I wonder if you can recognise the following kind of experience. Imagine that you have an event in your diary that you are really dreading, but it is something that is unavoidable – so you know that eventually you are going to have to face it. It might be, for example, a major surgical operation that you know you have to undergo, with all kinds of risks and unknown factors attached to it. Fortunately, however, it’s not actually urgent, so the dreaded event is still some months away. So, for the time being at least, you can push all thoughts about it to the very back of your mind, and get on with the rest of life.
But of course, time passes, and the dreaded event that for so long has felt so far off, comes steadily closer. And one day you realise that it is less than a fortnight away, and you recognise that you can no longer ignore it, but instead must start to prepare for it; to think about the practical things that you need to do in the days leading up to it. And you also start to get in touch with your feelings about it, as all the fears that you have successfully managed to bury for so long, begin to come to the surface. And you may start to think about how best to prepare yourself for it mentally and spiritually; how you can psyche yourself up to face the thing that is drawing closer by the day, as you get ready for that challenging step into the unknown, that you know will take you into a place of difficulty and pain and discomfort. Hold that thought for a moment.
I am reminded each year during our services in Lent and Holy Week, of how wise and insightful these liturgies are; and of how powerfully they connect with real human experience and human psychology. And that is certainly true of today, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, or Passion Sunday. Let me explain what I mean.
Lent is a time of spiritual preparation when, in solidarity with Jesus and his own forty-day sojourn in the wilderness, we are invited to share in that desert experience in our own way. It provides us with the opportunity to reflect on what is really going on in our lives; to discipline ourselves into living more simply, so that we can focus on life’s essentials, and discover more about what is truly dominating our hearts and minds. Last Sunday, Mothering Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, is an occasion when the mood lightens for a moment, as we give thanks for our Mother, the Church.
But Mothering Sunday is followed today by Passion Sunday, when the focus changes completely, and in much more sombre mood, we turn our faces towards Holy Week.
People sometimes struggle to understand the point of Passion Sunday – including, it has to be said, some clergy. I once worked for a vicar who approached today as if it were actually Good Friday – so the readings, hymns, sermon and prayers that we had were utterly focused on the death of Jesus. So much so that when we reached Good Friday itself, it felt as if we had already done it once – and so, with a sinking heart, we had to immerse ourselves in all that desolation, bleakness, and despair all over again.
Whereas in fact, Passion Sunday is subtly different from Good Friday, in a way that makes perfect sense to me when I think of it in terms of the story with which I began this evening. Because Passion Sunday marks the point at which we are suddenly called to face the fact that Good Friday is less than a fortnight away, and that the time has come for us to turn our attention to how we are going to prepare for it. But what do I mean by that?
The Christian faith is a faith that has resurrection, and the promise of new life, at its very heart. But you cannot have a resurrection unless you first have a death. The Christian faith invites us to embrace a new kind of living; but we cannot do that unless we are able to ‘put to death’, to use the language of the New Testament, all that is most destructive and negative in our old lives.
And so it is that each Good Friday, my personal spiritual discipline is to try to identify some part of me of which I am ashamed, or which keeps me in chains, that I can metaphorically nail to the cross, so that something new and different within me can be set free. In his letter to the Romans, St Paul speaks of us being united in Christ’s death so that we can share in his resurrection.
There was a time in the past when I found myself constantly haunted by my own previous mistakes and the foolish things that I had done. I came to realise that both those actions themselves, and also the pain that their recollection caused me, were all consequences of my pride – and that my pride was a mark of my own deep-seated insecurity.
Once I started to realise that actually I didn’t need to gain other people’s attention, or approval to have a sense of self-worth, but just get on with the mundane business of trying to be me to the best of my ability – then I started to be set free. But the starting point for that gradual process of liberation was for me my recognition of what it was within me that I needed to nail to the cross each Good Friday.
For me, each year, Passion Sunday, marks the start of that very specific period of preparation, within the longer journey of Lent. Because it is the day when I turn my face towards the cross, and start to prepare myself for the challenge of Good Friday; to think about what it is within my own life that I need to nail to the cross, or lay at the feet of the crucified Christ, so that when the time comes, I can also share in his resurrection.
And in so doing, I also have to recognise the fact of my own mortality, and that the path that leads me to the cross of Christ, inevitably draws me ever closer to the occasion of my own death, too. Which, to return to the theme of my sermon on Ash Wednesday, at the very start of Lent, makes it the more urgent that I – that we all – embrace the gifts of God in this life while we still can.
There is an ancient Celtic prayer written in the shadow of death (it is in fact called ‘Death Prayer’) which, paradoxically is all about gifts – and for me all about life; it is about beginnings rather than ends. I can think of no better text with which to begin our journey into Passiontide. It goes like this:
O God, give me of thy wisdom,
O God, give me of thy mercy,
O God, give me of thy fulness,
And of thy guidance in face of every strait.
O God, give me of thy holiness,
O God give me of thy shielding,
O God, give me of thy surrounding,
And of thy peace in the knot of my death.
O give me of thy surrounding,
And of thy peace at the hour of my death.