‘Behold the Cross’ – that has been our theme this year, as we have forced ourselves during the long season of Lent to look at the death of Jesus, and our own deaths, straight in the face through the eyes of faith. Now we begin the most holy of weeks in the Christian year, as we walk with Jesus through the final days of his life, conscious that we are joined in doing so by Christians down through the ages and with Christians around the world today.
The shape of every Christian week follows the pattern of Holy Week, as we celebrate with joy the resurrection of Jesus every Saturday night and Sunday morning here – on the Lord’s Day. It is uncertain when followers of Jesus first began to make an annual (in addition to a weekly) memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ, but we know that it was early in the life of the church.
This Pascha (a word derived from the Hebrew for ‘Passover’) was at first a night-long vigil, followed by the celebration of the Eucharist at cock-crow, and all the great themes of redemption were included within it: incarnation, suffering, death, resurrection, glorification. Over time, the Pascha developed into the articulated structure of Holy Week and Easter which we have been familiar with in our own lives. Through participation in the whole sequence of services, we share in Christ’s own journey, from the triumphal entry into Jerusalem amidst the palms to the new light and empty tomb at the Easter Vigil and on Easter morning.
The Palm Sunday procession with palms, which was already observed in Jerusalem in the fourth century, is accompanied by the reading of the Passion Narrative, in which the whole story of the week is anticipated. Today we remember that Jesus did not arrive on a war horse, but a humble donkey, signaling that his messiahship would be seen in loving service and not in power and control; and calling his church in every generation to follow in these same footsteps. Yet as the crowds laid their overcoats on the ground, as a kind of ancient red carpet to greet him, they seemed unaware of the significance of what he was doing. As we live through this day, we remember that these same crowds will turn against him very quickly, just as we have turned our backs on God so many times before.
Maundy Thursday (from mandatum, ‘commandment’ – from ‘A New Commandment I give to you that you love one another as I have loved you’) draws us deeper into the rich and complex themes of humble Christian service expressed through Christ’s washing of his disciples’ feet, the institution of the Eucharist, and the perfection of Christ’s loving obedience through the agony of Gethsemane.
Those of us who will gather in Church on Thursday evening will re-live that washing of feet and the first Last Supper with Jesus and his disciples, before stripping away everything in order to be still in the Saint Barnabas Chapel as we wait in silence. Keeping vigil on Thursday passes into Good Friday with its two characteristic episodes.
Firstly, the veneration of the Cross, and secondly the widespread custom that although there is not a celebration of the Eucharist on Good Friday, nevertheless the consecrated bread and wine remaining from the Maundy Thursday Eucharist is given in communion – what is known as ‘Communion of the Pre-sanctified’. On Good Friday afternoon we watch with Jesus in the final hour of his life, as we journey through these beautiful and yet confronting stations of the cross.
On Good Friday the church remains stripped of all decoration. It continues bare, locked and empty through the whole of Saturday, which is a day without a liturgy: there can be no adequate way of recalling the being dead of the Son of God, other than silence and desolation. But within the silence there grows a sense of peace and completion, and then rising excitement as the Easter Vigil draws near and the Easter Day Eucharist awaits us.
I invite you to join me in these days of holy remembering. Joining us on Sunday evening as we reflect on the Way of the Cross together; travelling on the bus with us on Monday evening to share in the Oils Eucharist with brothers and sisters throughout the Diocese; in our quiet services of prayerful preparation on Tuesday and Wednesday; at one of our three services of Eucharist and foot washing on Maundy Thursday – when we are once again offering the Eucharist at various times in order to provide an opportunity that is convenient for everyone; at one of our two services of Veneration and Communion on Good Friday; at the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday afternoon – new this year – as we mark together the final hour of Jesus’ life; at the Easter Vigil, when the new fire will be lit on Holy Saturday; and at one of the two celebrations of the Easter Eucharist on Easter Day.
This solemn season preserves some of the oldest texts and symbolism still in current use, and rehearses the deepest and most fundamental Christian memories. It is the one time in the year when we preach less, and experience more. The ancient liturgies of the church speak for themselves, hearing the Passion narrative writ large speaks for itself, gathering at the font to re-commit ourselves in our baptismal promises speaks for itself – not just to our ears but deep within our hearts.
I invite you to join me on this most holy of annual pilgrimages as we move from palms to oil, from oil to foot washing, from foot washing to veneration, from veneration to the new fire, and from the new fire to the celebration of the resurrection of Our Lord. Together we will travel from our watchword this Lent ‘Behold the Cross’ to the deep assurance that Christ offers to each of us as he says in his words and in his action ‘I am the Resurrection.’