|Jer. 31: 31–34
Hebrews 5: 7–9
John 12: 20–33
All Saints Wimbledon
6th April 2003
If you think back to your schooldays you may recall studying one of Shakespeare’s plays. Very often that course of study would end with the class going to see a live production of the play itself, or perhaps taking part in a performance of it at school.
Now you may have wondered at the time why it should be necessary to study the play at all in the first place. Surely the performance is the thing that matters, isn’t it? Or perhaps some of your more scholarly friends said, in that rather superior way scholars have, that going to a performance mattered little them; it was the text that was important.
But lesser mortals like myself agree that our understanding of Hamlet or King Lear wasn’t brought about only by watching a performance or studying the text. Watching the performance on stage "brought the whole thing to life"; but our appreciation depended on having studied the text.
Today, Passion Sunday, is like studying the text; Holy Week engages us in witnessing and performing in the events from Palm Sunday to Easter.
Some well-advanced Christians find they can participate in the Holy Week Liturgy without needing any explanation, whereas others find the texts speak directly to them. But we lesser mortals need help both with understanding the events that took place during that momentous week; and participating in its re-presentation to the world of today.
So now let’s consider what the word Passion suggests.
Passion – from the Latin patior – has three different but related meanings:
It can mean "a strong feeling." We hear a politician – or preacher – address his audience with great passion; couples are said to be passionately in love; a friend admits to having an absolute passion for Shakespeare.
Passion can mean "suffering" We talk of being a patient in hospital.
From this comes the idea of "being patient" having to endure something for a long time, especially adversity.
The relevance of Meaning One to Holy Week – having a strong feeling – doesn’t need much explaining. It’s obvious to anyone that, whatever they think about Jesus, he was someone who underwent the most excruciating suffering. Betrayed by one friend, denied by another, forsaken by the rest, given a trial which would be a disgrace even in a totalitarian regime; rejected by his fellow-countrymen, his Heavenly Father seemingly deaf to his entreaties; flogged, insulted and nailed to a cross to die of gangrene. There can’t be many people who would wish that upon themselves. It’s not surprising that the most famous painters throughout history have put "everything they’ve got" into portraying those events, infusing their (very different) representations with more compassion than all their other artistic achievements.
As Christians, then, we should expect to be profoundly moved by what we shall be taking part in next week. We shan’t all be moved to the same extent by the same things: some people feel sympathy for Ophelia, others for Hamlet. What matters in the case both of Holy Week and Hamlet is that we should understand that we are participating in tragedies (in the dramatic sense of the word) and that, like the Chorus in a Greek Tragedy, we ourselves have an integral part to play in it.
Meaning Two – the Sufferer (like a patient in hospital) reminds us that the sufferings Jesus undertook he undertook willingly. Being a patient, being treated in hospital or surgery, requires the willing co-operation of the patient just as much as it requires the co-operation of the nursing team with each other. If surgery is to be effective, the patient must be obedient and submissive even though he may not understand precisely what is being done to him. During his patient-hood he must submit himself readily to the humiliations of hospital treatment, he must identify with his fellow-patients, and allow himself for all practical purposes to cease being a person and become a treatable object. In other words he must be prepared to lose his life – for the time being – in order to save it for the future.
The second reading says this of Jesus:
[Christ] offered up prayer and entreaty, aloud and in silent tears, to the one who had the power to save him out of death, and he submitted so humbly that his prayer was heard… he learnt to obey through suffering; but having been made perfect, he became for all who obey him the source of eternal salvation.
Our sufferings, like the sufferings of Jesus are the very means whereby we are being made perfect. Jesus becomes our source of eternal salvation, the goal of our self-fulfilment, as we participate in his sufferings on our behalf.
Which brings us on to Meaning Three: the virtue called Patience. Everything worthwhile in life takes time. It’s no use expecting that we shall become perfect overnight simply by following Jesus. In their commendable eagerness to bring people to faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, well-meaning pastors and evangelists often make the serious mistake of promising their converts all sorts of immediate results which don’t always materialise. The result? They become disappointed and give up.
Jesus said that a grain of wheat falling into the earth has to lie and die before it yields a rich harvest many months later. Maybe he was prompted to say this by Philip and Andrew bringing those Greeks to him who asked to see Jesus. He understood from the outset of his ministry (and St John is particularly keen on pointing this out) that his saving mission wasn’t just to Jews but to everyone believing in him. A chapter or two back St John tells about the Samaritans (those "nonconformist" Jews) who came to faith in him. That in itself must have caused him to think "when are the Gentiles going to start taking an interest in who I am?" How much longer do I have to wait till my Father’s will is done?"
Well, here were some Greeks asking to meet him – the first significant number of non-Jews. His patience was finally rewarded; But Jesus would immediately have connected in his mind the formula Samaritans-plus-Gentiles with his appointed role of fulfilling the mission of the Suffering Servant, of wh
om the Isaiah wrote "he shall see the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied, by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities." That mission was to reach its sacrificial climax when Jesus offered himself as the Perfect Victim on Calvary, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
The Christian Gospel offers no simple or slick answer to the question of "Why Suffering?". What it does have to offer is a God who became Man precisely in order that he might suffer with and for us. In every Mass we "show forth the Lord’s death till he comes again". To the request "Sir, we would see Jesus" we cannot do better than point people towards the Mass and say "Come and see".
But once a year, every Holy Week we can go one better, so to speak. If we’ve understood ourselves the significance of the Passion we can urge them not only to "Come and see" but "come and be a player in the greatest drama the world has ever witnessed!"
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