A Thought for the Middle of Holy Week
Today, the Wednesday of Holy Week is, in my schedule, a bit of an odd day. It is the 'calm before the storm' of the Triduum and the explosion of joy that is Easter. We have a simple Eucharist at 7.45am every Wednesday with a thought suitable to the day, and although we have a Holy Wednesday service in the evening, we have kept to our usual Wednesday pattern. So here is my thinking for this Morning's service.
For those of us of a professional religious bent, we like to have answers. They might not be the best answer, they might not be the right answer (if I’m honest) but we like to have an answer. Sometimes they seem a little bit too much like stock answers, the autopilot of ministry – and if we don’t really have any answer to give we end up with the wonderful ‘well, it’s a mystery’. Not really an answer at all.
Which is why I take Holy Week so very seriously. It’s a week that doesn’t allow us to give answers – not really, not if we really enter into it, not if we allow the depths of Holy Week to sink into us.
Jane gave us a glimpse of this when she preached on Sunday, she talked of the frustration of being left with the Passion narrative and the death of Christ at the start of Holy Week and learning to live with, even to enter into, that tension.It’s a week that demand we stop giving simple answers. Pretending to know it all.
I know there are Christians who tell us exactly what the passion and the death of Christ means, who have theories of atonement and sacrifice which somehow equal out the balance of the evil in the world and are quite keen on letting God know exactly how God should do business. “Well,” we say “because Jesus died all our sins must be taken away because sin demands sacrifice, someone has to pay, and Jesus decided to pay for us all.”
And I’m sure God says “there is so much more to it than that”.
This week it’s legitimate to say it is a mystery. The pain and the suffering inflicted on one who offered a new glimpse of the love of God, of a way of being that thwarts ambition and replaces it with service. That challenges the structures of domination and replaces them with justice and mercy and peace and love and Grace.
As for why Jesus died, we can grasp at all the philosophy we like. We can struggle with the meaning of the cross. We can give practical explanations as to the threat he posed to religious and civil structures. We can even – as many do – skip straight over Good Friday and leap into Easter joy. It’s easier that way.
My own understanding is wrapped in mystery. The big questions of why and how and what and wherefore are still there. But in refusing to demand simple answers I hope that I am seeking a truth of love and self giving that is beyond words. I hope that I am open to the idea that sometimes there are no answers, sometimes we have to hold on to the struggle, the pain, the suffering, the loss – and bear with it, carry it, and seek the God who carries it alongside us.
And so I will not speak any more. I will leave you with a couple of poems from the Welsh priest and poet RS Thomas – who has been described as ‘the poet of the Cross’. Not for Thomas the easy answers, but a profound sense instead of seeking, of listening, of being open to the life of God even in darkness.
The first poem is from 1955 and is called In a Country Church. It is sparse and troubling and comforting and deep. The second one returns to a similar theme of a profound sense of living without answers and feeling that in the silence of a church. I leave these with you to ponder:
In a Country Church
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence? He kneeled long
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.
R. S. Thomas (1955)
Often I try
To analyze the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
R.S. Thomas’s from his 1966 book Pieta,