There is an incredible intensity to this week which in the churches of the Western Christian world is known as Holy Week. It is the intensity of the Passion of Christ. We immerse ourselves in the Passion. Why? To confront the painful reality of our own unknowing of ourselves and to discover the radical meaning of the ethical idea of sacrificial service.
A feature of the Anglican liturgical tradition is the reading of the Passion from all four of the Gospels beginning on Palm Sunday with Matthew’s account, and followed by Mark on Monday and Tuesday, Luke on Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and John on Good Friday. Each of the Gospels offers not only a different perspective but a different voice, a different focus or emphasis that together contribute to the mystery of human redemption but only if we are willing to confront the contradictions in our souls and our world. Such is the challenge. We are meant to be the community of the broken-hearted precisely through the awareness of how we are in these stories. We find ourselves in the crowd that swirls around Christ. Quite literally, we are those who cry “Hosanna to the King” and then immediately turn around and shout, “Crucify, Crucify”. Such is a graphic illustration on the fickle and contradictory nature of our humanity in disarray.
There is a remarkable power to the accounts of the Passion. We look upon him whom we have pierced so that we might be pierced with sorrow is the theological point. But we also hear Christ from the Cross in what becomes the tradition of the Seven Last Words. Matthew and Mark give us what has become known as the Fourth Word of the Cross - the cry of desolation, the cry of the God-forsaken. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” Christ gives voice to the radical meaning of all sin. Sin is how we deny and forsake the reality of God in our parody of God. We presume to be God which we are not. God wills in Christ to place himself in our hands. Crucifixion is what we do in our parody of God. But God makes something greater out of our parody of his way through the pageant of his Passion. Such is Resurrection.
Luke gives us the first, second, and seventh Words of the Crucified, John the third and the sixth. Luke’s words frame the whole pattern of devotion on the Seven Last Words, a devotional tradition that has shaped the imaginary of modern Protestant and Catholic churches. The practice of preaching on the Seven Last Words of Christ actually originated in the Americas, in Lima, Peru, just after a devastating series of earthquakes in 1678 and 1687. Devised by the Jesuit missionary, Fr. Alonso Messia Bedoya, the devotion inspired eighteenth century composers such as Haydn.
The first and last words of Christ taken from Luke are prayers addressed by the Son to the Father. They are words of incredible depth and compassion. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do … Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The experiences of this unusual year help us to realize that along with whatever problems are ‘out there’ in the world, the real problems are within us. It is really about how we think about ourselves and one another, about our attention and commitment to what is greater than ourselves.
One of the most moving scenes of the Passion is Luke’s account of Peter’s betrayal of Christ. Holy Week confronts us with our betrayals and contradictions. At issue is whether we can find ourselves and see ourselves in these powerful accounts of the Passion. Luke has this marvellous moment. Peter denies Christ three times, denying that he even knows him. “The cock crew,” Luke tells us, and in that moment “the Lord turned, and looked at Peter.” How we look upon God turns on God’s looking upon us. Holy Week awakens us to that deeper reality, the truth of God upon which our knowing and being ultimately depend.
The wisdom of Holy Week, if I may put it this way, borrowing from Nicholas of Cusa, is the knowledge of what knowledge knows that it does not know at once about ourselves and about what is greater than ourselves. Because “everything that is known could be known better and more completely, [then] nothing is known as it could be known.” We face the mystery of knowing our unknowing. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Here at the beginning of Luke’s Passion “Jesus turned, and looked at Peter.” That is the moment of his realization of his brokenness, his awareness of his betrayal of Christ. It all happens in the look of Christ. We are meant to look on him who looks on us from the Cross.
What is that look? A look of accusation? Of judgement and condemnation? Of scornful dismissal and disregard? No. It is the look of compassion. God in Christ looks at us in the moment of our betrayal with love, the love which is greater than our hearts. “If [our] heart condemn us, God is greater than [our] heart.”
This touching moment helps us to understand the radical meaning of the Passion of Christ. We confront ourselves in our brokenness only to discover ourselves in the embrace of God’s love. The look moves Peter, and it moves us, I think. For “Peter remembered the word of the Lord … and went out and wept bitterly.” He is moved to tears, the tears of sorrow and contrition. Such is the pageant of the Passion. We confront the mystery of the unknowing of ourselves in the knowing love of God towards us. The wisdom is to know what passes all understanding. Such is the greater mystery of the God who is life and light and love.
Blessed Easter to everyone. Christ is Risen. Alleluia! Alleluia!
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy