In Preparation for Holy Week

I do not know if any of you have heard of the Amish.  When I was in New York last year, for some meetings of a religious community, I had a spare day when I was able to encounter the Amish way of life for the first time, as I travelled out of New York and through Amish farmlands in Pennsylvania.

The Amish arrived in America after migrating from Europe in the Eighteenth Century, and the lives which they live now are virtually unchanged from the lives of their ancestors. They are caught in a time lock.  As you enter areas in which the Amish live, you know immediately that there is something different about them. The traffic moves slower as it tries to avoid the horse drawn buggies which they drive, because they will not ride in motor vehicles.  When you approach their houses you notice that they and the barns which are near them, have been built in a very traditional style.  They dress in the clothes of their forefathers, without buttons and without mixing colours, and they live the lives of their forefathers too, working on the farm and in the bakery in order to survive.

Because they are conscious that they are only visitors in this world, passing through to their heavenly home, they try as hard as they can to make very few connections with this world. Amish children are educated at home, and only to an elementary level, they marry within their community, and few ever leave.  The Amish worship in the German dialect which they brought with them from Europe. Because of the immense links between their culture and their faith few people ever join them. They pay no taxes,  they do not vote and they take no services from the state.

In order to not be tied to the world they have traditionally resisted the physical ties of electricity. So their fridges are powered by bottled gas, and when it became clear that some Amish needed the use of telephones it was agreed that telephones were permissible, but only if they were outside of the house. So booths have been constructed where members of the community are able to make calls, but sufficiently far away from the house for the ring of the telephone to not be heard inside.

Just in case you are imaging them to be a small group, there are about 180,000 Amish living in America at the present time. The more that I read about the Amish the more fascinating I find them as an example of how to live the Christian life.

All of us, Amish and Anglicans and all the denominations in between are called principally to live out the life of Christ in our world: to be disciples of Christ, worshipping the Father, showing the world God’s Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

No one in Pennsylvania can deny that the Amish leave quite an impression, it is not possible to encounter them without also experiencing their deep sincerity. But the problem is that encountering the Amish, and their strong Christian faith, is not made easy. To get to the faith which they proclaim, one has to first understand all of the cultural things which go with their way of life.  To understand their worship one needs to understand a high German, to enter into the love of their community, one has to be willing to step back in time as if living in a previous century.

Of course the Amish in many ways are no different to any other Christian group: they are no different to us. We just like them have certain ways of talking in our worship, certain expectations about how people will behave when we gather together, and a whole set of traditions which make good sense to us but which are not widely practised in society around us.  So I have been discovering more and more as I have pondered the lives of the Amish, that looking at them is a way of looking at us.  What they do in the extreme, we as Christians do in other ways.

Just as it is possible to identify various barriers which are created by the Amish way of life, which unintentionally separates them from others who might come to them in search of Jesus (language, cultural styles, rules about electricity…), it might be possible for us, if we reflect deeply about own church, to see the unintentional barriers which are here, and which would separate people from meeting Jesus.

I raise this question this morning because in one sense it is at the heart of the Gospel reading which we heard a few moments ago.  We never find out whether the Greeks who went up to Jerusalem were able to speak to Jesus or not. The Gospel of John does not tell us, but they certainly tried to.  Having heard that Lazarus had been raised from the dead by Jesus these men followed him as he entered Jerusalem, and they came to Philip, one of his disciples, and asked Philip to point them to Christ.

“Sir” they say, “we want to see Jesus.”  What a wonderful thing for people to say! It has not happened often in my life, certainly not as often as I might have hoped, but it is a wonderful experience (as some of you will know) when someone comes and says, “we want to see Jesus, show us the way.”

My greatest hope is that that desire will not only be in the hearts of those who visit us for our Easter services this year, but will be in our own hearts as well, as we journey together through this one week which is so rich with symbolism and meaning. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

Next Sunday we will remember together at the 9.15 am Family Mass Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will hear again together, (as we share for a moment in that event by processing into this building) this very deliberate and very intentional final arrival of Jesus into the city which welcomes him with open arms but which in due course will call for his death.

And in our liturgy next Sunday we will hear the whole of the Easter story read for us. That is why next Sunday is not only called Palm Sunday, as we remember the waving of the palms which greeted Jesus as he entered Jerusalem; it is also called Passion Sunday as well.  Those of you who know your Latin will know that the word passion in the context of Easter is not about young lovers alone for the evening (or even old lovers!) it is really about “passio” or  “passum” which means suffering and pain.

Next Sunday we will not only rejoice with those who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem, we will also hear again for ourselves the story of the passion of Christ, the suffering and pain of Jesus — which will prepare us for the rest of the week ahead; because we know that the people who cry, “hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, will shout “crucify him!” just a few days afterwards. A reminder for us all that this Jesus who brings love and forgiveness from God and as God, will be met shortly with hatred and fear which will eventually hold him in agony to a cross.

How will we respond? Will we hide from the reality of our own lives, from the reality that we are just as capable of being excited about Jesus and our faith at one minute, and then leaving it cold another (like those who welcomed Jesus so excitedly and then only days later called for his death)? How will we respond to the Easter story as we experience it this year?

On Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week (in the days that follow our Palm Sunday observance) we will have the opportunity to meet together in three homes in the Parish for worship in the evenings.  Then on Thursday of next week, Maundy Thursday, we will gather here back together again to remember the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples, and at which the Sacrament of Holy Communion was first instituted.

The word Maundy comes from the Latin word for commandment: “Mandatum novum do vobis” — a new commandment I give to you. So Maundy Thursday really means Commandment Thursday, the day when through remembering Jesus washing his disciples feet, and sharing with them a symbolic meal of his body and blood we are able to see that new commandment of love in action. Do you remember the chorus, “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you. By this will everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

We will move from Jesus’ triumphal entry into to Jerusalem, through three days of prayer and waiting as we prepare for the final events of his life to unfold, and then on Thursday of next week we will share together a meal here in Church, a love meal, like Jesus shared with his disciples.  The good news is that it will all be prepared, and you just need to come and enjoy it! And as well as enjoying the food and the company of us being together as a family, we will remember Jesus’ Last Supper with his own disciples, as we wash each other’s feet (as he did for them) and as we share in Communion together gathered around our tables.

At the end of our time together on Maundy Thursday our Church will be stripped and left empty, so that when we come together again on Good Friday morning as we journey on with Jesus to his death there will be no distractions here, simply the cross of Christ.  We will remember the words from our Gospel reading today, when Jesus says, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.)

It has become a strong Christian tradition that on Good Friday a symbolic cross is venerated, adored by Christians as they gather for worship. Right at the heart of our gathering on Good Friday will be the opportunity for us to remember all that Jesus has done for each one of us, through his death on the cross, which has become the greatest symbol of all, of God’s love for the whole world.

After our Good Friday liturgy has finished there will be nothing. Silence, emptiness. We will live just for a day with the disciples who knew that their Lord had been killed, but did not know that he would rise from the grave.

Then we will light the fire of Easter which speaks to us of the light which fills and consumes the darkness.  The timing of the first Mass of Easter has been moved around a good deal through the centuries.  In some churches it has been celebrated early in the morning of Easter Day as the sun is rising, and that’s what we have done here in previous years. In other churches it has been celebrated on the previous evening, the Saturday night after dark. And it is at that time, on Holy Saturday at 7.30 in the evening, that we will be marking our celebrations this year.  We will light the first fire of Easter outside, we will process it into church and light from it our own candles as symbols of Christ’s light and love spreading throughout the world. And we will celebrate the Eucharist of the resurrection together.  Then, on Easter Day, at the normal times on Sunday morning, we will celebrate again with great joy the good news of the resurrection of Jesus.

We have quite a week ahead of us, not this week but beginning next Sunday as Jesus enters Jerusalem, as we journey with him from there through the agony and pain of his death, to the glory and celebration of his resurrection.  Are you excited about what lies ahead for us this Holy Week? Are you expectant that through our liturgy, and prayer and reflection, that God will speak afresh to you this Easter?

In a sense our Easter liturgies are a little like the lives of the Amish. Hundreds of years of tradition have formed the services which we hold at Easter into their current form.  The desire of those Greek visitors in our Gospel today, who go to one of Jesus’ disciples (Philip) and say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” can be our own desire too in the events which we will be remembering together, because within those ceremonies, if we look for it, we will find the wonderful good news of God’s love for each of us.

So be prepared, this is one week you are not going to want to miss.