Passiontide: moving from hopelessness to hope

Mary Copping, 2 April 2017

Romans 8: 6–11; John 11: 1–45

Jesus seemed to have a special relationship with Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. We know from another Bible account about the time that he went for a meal at their house, and Martha busied herself and was annoyed at her sister Mary for just sitting at his feet and listening to him. We know also that at other times Jesus went to their house to get away from the crowds and to find friendship, love and care. It’s so good to think of Jesus being taken care of by them in his busy life, where he met so much opposition.

In our reading today we hear again of Martha busying herself, trying to get Jesus to come quickly to help her brother, and castigating him for not having come earlier … and now Lazarus is dead! And yet she was also the one who said those wonderful words of faith to Jesus: ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’. One can imagine Jesus saying to her, as he did to Peter when he proclaimed him Messiah, ‘For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven’.

In this account, Jesus also says the phrase often used at a funeral: ‘I am the resurrection and the life’. These words can bring much comfort to relatives and friends who have lost a loved one, and can bring much comfort to us as we go through pain and suffering.

This familiar story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is often compared to Jesus being raised from the dead. But of course the difference is that, eventually, Lazarus had to die, an old man; but Jesus, the Messiah, died and rose to new life for us and for our salvation.

Today Passiontide begins – in the Christian liturgical year it’s a name for the last two weeks of Lent, beginning on the fifth Sunday of Lent, known as Passion Sunday, and ending on Holy Saturday.

It’s interesting to note that in many Roman Catholic churches, and in some high Anglican churches, all crucifixes and images are covered in veils (usually purple, the colour for Lent) on Passion Sunday. Then the crosses are uncovered on Good Friday, and statues and images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil. We at this church don’t do that, but we do treat this as a special Sunday: the beginning of two weeks building up to Christ’s death on the cross.

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we imagine Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. I led an assembly at Westgate Lower School on Wednesday about Palm Sunday, with little figures of Jesus and the crowds and palms, re-enacting his entry into Jerusalem. The children were of all faiths and none, but they engaged with the account of Jesus being praised and celebrated, only for people to be disappointed at the outcome. People were laying palms and cloaks at his feet for the Messiah, the one who was coming to save them, calling out ‘Hosanna to the son of David’ with celebration and great joy.

Yet this is soon contrasted when, just days later, the people turn against him. They had expected something else: they had wanted a king, someone who would overthrow the Roman authorities, someone who would free them from oppression, and they were disappointed. Are we disappointed when things don’t work out as we want them to, when Jesus doesn’t do what we expect?

On Maundy Thursday the oils are blessed at the service in the cathedral as clergy renew their vows – oils for baptism, for Confirmation and for anointing the sick and dying – and clergy collect small amounts for their churches.

In the evening we have a Eucharistic service at St Paul’s, where we begin to enter into Jesus’ final days. We think of Jesus’ last supper with his friends – how sad and frightening for the disciples – then Jesus doing an amazing thing: washing the disciples’ feet, serving them and showing them how they should serve each other. Then off into the night to the garden of Gethsemane, to pray, call out to God: ‘Not my will but yours, Father’. The disciples understood little of what all this was about, sleeping through Jesus’ hour of need. Can we pray the prayer to God – ‘Lord, not my will but yours’ – and be in total surrender to his will for us?

Jesus did an amazing thing: washing the disciples’ feet, serving them and showing them how they should serve each other.

Then Good Friday. There is nothing good about it, as we spend time at the cross, watching, unable to do anything – as Mary his mother did, having been told that a sword would pierce her heart. With the pain of those words as she heard them the first time and the pain of that sword, piercing her very soul, did she ever cry out, ‘Why, Lord, why?’ The cross, a criminal death, for the Son of God – ‘It’s not fair, he doesn’t deserve that’; do we cry out sometimes, ‘Life’s not fair, Lord’?

Holy Saturday – sometimes wrongly called Easter Saturday, but Easter hasn’t come yet – is a quiet day to prepare for the celebration of Easter. Perhaps remembering the disciples, really not understanding what has happened; all that Jesus talked about, and yet he has gone. Did they get it wrong, was he just a criminal or a cult leader? Can we enter into that not understanding, that darkness before the coming of the light of Christ?

Then there is the vigil on Saturday evening at St Paul’s, the service of moving from darkness into light, from hopelessness to hope. We begin to celebrate Jesus’ rising again, playing instruments, each lighting a candle, and the Paschal candle is blessed. This represents the risen Christ, as a symbol of light (life) dispelling darkness (death). The Paschal candle is used during the season of Easter, then for baptisms and funerals, as a reminder of the light of Christ with us.

Then Easter, when we celebrate Christ’s rising again – the hinge point for all, as the light is brought to a dark world. Jesus is risen! Rejoicing, but also many still in great sadness, for we live in the now and the not yet. It’s the time of Jesus’ coming, but things are still not perfect; there’s still sin in the world, still pain and suffering.

Jesus has come to save the world, to bring his light and his joy. What does it mean that Jesus, through his dying on the cross and resurrection, has saved us? Each one of us will have a different meaning for this. What does it mean to you?

Each of us will come into this holy season in our own personal way. Some, in the busyness, will have difficulty in finding any time to be with the Lord. But do try, even for a few minutes. Christ will honour that. Some will have more time and will ponder on all that Jesus has done for us, will enter more and more deeply into the Passion of Christ.

However each of us comes into this Passiontide, we know that Jesus is with us now. We can rest in him and, with Martha, say to our Lord, ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world’. Amen.