Holy Week 2021
Holy Week is the best week of the year. It is authentic. It is spiritual lock down. It is focussed away from the normal detritus of everyday life. Lent is a marathon observance with breaks (e.g., Mothers’ Day) and variable commitment throughout (Work, TV, Netflix). It is a marathon. Holy Week is a mile run. It requires concentration and pacing and it gets tougher on Good Friday. It is counter intuitive to actively remember the ghastly murder of a man by crucifixion. Human nature has a ghoulish dimension though. In previous centuries thousands sought out the spectacles of criminals being executed in one gruesome form or another. They still do this in Islamic countries.
During the pandemic we have learned the value of silence and distance. Popular culture requires noise and crowding. Football, rugby, raves, partying, night clubs and pubs require the atmosphere constructed by gregarious human beings expending energy and emotion on their chosen objects of idolatry. Christian worship is togetherness but it is usually respectful, prayerful and directed not to anyone on earth but to the Living God and Maker of us all, to the Risen Jesus Christ and to the Holy Spirit. The music and hymns are sublime at best lifting the inner being out of self-absorption and self-concern. The teaching and preaching are about the only means left in society whereby adults can receive correction, guidance and perspective for their choices and values. Solitude was enforced for many and they suffered much because of it. This was particularly true in families in which physical contact is essential for life and nurture, companionship and care. There are many solitaries however and they were not so affected. A few people like their own company. Some seek and enjoy the company of God. Since Christianity has been rejected generally as the guiding light of life multiple gurus offer their substitute wares. ‘Lifestyle coaches’ and ‘relationship experts’ proliferate. They offer advice usually based on their own consecutive failed relationships. ‘Fitness trainers’ at least do something worthwhile since everyone would love to be fitter and stronger. It is big business. There is collective and individual egotism and narcissism on a grand scale. ‘It’s OK not to be OK’ is the recent mantra of snowflake politics.
Jesus’ life and teaching are at great odds from current self-understanding. The poet TS Eliot (1888 – 1965) prophetically asked ‘Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Jesus offered answers to the big questions of life in his time on earth. They were not really what people wanted to hear. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5 : 3). ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Matthew 16 : 24). ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (John 12 : 32). ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23 : 34). ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23 : 46). These we remember on Holy Week. This is our act of self-denial, our inner ward reflection, our re-positioning, our self-abasement, our dying in mind, our surrender of heart.
This only works if it is true. Young members of families patronise grandparents who believe in God. Their values are foreign to godless grandchildren. They appear as simpletons with funny sayings. They are overtaken in conversations by louder voices. They have given up trying to offer advice. Bewildered by a multiplicity and complexity of relationships, they no longer feel that they belong in this world. If they have Christian Faith they might begin to think of eternal life as a happy prospect to come. You can only find out if it is true by trying it. Christianity is an experimental Faith journey. It is confirmed along the way, not before you begin. Saul was suddenly converted but he had no idea what this would mean for him. As the years passed as Paul he became a stronger and more committed Christian, intellectually worked out and resolute of courage in the face of persecution. He was a successful missionary and church planter. He is the second most important Christian. His writings have sustained Christianity for 2000 years. Towards the end of his life he could testify ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ (2 Timothy 4 : 7). It works because it is true.
Calvary is a serious and severe criticism of human nature. It is the evidence of our fallen nature. Fallen from the innocence of childhood to the general wickedness of adult human life. All most visible in every corner of the globe. Xinjiang, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, Mozambique, Sudan, Congo, Cameroon, Mauritania, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Nigeria. Western concupiscence, debauchery, immorality, idolatry upon idolatry. The same violence that murdered Jesus is at the heart of everything from actual atrocities to internet gaming. Huge egotisms, political, artistic, entertainment, internet dominate. Large corruptions invade the privacy of our homes on TV.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. It does not seem so. Luke 6 : 20 reads, ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’. Are the poor of the world so blessed as they live in tented camps and struggle for food? Are the poor so blessed in this cold country in sub-standard housing and perpetual unemployment? Are the poor elderly who have never had anything very much and have done no-one much or any harm blessed? Maybe they are for they have not been responsible for the great harms of human history. Maybe they are because they have been selfless in family life. Maybe they are because even if poorly educated they have nurtured a speck of belief in God within their souls. However imperfectly they may have perceived, they have understood a little of the meaning of life. It is not with the proud or rich or powerful that Jesus makes his home. Blessedness is a spiritual state. The poor and humble live more closely to it. The poor in spirit are also the repentant, irrespective of poverty or wealth. Apologetic, sorrowful for wrong doing, aware of sinfulness in comparison with Jesus, the poor in spirit are a minority in western lands. Holy Week reminds us though of the power of such apparent weakness in the Sovereign purposes of God. It is scary stuff.
‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ is the opposite of the ‘me’ generation. It is the opposite of of personal promotion on social media, of the ‘activist’ mentality with its protest and rage, of the politics of division based on race. Jesus’ challenge describes a transformation from the normality of human living into sacrificial mode on his behalf as the Son of God. Carrying one’s cross is the opposite of seeking out microagressions and blaming others for our present conditions and for our misfortunes. Paradoxically carrying one’s own cross is a strengthening and ennobling way of life. It is the opposite of the teary self-revealing tales of mental suffering and emotional suffering, rooted in difficulties in childhood and current environment. It is the opposite of sharing your inner thoughts, feelings and identity. Would Jesus be cancelled today? Probably. He would challenge individual self obsession, identity politics and strategic introversion. His way is not the way of the down trodden though, it is a way of liberty from self into a larger space where the love and companionship of God our Father is enjoyed and where we see our fellow humans with a new and positive hope.
‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’. The Christian cross is the world’s best known symbol, its most prevalent logo. There can hardly be anywhere which has not been in sight of a cross. This may no longer be the case in China however, where crosses on buildings are being demolished as Xi Jinping continues his self-deification. On top of churches throughout the world there are crosses which lift the eyes. Hymns are sung about Jesus’ cross. It is on memorials and grave stones. It is in paintings and on artefacts, tapestries and clothing. It is on jewellery. A small discreet lapel cross denotes a person as a Christian. Clergy use this means of identity in place of dog collars in these days of scandal associated with the clerical abuse of minors. Nearly all of humanity has seen a representation of Jesus’ cross. His words have come true. Jesus’ cross does draw us to him. He was lifted up, made highly visible. A horror show became a means to many of the loveliest things in human consciousness. Regret, sorrow, repentance, love, redemption, new birth into relationship with God, knowledge of salvation and of eternal life. The defeat of evil. The crucifix denotes the perpetual suffering of Jesus. The empty cross describes his once for all victory over sin and death. Of the world’s soon to be eight billion population, not many will be ignorant of Jesus’ cross. It is denied in Islam however and replaced with the opposite of what it represents and how Jesus described that it would be.
‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. Forgiveness is at the heart and centre of Calvary. The forgiveness of God our Maker for us His children, family, creation. This is Jesus’ gift, his dispensation, the New Covenant sealed in his blood. Forgiveness is offered based on ignorance. Justice does not recognise ignorance as mitigation for wrong doing. Jesus did. We can claim his forgiveness thereafter for all time, for ourselves, for others. Christian forgiveness still contradicts the manners and values of the world. At the War Memorial in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Remembrance Day 8 November 1987 an IRA bomb murdered 11 people and injured 62. Gordon Wilson was injured and his daughter Marie a nurse was killed. His words "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge" were reported worldwide, becoming among the most-remembered quotations from the Troubles. On 10 May 2008 a newly 16 year old youth and altar boy Jimmy Mizen was murdered outside a baker’s shop in Lee, London. 19 year old Jake Fahri was convicted the following year. Jimmy’s mother Margaret Mizen, 54, said "I just want to say to the parents of this other boy, I want to say I feel so, so sorry for them. I don't feel anger, I feel sorry for the parents. We've got such lovely memories of Jimmy and they will just have such sorrow about their son. I feel for them, I really do." The trial of Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd is taking place. There are vehement and angry cries for justice. No-one dare mention forgiveness. Jesus’ forgiveness was tied to non-violence. Christianity’s first 300 years interlocked non-violence and forgiveness. Thereafter during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, Augustine's doctrine of the ‘just war’ was used to advance third party defensive retaliation as the lesser of two evils, genocide or limited casualties. Ever since Christianity and warfare have lived side by side in global politics. Jesus’ forgiveness is still the gold standard for individual response to harm. It will always be so. Islam does not have forgiveness central to its doctrines or practice.
‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. Today people are prepared to countenance Jesus as a good person without bringing God into it. But it is impossible to separate Jesus from his relationship with God, his Father. Jesus’ life was all about God and about nothing less. For him the first commandment was first and the second was second. Churches in Britain today reverse this order. They are forced to find justification in works rather than in faith. These should not be exclusive. 1 John 4 : 20 reads ‘Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen’. But Jesus was firm about priorities. In Luke 10 : 38 - 42 we read ‘As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her”’. With his dying breaths Jesus used the prayer of a Jewish child at bedtime. In his extremity he had serenity. He knew that he had fulfilled the vocation of the suffering Messiah prophesied in Scripture (Isaiah 53).
This we remember especially in Holy Week. The miracle of our Faith and practice is testimony to the truth and power of our Maker, and Redeemer. For Jesus failed by the world’s standards. He was defeated. And yet from that degradation came 2000 years of prayer and praise, of music, art and countless neighbourly and humanitarian acts in his Name. Jesus is a reminder to the tyrants of the world and to reasonable political leaders also that their power is not their own; it is temporary and it will fail as they will. Calvary was not a disappointment after all, it was a triumph. And we in this same risen Jesus Christ can triumph in Holy Week and throughout our lives and living.