As a high school junior, I took a class all but mandatory for college-bound, SAT-sitting students. It was aptly, if not cleverly called “College Vocabulary.” I took one like it in college called “Words for Nerds.” Better, right? Back in high school, our weekly assignment was to read one of the big three magazines: Time, Newsweek, or U.S. News and World Report and then circle, define, and use in our own sentence 50 unfamiliar, college-y words. (This was back in the day when magazines were printed and before USA Today made the news more entertaining by using cartoons. I mean, infographics.)
One of the words I learned and loved then was “harbinger.” I liked the look and sound of it. That it meant a sign of good things to come, an omen of better days appealed to me even as a 16-year-old. Who doesn’t like the idea of a robin’s song heralding spring? (“Herald,” another college-y word. The perfect pair, herald and harbinger-- Hark! A lark! Pretty sure that’s how I remembered them.)
These days my vocab lessons come via Instagram on “Word of the Day.” Some days ago the word was “harbinger,” but this time the expanded definition included its archaic root: “One who provides lodgings; to provide and prepare lodgings; from the Germanic compound for ‘shelter, lodgings,’ which is also the source of harbor.”
Now, this – this definition of harbinger I loved. I provide lodgings now. Often. And when I do, I fuss with the beds, arrange the toiletry baskets, and set out bottles of water (and sometimes chocolate) with a prayer that this room and these lodgings might be a safe harbor. That makes me a harbinger. I like it.
On this holy day, Maundy Thursday, I read about two harbingers I’d never noticed before. In fact in years past, I’ve skipped right over them in my haste to get to the real story. So let me introduce them, from Mark 14 in The Message:
“He directed two of his disciples, ‘Go into the city. A man carrying a water jug will meet you. Follow him. Ask the owner of whichever house he enters, “The Teacher wants to know, where is my guest room where I can eat the Passover meal with my disciples?” He will show you a spacious second-story room, swept and ready. Prepare for us there.’”
These two mysterious souls are never mentioned by name but they go about preparing the place where the world’s story would forever change. Here, in the swept and readied room, Jesus would have a final meal with His dearest friends. He would foretell His betrayal, and even invite the accuser to be about his treachery.
Could the man carrying the jug, or the host himself, have known that Jesus would eat His last supper here? Could they have known that this safe harbor of the upper room would be the last place Jesus would recline before He laid dead in a tomb?
And if they, too, were brokenhearted by what would transpire only hours later, I hope they felt some measure of comfort that it was back to this upper room that the frightened, dejected disciples ran. They hid in this place waiting for something. For what? For the ground to become solid, for their heartbeats to slow, for the images of Jesus’ agony to fade? Did the host know his home would become a sanctuary for healing?
That upper room, permeated as it was with despair, in three short days would become the epicenter of joy. Unfathomable, unimaginable joy. What could the servant and host have thought then? To this room, Jesus returned, alive, and offering life that begins anew in an instant with echoes for all time to come. What I would have given to host that party.
Some suspect the owner of the home was Nicodemus, the wealthy, influential Jew, a Pharisee actually, who visited Jesus in the night and became a secret follower. Nicodemus had a reputation in Jewish history for generosity. One story says he used to walk on carpets and leave them in his trail for the poor to take. Not sure I’m buying that. We don’t know for certain who the water boy or the host were, but we know their work was important. Their work is mentioned in three of the Gospels.
Getting rooms ready matters. And not just the rooms in your house. No guilt if you’re not throwing open your doors to a dozen disciples this Easter. (If you are, I wish for you a cleaning service. I wish one for myself.) We prepare rooms every day. In conversations over coffee, in a quick word outside Costco, even in the text you shoot to a friend. Like the unknown hosts of this passion story, we are harbingers. We get to participate in the preparation for the grandest celebrations of all.
We have water jugs, and we help prepare the places where Jesus may find a home. We aren’t named and I figure we don’t often get a seat at the table, but we do our work, preparing rooms and softening hearts. We go ahead as harbingers with a word, a gesture of kindness, a prayer that declares Jesus is alive and that He wants to make His home with you.
Don’t tire of the preparation. You are needed. One day when Jesus “stands at the door and knocks,” the door will open, and in the life of someone who may never know your name, a party will break out. In places of sadness and uncertainly, the lights will come on and a celebration will let loose. And you will have been one of those who went ahead. The unknown with a jug of water at the ready and a room freshly swept.
A harbinger of grace heralding life everlasting.