem. From the witness of Egeria, a 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, we know that pilgrims in Jerusalem at that time re-enacted in this event. The bishop would lead the people from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem in a similar fashion, following in the steps of Christ. Although we are half way around the world, we continue the tradition of this entrance procession is some fashion today with our own procession on Palm Sunday. From His entrance, we can see that following in the steps of Jesus can be an exhilarating experience and yet we are reminded that doing so requires humility.
Furthermore, as the events of Holy Week will show, walking in His footsteps is not always easy. It means both joy and sorrow. In the life of Jesus, he experienced joy in the sharing of a festal meal with friends at the Last Supper but sorrow at their betrayal, both large—the betrayal of Judas—and small(er)—Peter’s denial of Jesus after his arrest. In walking in the footsteps of Jesus we may also experience similar joys and sorrows, even betrayals. In the life of Jesus, he would ultimately run into trouble with the authorities, but also spoke truth to power during his trial before Pilate. Following in his footsteps, may mean similar tribulations and opportunities for us. The witness of Jesus led to suffering and death on the Cross. For those who follow Him, it may also mean witnessing to and suffering for what we believe. In all the steps along his journey, Jesus prayed to the Father. The example of Jesus shows us that following in his footsteps means continuing this conversation.
The Church gives us an example of someone who walked in the steps of Christ to help guide our own journey—St. Paul. Walking in the footsteps of Jesus gave St. Paul encouragement to minister to the Gentile world, but also landed him in prison. He shares his thoughts from there in tomorrow’s reading from Philippians (4:4–9):
Brothers and Sisters, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace with be with you.
He reminds the Philippian community (and us) of the proper frame of mind for our journey. Following in the footsteps of Jesus means that even though we may experience sorrows along the way, we are the ones who are called to rejoice in the Lord always, because the Lord has the power to change our sorrow into hope. St. Paul encourages us to have forbearance. We are not to be filled with anxiety at the tribulations that come our way. We cannot change things by worrying about them, but we can change our attitude by thankful prayer. When we are thankful, our perspective changes. When we focus on the good things that God gives us, our hearts open. When we become grateful even for the trials that life presents, we are transfigured. Through our faith in and witness to Jesus Christ, we become a people—the People of God. We become people of joy in the raising of Lazarus and in the Resurrection of Christ. Similarly, we become people of hope in our own Resurrection on the Last Day. As we journey to the “new Jerusalem,” we become people of trust because we know that just like the ancient Israelites, our God guides us and cares for us. And we become people of thanksgiving because we know that, as we walk in the footsteps of Jesus, this God of Peace will be with us always.