April 10, 2020
Almighty God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
At the Solemn Liturgy on Google Hangouts Meet
The Passion according to St John
On Palm Sunday I talked about how we have, all these years, been practising Holy Week for the moment when Holy Week happens in our own lives. I will never forget my first Easter Day as a deacon, when we got the news right before the main Eucharist that the husband and son of our Sunday School head teacher had died overnight in a car crash. That day Good Friday happened at Easter. This year, Good Friday is falling on all our days, including this Good Friday, confined as most of us are to our apartments and houses.
On Palm Sunday I focussed on the whole of Holy Week, especially the experiences of increasing dread as Jesus journeys to the Cross, the sense of sadness and loss we felt when he died, and the feeling of hopelessness we will experience on Holy Saturday when Jesus is, as far as we know, dead and gone; that what he promised us would remain unfulfilled. On Palm Sunday I asked us, all of us who know the whole story, to keep alive that grain of hope, to remember that God will turn dust to flesh, and rise victorious over the forces that seem to conspire against us.
Today, having just heard the Passion narrative and seen Jesus’ body “wound in linen cloth with the spices” and placed in that sepulchre “wherein was never man yet laid,” I want us to focus on how Jesus is our companion in suffering.
Jesus, my brothers and sisters, is sweating out these days with us, our fellow sufferer. This was the great appeal of Jesus and of the Good Friday narrative to late Medieval Christians, who especially from 1348 contended with the horrors of the Black Death, that endemic scourge which flared up about once a generation and turned pandemic seventeen times before its last outbreak in 1664-1667. We will not see death on the scale of the Bubonic Plague, which, in the fourteenth century, decimated half the population of Europe, more even in some places. We are, however, seeing illness, death, dislocation, and economic devastation on a scale our generation has never experienced. Knowing that our God, our Jesus, is here with us, in and through these moments, suffering with us, having suffered himself, helps us understand that God did not do this to us, that this is not some sort of punishment wrought on humankind for our collective sins or the sins of a few. In and through the consequences of being human, subject to illness and death as we are, we can know and feel that Jesus has been in our flesh, felt what we feel, and is both our companion in sadness and the source of our hope.
Paintings of Jesus suffering on the cross, his body marked by the abuse to which he was subjected, became more and more popular in the age of poverty and plague. People could look at this suffering servant and empathise. One medieval commentator wrote that he would rather see Jesus on the cross than in heaven surrounded by angels because on the cross, he saw Jesus “as a man bearing every aspect of human nature to the end.”1 At that time there also arose a cult of devotion to Jesus’ wounds, and the fifteenth-century information revolution allowed for the production of inexpensive prints depicting them. These became accessible to large numbers of people, not just the wealthy who could afford to patronise and buy at market manuscript books.
In William Langland’s narrative poem, Piers Ploughman, written in the last quarter of the fourteenth-century and in the wake of the Black Death, Jesus is described as, “Myne hole bretheren, in blood and in baptisme.” This suffering Jesus, our blood brother, is close at hand, accessible, relatable. He is literally our kinsman, a member of our own family and we of his.
Jesus did not lord his divinity over us. He was the very son of God, the Word made flesh and yet we can relate to him and he to us, as we saw two weeks ago in the story of the raising of Lazarus, the story in which “Jesus wept” at the death of his friend. The events leading up to and encompassing Jesus’ passion and death show us his humanity in its fullest expression. They emphasise his vulnerability, both literal and figurative, and afford him, in the eyes of humans wrestling with the hardest of circumstances, the ultimate in credibility to be the one whom God sent to lead humankind into the new age of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is no perfect, strong, invincible Classical god or hero picking us up and saving us like a literal deus ex machina. Jesus leads us into the life where death no longer hold sway, having himself experienced the same suffering, pain, isolation, fear, hopelessness, and death that is the human lot. He bears the scars of life just as we do.
Having just, moment by moment, experienced Jesus’ suffering and death as we heard the Passion of John, we now move into that liminal time before Sunday morning when we are left to contemplate what it must have been like to feel that Jesus’ absence was permanent. In our present circumstance, feeling so keenly the absence of our community, our friends, and our families, this will not be terribly difficult. Perhaps, this year, Easter morning will be more of a stretch. In these hours and days, and in the days that are yet to come, let us keep before us this Jesus, our brother, and draw comfort that our God has been where we are. God in Christ is with us here, now, having already experienced the worst a human can do to another, bearing those scars, and showing us that where we are, this moment, will not have the last word.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Palm Sunday, 5 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume