The Fifth Sunday in Lent
29 March 2009
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men: Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As many of you know, I grew up with The Hymnal 1940 in school. This was my real introduction to the church, and especially to the church year. Without being really liturgical, we marked the ebb and flow of the year mostly by which hymns we sung. I remember very clearly the gothic printing of the section headings, especially the one called Passiontide (I even have it right here in my manuscript in that typeface). Every year, for the two weeks before Easter, we sang all those wonderful hymns like “O sacred head sore wounded” and “There is a green hill far away.” And I was given a real sense that something important had happened, that something important was about to happen, that change was in the air.
It was only much later that I realised that the idea of this two week Passiontide was an Old English and Roman Catholic tradition that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer does not recognise. Now, “Passiontide” begins on Palm Sunday, our new “Sunday of the Passion.” In the pre-Reformation calendars and those of the earlier Prayer Books, the last Sunday in Lent was also Passion Sunday, another step on our incremental journey from the season of the Incarnation to Easter and beyond. In those old calendars, we ended the longer season of the Incarnation, usually around Candlemas, seventy (or so) days before Easter. On Septuagesima, the liturgical colour changed (to dark blue in many places) and the liturgy began to be stripped of its frills. Another change came forty (or so) days before Easter with Ash Wednesday and the First Sunday in Lent, known as Quadragesima. No more saying the “A” word, no more “Gloria in excelsis,” and we moved into Lent. Those first four weeks of Lent were, and are still, more focussed upon our discipline, our practice, our preparation, our paring down our lives. But now, today, on this old Passion Sunday, we mark another shift, another sign post on our pilgrimage. Today we turn our attention more intentionally towards the Cross, towards our Lord’s passion, towards the Paschal Mystery.
Today we enter into that old style, two week Passiontide. As you look around, you can see that this move has been expressed visually by the veiling of the statues, an old Roman practice we continue to undertake so our attention will more and more be focussed upon the road ahead of us. This is our first step. Indeed, the church will get much starker before we are done at the end of the Maundy Thursday liturgy. And yet, it is not simply through our observance of this older custom that we have the sense that something is afoot, that we have entered into Passiontide. No, whether it is marked in the Kalendar or not, the Prayer Book lessons for today still firmly move us along our path. Yes, the lessons and prayers still appointed set us firmly on our pilgrimage to the foot of the cross, to the empty tomb, a pilgrimage according to a newer Passiontide hymn (one we shall sing in a few minutes), “from which no one returns.”(1)
“‘Behold the days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant....’” This is how our lesson from the Old Testament begins. Jeremiah is talking about a day when Israel will be truly faithful, and we know that God did renew his covenant with Israel in the days when they were returned to Judea after exile in Persia and the worship of the Temple was restored, and the people knew that God forgave them their sins and assured them of his love. As God acted then, we hear this as a promise of what God will do again, for this is what God does, this is who God is. This time that covenant will include all the peoples of the world, this time God will enfold all the peoples of the world in the embrace of his forgiveness and love.
In this new covenant, we promise to be his children. In this covenant we are assured that we will know God and that God will know us. In this covenant we are fixed into relationship with God and he will forgive us our sins, he will love us for who we really are. He will stand with open arms, open like Jesus’ arms upon the Cross, to call us back to him even when we have sinned and turned away from him.
And what will bring about this new covenant for us? It is Jesus great action upon that Cross, his death, and his resurrection—in a phrase, it is the Paschal Mystery. We might ask ourselves why it has to be this way, why it has to be through the death and suffering of God’s own Son? In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Jesus shows us that this is a redemption achieved not through conventional, human, notions of success like the accumulation of wealth or military victory. No, it is a redemption achieved through the success of human life led united completely with God’s purpose for us, love expressed in its fullest even through suffering and death. It is through this sacrificial love, love poured out so generously, so totally, so unconditionally all for the sake of the beloved that the whole world now, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is given a new covenant, a new relationship with the God of Israel.
This great drama of redemption will be acted yet again, re-membered, enacted in this very space and in other places around the world that are both similar to our beloved parish church and completely different. Beginning today, we and our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world will together walk the way of the Cross. Our journey will take us from today’s Passion prediction in John’s Gospel, a prediction issued in response to the seemingly simple statement, “we want to see Jesus,” to next Sunday’s celebration of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when we will hold palms in our hands as tangible reminders of and connections with those heady days. We will then re-gather, re-member on Maundy Thursday and enact the events of the Last Supper, the foot washing and first Eucharist. We then keep watch all night with Our Lord in the garden we make at the Chantry Chapel, only to go down to the foot of the Cross on Good Friday and into the silence, waiting, and darkness of Holy Saturday. Finally, together, having journeyed so far we will share the triumph and joy of Resurrection at the First Mass of Easter.
Come, my friends, let us journey together ....
Andrew C. Blume+
New York City
Lenten Feria, 28 March 2009
1) The Hymnal 1982, 170: “To mock your reign,” words by F. Prat Green (b. 1903).
©2009 Andrew Charles Blume