Saturday, 19 April 2014

Holy Saturday

"It is a great thing that we are promised by the Lord, but far greater is what has already been done for us ... Why does our human frailty hesitate to believe that mankind will one day live with God? For something much more unbelievable has already been done: God died for humans."

So preached St Augustine. Those last few words are worth a second reading. What can it possibly mean to say that God "died?"

This is the central mystery of our faith, and it is this paradox into which we enter over the final three days of Holy Week, known as the Triduum, from the eve of Maundy Thursday through to Easter Day.

We mark Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter well every year, but we tend to miss the time in between Our Lord's death and Resurrection: the middle day of the three, Holy Saturday. What went on in that empty time - the time between Our Lord's death and His Resurrection?

The traditional account is that of the "harrowing of Hell," or Jesus' descent to the dead, as we proclaim in the Apostles' Creed. There has been much theological speculation about this, but perhaps the most compelling suggestion is that Jesus' descent is the fulfilment of God's "kenosis," or self-emptying. He emptied Himself into the virgin's womb, not clinging to His divinity but assuming mortal flesh; then, on the Cross, He emptied Himself even of that mortality. In the grave, He knew the full and true emptiness of death, and more than death, even hell, the absence of God. God experienced the utter destitution of Godlessness. So it is that Jesus asks, "why have you forsaken me?"

You might say that God experienced Godlessness so that we would not have to. We may feel abandoned by God from time to time, but the truth is that He never abandons us. Not even death is a barrier to our communion with Him, because He has known death Himself and loves us too much to let it consume us. His arms were wide open even to those who nailed Him to the Cross. They are open to us, too. All we have to do is let go, empty ourselves, and let Him fill us with the joy of the Resurrection. That is what these services of the Triduum are meant to help us do.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Lent 5: The Raising of Lazarus

People say Jesus was a spiritual leader, some kind of guru, a teacher of inner peace. And he was. He did go off on his own to pray, he did enjoy the deepest possible relationship with his divine Father, and he tried to share this knowledge in his teachings and his actions and in the offering of bread and wine. But the Christian life is not ultimately about inner peace. Inner peace may come from the Christian life, it may help us in the Christian life, but that's not what Christianity is finally all about. Because if Jesus was just a guru, then all we have left after the Crucifixion is - a dead guru.
People say Jesus was a politician, a man who inspired a great movement of social justice, who overturned the distinctions between rich and poor, Jew and Greek, man and woman, who dined with prostitutes and sinners. Peter and Judas definitely wanted him to be a political leader. And he was. But the Christian life is not ultimately about politics. We may make political decisions based on our faith, and political movements may help us in the Christian cause. But politics is not what the Christian faith is finally all about. Because if Jesus was just a politician, then all we have left after the Crucifixion is - a dead politician.
Some people say Jesus was a rabbi, a teacher of the Law, a new Moses to give us the rules to lead our life by in his words and appeals to the Scriptures. And he was, but in a new and different way: we believe that the Word was made flesh, not book, and lived among us. Jesus is our Law, but our living Law, who said "take this, eat this, do this in remembrance of me:" not "read this," "believe this" in remembrance of me. Instead of stone tablets, he gave us his body and his blood. Laws may come from our Christian knowledge amd love of Jesus and his Father, they may help us to serve him better, but law is not finally what Christianity is all about. Because if Jesus was just a rabbi, then all we have left after the Crucifixion is a dead rabbi.
Christianity is about Resurrection. "If there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain." So says St Paul (1 Corinthians 5.13). If there's no resurrection, there's no Christianity. There's no point in any of this.
The raising of Lazarus, that we hear about today, is a sign of that resurrection, and a powerful sign: in John's account, it is this sign more than any other that gets Jesus crucified. It's powerful to Lazarus, too, of course, though not just to him: note that Jesus says that it is because of the faith of his sisters, Mary and Martha, that he is raised, not because of his own faith. Jesus told the disciples that they would raise the dead, and here we see that our faith can raise one other, can raise even those who have died already. This Christianity isn't about "me and my God:" we travel together, we lift each other up with our prayers. Lazarus is a powerful sign, not just to the faithful, but to the whole Church, and to those outside the Church, too. If the whole world is to be resurrected, it must be through the prayers of the Church.
But the raising of Lazarus, however powerful it may be, is still just a sign. It does not reveal the fulness of what is to come. Lazarus is raised, but eventually he will die again. He's just had another chance at this life.
The Resurrection that Jesus showed us and promises us is different. We can't imagine how different, any more than a caterpillar can imagine being a butterfly, or a foetus a grown adult, or a seed a flower. But the potential, the promise, is there, no matter how poorly we can imagine it, no matter how dark the glass we look through.
But however dim our vision, we are not left without light. Jesus has sent the Spirit on the Church to open our eyes and give us glimpses of the glory that awaits us. Christianity is all about the Resurrection, but in practical, day-to-day terms, that only means something if the promise of the Resurrection makes some difference in our lives now, not just as a dream for the future. And the Christian faith is precisely a way of deepening our imagination, opening the eyes of the heart to the vision of Resurrected life: a way we walk together, from earth to heaven as though from the font to the altar. And that's why this Gospel passage was chosen in the early Church as the last of three for the instruction of new Christians.
We started at the font, two weeks ago, repenting with the Samaritan woman and being purified by Jesus, the water of life, just as we did at our Baptism. If the second reading had not been displaced by Mothering Sunday, we would then have moved into the nave with the man born blind, and had our sight restored like him, illuminated by the gift of the Spirit, moving closer to the altar and the presence of Jesus to see him more clearly: the gift we received in Confirmation. And now, with Lazarus, we move closer still to the resurrection as we come to the perfecting work of the Eucharist.
Today, we will offer God bread and wine and he will give it back transfigured and perfected as the body and blood of Christ. We will give up, sacrifice to God, something of our earthly sustenance that feeds our bellies, and he will give us heavenly food to feed our souls. Resurrected food, if you like. We give little, and we receive in plenty. We give what to God is nothing, and we receive everything, eternal life.
If that is what we get back when we give bread and wine, imagine what you will get back if what you offer at this altar today is yourself. And offer yourself not just for yourself, but for others too. Imagine what will happen if you come to this altar today truly saying in your heart, "crucify me."
That, brothers and sisters, is what Christianity is about.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Notes on Lent 4: the raising of Lazarus

We now come to the last of the series of three Gospel readings used in the early Church for the instruction of baptismal candidates. The ancient Christian catechumen would have received teaching over the full forty days of Lent, all the way up to the Easter Vigil, the first Eucharist of Easter. The ancients reckoned time by the daylight, so as soon as night fell on Holy Saturday, that day ended and Easter Sunday began. That's why they held the first Eucharist of Easter at night. It was, after all, first thing in the morning when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty, so Jesus must have risen overnight. And so, we carry on that tradition nowadays at our Easter Vigil, the most profound service of the Christian year, when the Easter Candle is lit, the ancient Exsultet is sung, the Gloria rings out for the first time since before Lent, coverings are stripped from the images and statues, the new faithful are baptised and the Resurrection is celebrated, as every Sunday, in bread and wine.

So, having learnt in the last two readings about Baptism, through the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and confirmation, through the gift of sight to the man born blind, the candidate would now learn about the final mystery of the Christian religion and the promise it bears.The candidate would prepare to receive for the first time the Eucharist, and with it, the joys of eternal life.

Jesus raises Lazarus only as a sign of the resurrection that awaits Him and, through Him, all of us who receive His body and blood. Lazarus is raised back in this world and this life, and will die again. But the resurrection that we are given in Christ transforms us into something new, something we can barely imagine. We are to our resurrection bodies what a caterpillar is to a butterfly: what bread and wine are to the body and blood of Christ.

The challenge for us is to see with the eyes of faith that the potential of the resurrection is hidden within ourselves even now, just as the potential to be a butterfly is hidden in every caterpillar. The Eucharist trains us to see this truth, as we recognise in the bread and wine that we give up to God something far more profound returned to us from Him: something which unites us to each other, to our departed brothers and sisters in Christ, and to Him.