Community of the Resurrection Holy Week 2012: Palm Sunday Second Evensong

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So, famously, Eliot begins the Wasteland. Why has that opening line so caught the imagination? What is it that the poet has seen that is so at odds with those Easter shop window displays of gambolling lambs and newly hatched chicks, of extraordinary creations in chocolate and endless displays of cut-price holidays in the sun?

Tension and ambiguity flood this week in a kind of multitasking paradise. Just this morning we found ourselves bathed in glorious spring sunshine, surrounded by the ever-changing patterns of reflected light through the church windows but, easily, almost unthinkingly, taking on our lips the words of the crowd, those distant, distant relatives as they shouted “Away with him; crucify him.” As we journey through these first days of Holy Week our thoughts will be framed by two contrasting commentators: in the morning at Mattins we shall hear the Lamentations of Jeremiah - plumbing the depths of misery, yet finding from somewhere the ability to utter hope of a better future: ‘look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow’ answered by ‘it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord’ (Lam 3.26). At Evensong, something completely different - the mighty farewell discourse from John’s Gospel: a text that we hear now in the Office of Holy Week but will hear again with very different resonances in the Eucharistic lectionary of Eastertide. Even the description ‘farewell discourse’ is strained: hearing it in this week there is an obvious meaning - for death is a leave-taking, a moment for farewells but even in Holy Week, even on Good Friday we are aware that the Lord who says, I am going to the Father is the same Lord who, in Matthew’s Gospel tells us, I am with you always, to the close of time.

Who, then, are we in the midst of all this? We are those for whom April is the cruellest month, for whom memory and desire are intertwined and yet whose dull roots are stirred to something like new life by the spring rain. It matters profoundly that what we do and sing and say and celebrate together in this week reaches to the core of our being. For it to do so requires only that we are open to the Spirit’s prompting but it is one of St Paul ’s more terrifying insights that it is possible to resist the grace of the Spirit and so there does need to be some conscious directing of the will, some expectation of God’s grace and goodness.

We are not, certainly, here to remember past events with a concentrated intensity - as if that will stir the effects of such events to work some transformation in us. Neither are we here to conjure up those same events in order to make them happen anew in our midst. As disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are here because in the birth, the life, the death and the resurrection of Jesus we see the work of God; we see the joining of time and eternity, as the God who is before and beyond time, makes himself known to us in the man Jesus, who is born in time (and eternity) and dies in time (and eternity) and is raised to open the way for us to step beyond the confines of time, beyond the crippling effects of war and disease, into the glorious liberty of the children of God. So we make our celebration this week knowing that the events we recall have their historical origin but, having begun are continually present, challenging and transforming generation after generation. It is for this reason that our theology is never done but always beginning anew, for this reason that we not simply recalling, but discovering for the first time.

So our two commentators, Jeremiah and John, have still more to offer. Jeremiah invites us to be completely honest and open about life in the world. Parts are terrible; bits of me are terrible; other people can be terrible and being realistic about all that is a necessary step on the road of salvation, for salvation is not something vague and general but utterly specific and personal. It is addressed to God’s creation, the creation he knows and loves, individual creature by individual creature, including you and me.

John is specially concerned with the other end of the telescope. He is striving to help us get the point. This is not some unique moment in history (though it is that!). This is the act of the eternal God in time and when we speak of the act of the eternal God we can only imagine what that might mean by thinking of everything happening in one moment (even though that is again to resort to temporal imagery). For John, the cross is not some crude, violent, desperate act by a God who has run out of options. Rather, the God in whom all things are possible, takes death, that final full-stop in human life and, in the death of Jesus, transforms our death into a moment of glory.

The cross is not the point to which everything has been leading. In Chapter 12, just as Jesus is expressing to Philip and Andrew (and the crowd that has popped up from somewhere) his distress at what lies before him but nonetheless committing himself to it, so a voice sounds from heaven. Jesus says, “Glorify your name.” The voice says “I have glorified it and I will glorify it again.” Once again, John refuses to let us think of God’s work in Jesus as discrete moments: it is one act that opens up the realm of glory - in Jesus’ birth, in his baptism by John, in his miracles, his healings, his teaching ministry, his death, his resurrection and the giving of the Spirit. We, who are wholly constrained by time, can only think of them, grasp them as successive moments. Hence our difficulty in responding to the death of Jesus. Was it the greatest sacrifice ever? Was it some incomprehensible demand made by God the Father to his own Son? Was it, finally, the one death that could awaken remorse and grief in us? John’s answer is simply: No. The death of Jesus is an inseparable part of God’screative loving which will never cease. Through this self-giving, God calls us from the futility and frustration of life in this world (for all its fleeting joys) into the never-ending glory of his eternity.

If our celebration this week does nothing more than awaken us again to the unstoppable creative love of God we shall be much the richer: a love which embraces all the futility and destructiveness of life in the world and, in embracing it, marks it with the shape of the cross and the hope of resurrection. Key to finding something of that incessant love is letting it meet the reality that is me - not thinking of it in grand terms, or in relation to ‘other people’. One of the bleakest moments in the Wasteland is when Eliot writes of the

Unreal City ,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge , so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.’

and we see the urgency of facing the cruelty of April, the pivotal moment that confronts our toying with fantasy and unreality with the demanding but life-giving creativity of the Spirit.

Behold, I am making all things new!

Peter Allan CR