Holy Week: The Weight of Sin and the Joy of Salvation

By Gary D. Myers

Growing up I didn’t often think about Holy Week or Passion Week as a whole. Yes, my church taught about Palm Sunday, the Last Supper, Good Friday and especially Easter/Resurrection Sunday. I took in the pieces and parts, however I never quite connected it all together.

That should be expected. I grew up in a Baptist church. We did not follow the liturgical calendar. This is not a critique. Our primary focus was squarely on the Jesus’ death and resurrection and the need of every person — salvation. And that is a great place to camp out … the resurrection is the central event of the New Testament and all of human history.

As I read the Bible in high school and college, I often gravitated to the Gospel of John. Still, I never noticed exactly how much attention John devotes to Jesus’ final week. Eight of the Gospel’s 21 chapters focus on Holy Week. This was the most valuable thing I discovered during a Bible course at Southeastern Oklahoma State University. The other two things I learned: don’t take a Bible course at a state university and don’t expect the title of the course to be binding (the course was called “The 23rd Psalm,” but our major writing project was on the Gospel of John).

It wasn’t until I moved to Pittsburgh, Pa., that I began to see the value in viewing Holy Week as a unit. During my three years as a campus minister at Pitt, I often had a chance to fellowship with other campus ministers who were much better acquainted with Holy Week – conservative Presbyterians, Baptists of other stripes, and a Catholic priest who had a dynamic, growing relationship with Christ.

My first year, I watched, asked questions and learned. Most of these campus ministers participated in numerous religious (ritual) events during Holy Week. I do not mean to imply that all ritual is bad or negative. I am convinced that the value of any ritual depends on what an individual brings to that ritual. If an individual uses a ritual to focus on Jesus Christ, then that ritual takes on a deep personal meaning.

Even with all the activity, Each of these men took time to focus on his own spiritual walk in a very personal way – almost separate from or in spite of all the religious ritual. Now I did not want more religious activity, but I did want a deeper relationship with Christ.

My second year at Pitt, I read through the accounts of Jesus’ last week. I tried to match the events day for day. On Palm Sunday, I read about the Triumphal Entry and so forth. Taking in Holy Week in this way was very helpful. The Resurrection has always inspired me, but I learned to dwell a little longer on the ugliness of the cross. One is meaningless without the other. I grew in knowledge, understanding and faith.

Moving to the Gulf Coast and then on to New Orleans added another layer of focus around the Easter event. It is difficult to miss the beginning of the Lenten season here. For Catholics, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday when they receive a cross-shaped smudge of ashes on their foreheads. My understanding is that the ashes symbolize confession of and repentance from sin. Common practice during the 46 days of Lent involves prayer, repentance and self-denial (giving something up).

Again, though I am not seeking additional religious activity, I do find value in Lent – at least my own version of Lent. So this year I gave something up, something that is not wrong or harmful. However, each time I think about this thing, it reminds me to focus attention on God and what Jesus did on my behalf.

Certainly there are other ways to grow closer to Christ while focusing on the meaning and purpose of Easter. However, taking in Holy Week as a whole, reading through the final week of Jesus’ life each Easter and fasting during Lent has helped me grow. Doing so helps me:

  • realize the humanity and the divinity of Jesus,
  • grieve over the weight of my sin and continue a practice of self-examination,
  • contemplate the price of our salvation,
  • rejoice and worship the risen Savior,
  • remember my first love,
  • identify with a wider Christian Community and experience ancient Christian practice.

Suggested Holy Week Reading Plan

Sunday, April 17 – John 12:1-11

Monday, April 18 – John 12:12-19

Tuesday, April 19 – John 12:20-36

Wednesday, April 20 – John 15:1-27; 16:1-16

Thursday, April 21 – John 13:1-35; 17:1-25

Friday, April 22 – John 18:1-40; 19:1-37

Saturday, April 23 – John 19:38-42

Sunday, April 24 – John 20:1-23; 21:1-25

Eat. More. Seafood.

By Frank Michael McCormack

On my list of dream jobs, commercial fishing is near the top. It’s not because I have experience commercial fishing. If I did, it might not still be on my list. I’m afraid I might not be tough enough. But until I know any better, fishing will remain near the top.

Seafood and fishing is an integral part of life in Louisiana, the Sportsman’s Paradise. And in many ways it’s symbolic of life in South Louisiana.

It’s romantic: Talk to a commercial fisherman or an avid recreational fisherman and you’ll see how passionate he or she is about it. Fishing isn’t just a pastime or a way of life. It’s an identity.

It takes dedication: Nights, days, rough weather, blue skies, hot, cold, fishermen are working. Fishing, like life in Louisiana, is not for the lazy or the faint of heart. You’ve got to work at it. You’re not going to catch anything if your bait’s not in the water.

It’s fragile: As we’ve seen with economics and both natural and manmade disasters over the years, the ecosystem and way of life in South Louisiana is quite delicate. And fishermen know that fragility all too well.

An April anniversary

An upcoming anniversary underscores just how precious and fragile life on the water is.

Later this month, the people of the Gulf Coast region will reach an anniversary most would probably like to forget. April 20 will mark one year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 70 miles south of Venice, La., killing 11 rig workers. The explosion triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, which released over the course of three months an estimated 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Though responders capped the well on July 15, 2010, efforts to capture released oil and clean the region’s sullied coastline continued through the end of 2010. And much of Southeast Louisiana’s coastal marshes still bear the marks of the BP Oil Spill. The longevity of the environmental impact from the spill is still unknown.

Last year at this time, I was reporting for two small newspapers and was wondering what “news” I’d write about over the summer. After all, in rural Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, summers aren’t usually action packed. Then came the late-night explosion, daylong rescue operation at the rig site, eventual sinking of the rig and the ensuing spill and response.

Over the next several months, the 80-mile drive from my house to Venice, the staging ground for the response and the usual place for press conferences, became almost automatic. Interviews, Coast Guard press conferences, boat tours, media events. It was nonstop.

There were a lot of questions surrounding the BP oil spill, both political and environmental. Whether all, some or none of those questions have been answered is debatable.

But one thing is certain: the oil spill highlighted Louisiana’s commercial fishermen’s already tenuous situation.

Prior to the spill, Louisiana shrimpers made headlines in 2009 when they marched on the State Capitol and lobbied Congress to help boost low prices at market. Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States, yet about 90 percent of it is imported. As a result, U.S. shrimpers have very little lobbying power, even though the quality of domestic seafood is head-and-shoulders above imports.

Domestic seafood is stringently tested and regulated by the government, while imported seafood undergoes very little testing (and may contain pesticides and antibiotics). In addition, imported seafood prices are kept artificially low, which pushes domestic prices lower, which in turn makes it difficult for the everyday fisherman to stay in business. And this isn’t a recent development: over the past 30 years, the number of Louisiana commercial fishermen has decreased while seafood imports have shot up.

Add to that the BP oil spill – which resulted in massive closures of fishing grounds, near fatal salinity levels for oyster beds east of the Mississippi River and higher fuel costs – and it’s plain to see that fishermen have had a rough few years.

April celebrations

But in addition to the first anniversary of the BP Oil Spill, April also brings some events that offer hope for fishermen and opportunities for seafood consumers to support them.

April will begin a round of Blessing of the Fleet events. At the start of the different fishing seasons, fishermen will line their boats along the banks of bayous and canals in the region. Then, a priest or pastor will float down the waterway, offering a blessing for a safe and successful season. Fishermen’s families also use this time to celebrate the start to the season. Blessings of the Fleet offer a great glimpse into the world of commercial fishing.

April is when festival season kicks it into high gear, and many of these festivals highlight Louisiana’s rich seafood culture. Even the mudbugs have ventured out in April.

The springtime is also a great time to pick up seafood at local markets and groceries and try old and new recipes. You may also want to attend a Friday fish fry at your neighborhood church.

It’s time to eat, folks. But not just any seafood. Eat. Local. Seafood. It’s a great way to support local fishermen.

I’m convinced that Louisianians could keep Louisiana fishermen in business if we all bought ONLY Louisiana seafood.

If you want more seafood in your life, click over to the Geaux Therefore events page. We’ve posted a wide variety of events there that will help you discover Louisiana’s fantastic seafood culture.

Clockwise from top: Our Lady of Lourdes Church's Father John Arnone and St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro bless boats along Bayou La Loutre in 2010; A pelican takes flight from a pile anchoring oil boom in Mississippi Sound; Oil in the water off the coast of Louisiana in May 2010; A shrimp boat outfitted with boom returns from offshore in June 2010; Crawfish soak in a pot at the 2010 Buras Fire Department Crawfish Cook Off.

Lent: Spiritual Spring Cleaning

By Byron Townsend

Byron Townsend

Editor’s Note: Byron Townsend, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, is leading his church family through a series of Lenten devotions. Lent runs this year from March 9 through April 24, Easter Sunday. This installment of Geaux Therefore has been adapted from Grace Church’s first Lenten devotional.

Spring Cleaning for the Church

Lent season is a built-in “spring cleaning” season of the Church. The word Lent comes from the Middle English word lente, meaning “spring.” Also, the word lenten means “lengthening,” a term used to describe the days becoming longer. As the trees and plants use springtime to recover from wintry death, so Christians use Lent season to recover from being in a spiritual rut. We examine, fertilize and prune the “fruit” of our heart. Of course, the Holy Spirit does the examining and pruning. Our part is found in “work our your salvation with fear and trembling.” The increasing awareness of our selfishness (sin) is painful, but as Hebrews 12:11 says, “No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

‘Tis the Season

The Church calendar is divided into different seasons. The most common are Advent, Christmas, Lenten and Easter. The Church calendar is a great educational and devotional tool that provides a balanced spiritual diet for Christ-followers. For instance, during the year we:

(1) reflect upon and worship the God who delivers His people (Advent)

(2) celebrate that God has become human (Christmas)

(3) confess, repent and renew ourselves to God’s mission (Lent)

(4) celebrate the Resurrection and our role in God’s mission (Easter)

Fasting & Feasting

Beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, Lent season is 40 days long. The 40 days correlate with the 40 days of temptation, prayer, fasting and preparation Jesus endured (as found in Matthew 4). Lent is commonly known as a time when – in remembering our Lord’s fast – we fast or “give-up” an activity, food or drink. The purpose is not just to abstain, but to direct the desire normally reserved for that activity, food or drink toward communion in Christ. Sitting quietly in His presence. Listening to His voice. Examining ourselves. Confessing sin. Repenting of sin. Renewing our lives to following Him. Worshiping Jesus.

The six Sundays are known as the Sundays in Lent. They do not count towards the 40 days. Sundays are a feast day, a day that Christians have been celebrating ever since the Sunday Resurrection of Jesus. If you are fasting from an activity, food or beverage during Lent, feel free to enjoy it on Sunday. You will find that as a result of your increased enjoyment of Jesus – the Eternal King – your delight in that temporary thing will be more meaningful.

Last year, I fasted from coffee. Because my body was accustomed to a daily (over)dose of caffeine, I endured an initial two or three days of painful headaches. I was able to use those headaches as a vehicle to contemplate the pain Jesus endured while on earth, ultimately being damned by God, bearing wrath for my sin – what a Savior! The six best cups of coffee I drank last year were on the Sundays in Lent. It wasn’t just a caffeine fix, it was an act that stirred my affections for Christ.

We Learn To Live When We Learn To Die

Traditionally, these 40 weekdays were used as a time of preparation for baptism candidates. The candidates would spend time in prayer and devotion, preparing to make their public confession of faith in Jesus. As the Scriptures teach, baptism symbolizes death – “Buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life.”

Eventually this time of preparation spread to those who had already made a public confession of faith in Christ. Hence it is also our 40 day journey into the wilderness, preparing ourselves for confession, repentance and renewal to God’s mission. We will end our journey at the bloody Cross upon which Jesus died. We will discover that life is found in death. Jesus said “you will not find your life until you lose your life for My sake.” Good Friday is a dark day. It is a difficult day. It is a day of death. It should have been my death. Instead, it was His death caused by my sin.

But through His death, Jesus lives. The Resurrection has occurred! The grave has been conquered! Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow. With each passing day, the death of death becomes closer. In our earthly sojourn, we must die in Christ’s death in order to find life in Christ’s Resurrection. There is no Resurrection without a Cross.

It is impossible to fully celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday until we have fully embraced the reality of Good Friday.

The question to answer today is this: What thing (activity, attitude, food or drink) stirs my affections more deeply than my affections for Jesus?

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For a more detailed understanding of the Church year, check out http://www.crivoice.org/chyear.html. Grace Baptist Church is located at 630 Richland Avenue, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70806. Follow Grace Church on Twitter @GraceBatonRouge.

Memoirs of a Mardi Gras maniac

Mardi Gras fell on March 8 in 2011, which is the second latest day it can fall on.

By Frank Michael McCormack Jr.

I’m not ashamed to admit it: Carnival season is one of my favorite times of the year. Some of my favorite New Orleans memories and traditions are tied to Mardi Gras. And with Mardi Gras 2011 now in the rearview mirror, I’ve been reflecting on some of my Carnival memories from the past few years. These are just a few:

First impressions

For all the hardships faced in 2005, Jennifer and I will always remember that year for our first taste of Carnival. It was a season of introductions – to King Cakes, to parades, and to leftover bags of beads. Just going to the parades was an adventure to us newcomers, not to mention the colorful floats, awesome throws and epic people watching.

Ground rules

I had a professor once who, when introducing Mardi Gras to students from outside Louisiana, said, “When it comes to Mardi Gras, you find what you look for.”

Coconut, King Cake and lace

In 2006, though still exiled in Chattanooga, Tenn., we were determined to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Just six months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was still a wreck in February 2006. But Mardi Gras gave the city a chance to prove that things really were getting better, and it was a way for us to prove to ourselves that we were on the mend as well.

We set out that Mardi Gras day with one goal: to get a Zulu coconut. On Mardi Gras day, the Krewe of Zulu parades first and is followed by Rex, King of Carnival. Zulu is famous, among other things, for its painted coconuts that riders pass out.

Jen and I worked hard to talk rider after rider into bestowing upon us a blessed coconut. We were coming up empty. Jennifer tried to charm a six year old girl on one float. When a mischievous grin appeared on the girl’s face, we thought she was about to pass Jen a coconut. Instead, the little girl dropped some lacy Zulu underwear into Jen’s upheld hands. Not quite what she was expecting.

Farther down the parade route, I offered the same girl’s dad a King Cake in exchange for a coconut. Apparently they only had one left and it was one the little girl had decorated. So the dad handed the cake to the girl, who carefully examined it for a couple minutes, then gave an approving nod. Success! We had a coconut and some underwear to boot.

Familiar faces and places

So much about Mardi Gras revolves around family, friends and traditions. We only have seven Carnivals under our belt, but even we have a few. 1) Our parking spot. It’s amazing. Same spot every year. I don’t understand why no one else has discovered this spot. But I’ll never tell. 2) Every year we set up around the Lutheran church near St. Charles and Jackson Avenues. We see the same people each year, like the dress guy and his wife who knows everyone in Zulu, the Blues Brother, Captain America and Wonder Woman. 3) Our lunch spot: the Popeye’s on Paris Avenue. We love it because many of the Zulu paraders show up after the parade.

Spike Lee and Lombardi Gras

The Saint’s Super Bowl win in February 2010 jumpstarted a unique Mardi Gras. From the victory parade that featured signature floats from all the big parades to Saints coaches and players riding in the parades, it was a Carnival like no other. Mardi Gras already carries a spirit of unity among the paraders and people along the parade route. The Super Bowl championship only heightened that feeling of unity. Everyone came out to see “Our Boys” on parade. We even ran into Spike Lee, who was documenting Lombardi Gras.

From King Cakes to fried fish

Mardi Gras is also special for what comes afterwards, particularly with regard to the menu. Lent, which begins on the Wednesday after Fat Tuesday, signals seasonal Friday fish fries and superb St. Patrick’s Day parades. At the Irish, Italian (and Islenos) parades, watch for flying potatoes, cabbages and other produce. You can eat for weeks off of what you catch. Look for a fish fry at your neighborhood Catholic church.

Connecting Carnival to Lent

Mardi Gras may be one of my favorite times of the year, but it’s Carnival’s place in the broader liturgical calendar that I especially enjoy. I love having so much of the year organized around the story line of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection.

When it comes to Mardi Gras, though, people too often settle for one of two extremes.

On one side are those who object to Mardi Gras altogether and believe that any parading puts you on the path to personal disaster. These people often claim they’re pro-Lent but anti-Carnival.

On the other side are those who revel in Mardi Gras with no observance of Lent.

I for one think the two go together quite well. It’s hard to observe Lent – a time of introspection, penitence and self denial – without first feasting. And the Carnival celebration lacks much of its meaning without being juxtaposed with a sober appraisal of one’s relationship with God.

The power of both lies in the contrast of one to the other.

For those who wholeheartedly object to the feasting and revelry of Mardi Gras, let’s just be honest: For most of us, everyday is Fat Tuesday. We all live indulgent lives compared to most of the world. Maybe it’s good to revel in that for a season each year to remind us of our tendency toward greediness and also to celebrate how precious life is.

After all, each day we live in a world where Jesus was born in a manger, yet we set aside a specific season each year to commemorate it. And each day we live in a world where Jesus was raised from the dead, yet we dedicate one Sunday each year to celebrate it.

And each day we live in a world full of sunshine and friends and food and family – all of which are priceless gifts from God. With that in view, Carnival season takes on a much deeper meaning, especially when teamed with Lent.

On the other hand, many shy away from dedicating the 40 days of Lent to serious, honest, inward examination and some kind of self denial. Seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, after all, can sometimes make us feel uncomfortable. But Lenten introspection should also remind us of God’s love and motivate us to a deeper relationship with him.

During Lent, some people deny themselves a favorite treat, like chocolate or ice cream. Others fast from all food or from meat on Fridays. Those things are certainly admirable (and often very difficult), but don’t forget to connect the spiritual dots. We deny ourselves simple pleasures during Lent to point us to Jesus, who “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross,” as Philippians 2 says. Lent leads us first to Good Friday, then to Easter Sunday.

So as we embark on this Lenten season, consider this challenge from New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond. Archbishop Aymond has called Christians to a threefold observance of Lent this year. First, identify something from which to abstain. Second, identify a new action or discipline to begin that will deepen your relationship with God. And third, devote time to pray specifically for the issue of violence in the New Orleans community.

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Click below to see some sights and sounds from Mardi Gras: