Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“The hour has come …” (John 12)
Today’s gospel is rather like a trailer for a new feature film that is just about to be released. Jesus gives his disciples highlights of what is to come: his soul is troubled, sensing his impending betrayal. He anticipates his death, but realizes that it is part of a great struggle with the evil of the world, and that through his death the evil, the “ruler of this world,” will be driven out.
We are prone to hear of all this as a kind of unfortunate conclusion to the life of a true prophet. We may see it as a bit like the assassination of Martin Luther King, or of Gandhi: a life cut short by regrettable violence.
Jesus, however, doesn’t see it that way at all. He is quite clear that the death toward which he is headed is a fulfillment of who and what he has been, not its end. That’s what the language of being “glorified” is all about: the time is coming when the full meaning of his ministry will become clear.
And the observance of Holy Week, which we begin together next Sunday, is meant to do exactly that: to bring the meaning of Jesus home to us. Now I know, that looking at the Holy Week schedule that is printed in the service leaflet this morning, your first reaction may be, “that’s an awful lot of church!” But let me take some time here this morning to suggest that what it represents is an invitation into a spiritual pilgrimage, a five-act drama which is not to be missed!
Act One: Palm Sunday, the Sunday of the Passion. This is the day that lays clear the underlying problem which has to be confronted: the hypocrisy, selfishness, and corruption of human nature. At first, the crowd greets Jesus with branches of palm and cries of “Hosanna!”, betting that here is someone at last who can get them what they want: the security and prosperity that would come from throwing off the Roman yoke.
When it turns out, however, that Jesus has come bearing a message of obedience to God through service and self-sacrifice for the sake of one’s neighbor, the crowd immediately turns on him. Cries of “Crucify!” replace the hosannas, and we are left with the realization that what is being enacted is nothing less than a struggle over whether God’s vision of a humanity driven by the mercy, love and compassion with which we were created will prevail, or something less. In short, will we human beings succumb to our basest instincts, or will we rise to our greatest potential? We are left with Jesus on the cross to ponder that question.
Act Two: Maundy Thursday. Here the drama circles back upon itself, returning to the night before Jesus died. This is one of the most intimate nights of the whole year, when the community of the church gathers with Jesus in the upper room to share with him the Passover meal. But Jesus takes that meal, and uses it as the opportunity to put all his cards on the table: “I give you a new commandment, that you should love one another.” Obedience to God will no longer mean fulfillment of the religious requirements of the Law, but instead a life that is given to supporting and helping those around us. And as a sign, Jesus stoops to wash our feet.
But there is more: knowing that the commandment to love will need constant renewal and encouragement, Jesus gives us the gift of his continuing presence with us, taking bread and wine and promising that whenever we share it in his name, we will sense him at table with us.
Again, though, the scene suddenly shifts, and from the intimacy and reassurance of the upper room, we find ourselves in the garden where Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and dragged off to trial. Only the silence of a watch through the night remains, as a kind of interlude between acts, as we contemplate the events to come.
Act Three: Good Friday. Events now come to a climax, as we walk with Jesus through the events of his Passion. This is not, however, a day of defeat, but a day of victory. Despite every insult that is hurled against him, every wound that is inflicted upon him, Jesus refuses to accept the status of victim. He is not the victim of these blows, but the one who forgives them. He refuses to give in to the cycle of recrimination and retaliation that drives human affairs, and thereby demonstrates his power over them. He dies violently, but does not return violence. And so he dies in victory over violence, for its hold on humanity is broken: in the crucified Christ, God shows us another way, a stronger way, whose ratification will come in the resurrection.
But first, Act Four: Holy Saturday. In the creed, we say that at his death, Jesus descended into hell, a line that we pass over rather quickly without paying much attention to it. Yet in Christian tradition—and especially the tradition of the Eastern church—that is an extremely significant affirmation. For it means that in his death, Jesus goes to the nethermost regions of the world, to a place that seems to be an infinite distance from God, and there summons those who have lost all contact with the love with which they were created to come forth and return to the life God has in store for them.
“The Harrowing of Hell,” the day is called: the day Jesus arrives at the gates of Hades and throws them open, giving his hand to Adam and Eve themselves who have languished for so long East of Eden. In the Christian East, churches are strewn with laurel leaves this day, as a sign of the victory that has been won. “No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infect the ground!”
Which brings us to Act Five: the Great Vigil of Easter. If somehow we as Christians were forced to give up every other service of the year, if we could hold on to the Easter Vigil, we would still have the faith intact. It is the moment when the church gathers to rehearse the whole story of our relationship to God: from our creation, through the experience of liberation from slavery at the Red Sea, to the promises given through the prophets of God With Us. We baptize, to make people part of the new vision for humanity that has been given in Jesus. We proclaim through Jesus’ resurrection that God’s resources for ennobling our human nature are not exhausted in death, but that our nature is perfected, not ended.
And then, for the first time since we were at table with Jesus on Maundy Thursday, he rejoins us for another meal, fulfilling his promise that in Spirit he would not leave us alone and confused, but continue to be with us to encourage us, strengthen us, love us, guide us. That First Mass of Easter is a promise fulfilled, the font from which flows every other service of the year. In fact, all else is only the overflow from that mystical moment when “earth and heaven are joined and humanity is reconciled to God” (as the Exsultet, the great Easter hymn, puts it): even the services of Easter morning that follow are a kind of epilogue.
So all this comes as an invitation: an invitation to join in the pilgrimage which we will together make through the mysteries of Holy Week. It’s not something we can do alone, because it touches all of us, and each of us. It is, literally, the heart and soul of what we as a community of Christian faith are all about.
Moreover, no one Passiontide is like another, because no one year is like another. We bring to the pilgrimage this year, for instance, hearts that are especially heavy with concern for the safety of our children in school; concern for the chaos, selfishness and recrimination into which our government has fallen; concern for the ways in which the ugly face of bigotry and prejudice has so shockingly reasserted itself; concern for the sabre rattling around the globe that stirs fears of war; concern for the anger and sense of exclusion that divides us from one another.
Yet these are precisely the reasons for which we enter the pilgrimage of Holy Week. It is the time when God meets our worst, with God’s best, and the result is nothing less than a new creation in Christ. It is the time we finally realize, that the way things happen to be, is not the way they need to be. We are bound for that promised land. Amen.