Holy Week 2016, Palm Sunday 2nd Evensong
We were having a conversation at breakfast this morning and asking ‘Who is running the country? Who is in control?’. We went on from there to ask ‘Who is running the Church of England? Who is in control?’. A slightly nervous thought crossed my mind as I wondered ‘Who then is running the College of the Resurrection?’. These are very contemporary questions: the structures of things become ever more complex, more intertwined with other places and people and the scale on which things operate - like a national government - becomes ever more impossible to manage.
Immediately we see that a question like ‘Who then is running the world? Who is saving the world?’ becomes seemingly ridiculous. If we conclude that the UK and the C of E are both run, more or less, by non-elected special advisers, then what of the world? Straight away we are looking at the heart of the mystery of this Holy Week. For this is a week in which we are drawn into the act of God that is both terrifying in its vastness and expansiveness and, in the same moment, overwhelming in its intimacy and tenderness.
Through the year on Tuesdays at Mattins we say the Invitatory antiphon ‘God rules over all the world: come, let us adore him’ and in this week we discover something of what that means. This is the same God who, in the person of the Incarnate Son, says to a woman who has just brushed against his outer clothing ‘Your faith has made you well!’ - a moment of extraordinary attentiveness and personal intimacy.
Holy Week is both time compressed and space compressed. As we move from day to day, we become more and more aware that here is the whole world ‘in miniature’ as it were (like one of those model villages) and here too is the whole of time, from the beginning of creation to its consummation. If this is so, then perhaps we need some pointers to help us engage with it all.
There is a feast in the liturgical calendar, not kept as much now as once upon a time, that rejoices in the name “The invention of the cross”. You may well be forgiven for thinking this a strangely inappropriate name. Surely, you think, the feast is not celebrating the person who invented this particular instrument of cruelty and torture. Of course, as you know already, it is the celebration of the story of the finding, the discovery of the true cross by Helena, mother of the Empress Constantine - a feast kept on May 3rd. The English name is a direct translation from the Latin Inventio Sancti Crucis - and, having set aside the unhelpful notion of “invention”, it’s worth pausing a moment longer with this word Inventio. The latin verb is invenire - made by putting the little preposition in with the verb venire, which means ‘to come’ - so that, literally, it means ‘to come to...’ . Here is a way of understanding something of the path which we seek to follow together this week. We are on a journey of discovery. It is a journey that has to do with the discovery of meaning on the largest possible scale and at its most personal. It has to do with me: it involves my readiness to ‘come to’ myself again, to see others, God, the world, in a new light and it has to do with the utterly unfathomable mystery of things - like the future of black holes. One of the most amazing things is that it is never either/or but always both/and. The way God acts in relation to me is both intensely personal and intimate and cosmic and vast in its consequences. So it is with a black hole or a volcano.
This act of God is not helpfully described as ‘saving’ or ‘redeeming’ because, all too easily, it begins to look like rescuing a stranded kitten from a branch: God in his vast, tender compassion plucks the kitten (or me, or a black hole) safely from the branch... (Or, in some versions, God in his anger dashes the kitten off the branch.) No, what we encounter in this week is God being God: ever making and remaking out of love; pouring such potential into the creation that continually risks distortions and abuses but that are necessary for creation to glimpse the face of God. So the events, into which we are drawn, reveal God’s creating, continually making new and God’s giving of Godself for the healing and restoring of lost possibilities. This day, Palm Sunday, raises hopes for some of a new political landscape - as quickly dashed as the hopes raised in the BBC Radio 4's satirical comedy the other day about the Preservative Party. However, it reminds us that political life is firmly in the Creator’s gaze. Maundy Thursday is, arguably, the most intense moment - when immensity and intimacy coincide indescribably. It is focused in the extraordinary attention Jesus pays to his disciples - to this band of rough fishermen whose only sure quality seems their capacity to misunderstand. Good Friday then, strangely, is a moment we can understand. This looks like the kind of human cruelty with which we are all too familiar. Seeing this act too as part of God’s immensity and intimacy, creating and re-creating, is more challenging. Then the world ends and we emerge in the light of Easter. Here the danger is that it all seems too ‘other’. We can’t make it fit or belong. We are in the world of unique events and, by definition, you can’t fit those into a pattern. Once again, though, the scriptures recall us to the characteristics of immensity and intimacy: there are earthquakes and rocks splitting and there is Jesus calling Mary by name in the garden.
How might we feel at the
end of it all (if we make it that far)? Stretched, seemingly impossibly
stretched and challenged to bigger thoughts and hopes; yet also held and loved
in a way that releases in us new ways of being as we find that we have ‘come
to’ and seen things clearly, perhaps for the first time.
‘When they look on him
whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child
and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a first-born’
As the prophet Zechariah
reminded us at the Midday Office, it is not only that God is intimate with us:
he invites us to be intimate with him. This intimacy is the potent sign of
God’s sovereignty. It is the opposite of power achieved by control and
domination. It is the power of the God who holds all things in his hand and who
invites us to draw near as he appeals to our love and compassion. Would that the
Peter Allan CR